Appetizer Evolutions


Chefs experiment with spicy, ethnic, and meat-driven dishes.

There’s not an exact science to predict what’s hot in the world of menuing and foodservice, but Jennifer Aranas, a project director with Datassential, says a keen eye is the next best thing.

Through a database of 6,000 menus nationwide, Datassential tracks popularity based on what’s added to and taken away from menus each year, measuring growth and decline in what it calls the Menu Adoption Cycle.

“We can see the rise and shrink of particular flavors or ingredients,” Aranas says. “And there’s a human component that looks at what those trends are doing in restaurants.”

In April, Datassential reported trends with appetizers.

Just starting to gain traction, in what Datassential defines as the inception phase, are spicy flavors like sriracha, serrano, and harissa, along with Mexican cheeses, distinctive proteins, meatballs, and ethnic comfort foods. Flatbreads, although in the proliferation phase (meaning they are already seen on menus across the nation), are still growing.

Datassential also conducts consumer surveys, and more than 40 percent of respondents have said they like appetizers that are shareable and holdable (finger foods). Cheese selections are also big hits.

“Cheese actually featured very highly in terms of consumer response to appetizers and what they’re looking for,” Aranas notes.

In the fine-dining segment, charcuterie trays are popular, served with cheeses and a wide variety of meats, some cured—such as mortadella, lardo, and prosciutto—as well as game meats, house-made sausages, and patés.

There is also growth in both the Asian and Latin flavor profiles. Empanadas, croquetas, and tostones are showing up more often on menus. Asian favorites include bao (a Cantonese version of a barbecue sandwich), lettuce wraps, tempura, sashimi, ahi tuna, and fried veggies.

“We’re moving a little away from fried potatoes, going to fried eggplant, cauliflower, artichokes, and sweet potato fries,” Aranas says.

That doesn’t mean the french fry is disappearing, however. Aranas says chefs are consistently reinventing the stand-by potato favorite with new flavors and toppings. For instance, poutine appetizers have become almost a staple on Canadian menus and the hearty appetizer continues to gain traction in the U.S.

“You don’t see it on a ton of menus,” Aranas notes. “But french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds—how can you go wrong?”

Sometimes reinventing a dish that already resonates with customers—like adding gravy to french fries—helps with costs, both for the operator and the consumer.

Consumers are concerned about what they spend,” says Aranas. “The cost of appetizers nowadays, with using more premium ingredients, is rivaling the same food-cost percentage as entrées.”

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