There are three styles of menu innovation that Nancy Kruse is seeing today: evolutionary, disruptive and revolutionary.

The menu trends analyst spoke at the National Restaurant Association show in May and last week recapped her review of what’s occurring in restaurants’ menu innovation.

Here are some takeaways from Kruse’s talk:

1) Comfort food epitomizes the evolutionary trend in menu creativity, where Kruse says “the innovation is not so much in wholesale shifts; it’s in the small tweaks.” Getting creative with hot dogs and bread—including waffles and pretzels—are two of the fastest growing items in this category.

2) Toppings present a great opportunity to get creative with breads. Among Kruse’s favorite ideas: The fresh blackberry Belgian waffle at Beaverton, Oregon-based Shari’s Restaurant & Pies and the three cheese and beer soup at Wisconsin-based Chancery Family Pub, where a freshly baked jumbo pretzel replaces the typical croutons. In the hot dog category, she singles out Dirty Frank’s International Dogs in Columbus, Ohio, for its use of ethnically inspired condiments. 

3) Food trucks are a prime example of disruptive creativity, which Kruse defines as “thinking outside the box.” These mini restaurants on wheels tap into the restaurant consumer’s desire for personal interaction, she says.

4) Pork is one of the hottest themes in the food truck business, with menu items ranging from the bacon-wrapped pickles of Pig Vicious in Austin, Texas, to the sweet and tangy pulled pork sandwiches flavored with tamarind, honey and molasses from the Maximus/Minimus truck in Seattle.

5) The next direction for food trucks: Restaurant chains, hotels, grocers and even non-food retailers like Macy’s and Gap are joining the brigade.

6) Authenticity is leading the revolution in menu styling. If disruptive menu creativity requires thinking outside the box, Kruse says revolutionary innovation is all about inventing the box. This demand for high food quality is advancing through what Kruse calls “the four Ps of keeping it real”: preparation, provenance, product, and promotion.

7) Hand-prepared dishes, like fresh-cut fries and salads tossed to order, are increasingly popular, along with old-fashioned techniques like pickling and preserving.

 8) Attention to the provenance, or origin, of ingredients has spawned the growth of local farm sourcing, butchery and foraging.

9) One way to achieve product authenticity is by earning an official seal of approval for a menu item, as Lexington, Kentucky’s Smashing Tomato did for its Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN)-certified Neapolitan Pizza.

10) Effective strategies for promoting authenticity include highlighting a restaurant’s direct sourcing program in advertisements and using traditional-sounding menu terms like ‘street tacos’ and ‘satay.’

12) For clues to where the authenticity movement is headed next, Kruse says, surprisingly: “Watch McDonald’s.” She notes that its sheer size makes McDonald’s arguably the world’s most influential foodservice operation. In Europe, especially, she says the fast-food giant has made aggressive moves to work with local suppliers and use sustainable products, and it’s beginning to explore similar steps in the U.S.

By Sonya Stinson

Industry News