Restaurant operators get more adventurous with veggies

Peter Backman
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Peter Backman is managing director of Horizons, the UK-based analyst and specialist information consultant for the foodservice and hospitality sector. An expert on the structure and dynamics of the international foodservice sector, and its supply chain, below he reveals the UK menu trends of summer 2015; pointing out how restaurants’ preoccupation with vegetables and innovative ways to serve them is a trend that’s here to stay  

We can tell a huge amount by analysing how menus across UK foodservice outlets change from year to year, and from season to season. They tell us what dishes remain popular throughout – the stalwarts that consumers want to see every time they visit restaurants. We know that beef burgers, for example, are still the top main course dish.

But last year we spotted a faltering, with not quite as many outlets featuring them on their menus. It looked, briefly, as if hot dogs were about to take the number one slot. But burgers are firmly back – and our latest Menu Trends report for summer 2015 shows they are stronger than ever, in fact their sales are up 41% year-on-year.

Rib-eye and fillet steaks have also moved up the chart, with the menu prices for these prime cuts having risen, while their weight has decrease. Chicken burgers and vegetable burgers have also both seen an increase on menus, of 73% and 20% respectively.

Variety is the spice of life

It is true to say that menus are becoming broader and more varied. Operators now need to offer consumers a wider choice of foods to match their mood, their approach to healthy eating and how adventurous they may, or may not be feeling.

Our research reveals that new and novel foods seem to be becoming a more important feature of the UK’s menu mix. Dishes from Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Vietnamese cuisines are now having a strong influence on the menus of high street operators, together with the growing use of niche ingredients in a bid to offer customers something different.

Some of the newest ingredient trends picked up by our latest research included the wheat-free, grain-like superfood quinoa, the use of which has doubled on menus since winter 2014 and is now on menus at hotel group Hilton, Nando’s, Leon and O’Neills.

South American seeds have also become more widely used, including amaranth and chai, which have a delicate nutty flavour and a high nutritional value. They are being used in breakfast and dessert dishes at All Bar One, Pod, Castle Pubs and Le Pain Quotidien.

The menu at All Bar One is also offering a Vietnamese-inspired open sandwich called ‘banh mi’, which features grilled chicken, pickled carrot, sweet chilli and mouli, while the Middle Eastern flatbread ‘khobez’ is now on the menus at three high street brands.

Many of these trends have been picked up and adapted from street vendors and small independent operators, particularly the more innovative, easy-to-eat hand-held dishes. It’s clear that operators are working hard to offer customers something new and interesting, often including so-called super-food ingredients, which satisfy diners keen to eat healthily.

Mediterranean-inspired dishes are on the up too – kebabs, for example, are 50% more likely to be listed on menus compared with last year, while the skewer-grilled souvlaki has also become more widely served. Houmous alternatives are more in evidence too, including skordalia, (made with garlic and pureed potatoes, nuts or soaked bread) and favetta (broad beans with olive oil).

Halloumi has seen a sharp rise as well, up 54% year-on-year with Mexican chain Chiquito featuring halloumi-stuffed mushrooms and Wetherspoon listing a dish of grilled halloumi.

Novelty dishes

We also have more novel foods – prompted largely by celebrity chefs. One example is the use of the mouth-exploding popping candy, which seems to have hit the mainstream in both sweet and savoury versions – including in a burger! Bella Italia, Zizzi and Revolution all have dishes on their menus containing popping candy.

In 2010 it was virtually unheard of but its use has grown 170% year-on-year as operators look to add some novelty to dishes and give their customers something to talk about. The trend was started by celebrity chefs such as Heston Blumenthal to offer their diners a taste and sensory experience.

Chain operators have also realised that their menus have to evolve and keep up with trends too. While they need to keep the old favourites on the menu it’s also important to offer customers something novel and interesting, something they may not have tried before as well as to cater for those that want to indulge and those that want something more healthy.

Health top priority

But there are other factors coming into play when consumers choose where they eat and what they eat. Health is one of the main preoccupations. Not every time they eat out – as sometimes diners are quite prepared to indulge – but we are seeing a number of dishes appearing that cater for those with health concerns, including lighter, smaller dishes, sharing options, and smaller desserts.

Ingredients are changing too. For example, there are a number of houmous alternatives appearing, including skordalia, a smooth thick purée, similar to houmous, made by combining crushed garlic and olive oil with a bulky base (pureed potatoes, nuts or soaked bread. Favetta, a purée of broad beans (or fava beans) mixed with olive oil and ingredients such as raisins and pepper is another variant, now on the menu at All Bar One.

Vegetables on trend

Vegetables seem to be becoming more versatile with chefs becoming more creative, as well as using a number of lesser-known varieties.

Kale has shown a steady growth over the last few seasons and has now taken off with three times the menus appearances seen last year, up 77% since winter 2014 and almost 10 times 2010 usage levels. The growing Bill’s chain is one that offers kale chips, while Castle Pubs has a kale, cauliflower and cheddar tart on its menu and Leon has a chicken kale Caesar salad. Even Starbucks has got in on the kale act, with a smoked cheese and kale egg crêpe.

Beetroot is another vegetable with superfood credentials. An interest in root vegetables and pickling combined have led to a 43% increase in menu appearances year-on-year, up 14% on winter 2014 and 71% on 2010. It’s appearing in a variety of guises too – beetroot cured salmon (Hilton); black bean and beet burger (Las Iguanas); or adding beetroot to a pizza or burger option (Revolution).

Sweet potato is appearing as a healthier alternative to potato chips and has seen a 52% increase in menu appearances year-on-year, up 16% on winter 2014. Since 2010 its appearances have almost doubled. Nando’s is offering sweet potato wedges, the hotel chain Marriott has a sweet potato cobbler on its menu, while Wetherspoon’s sells a sweet potato curry.

Cauliflower is another ‘in’ veggie – up 33% year-on-year and recording more than double the menus appearances of 2010. This vegetable is no longer just smothered in cheese, however, and is becoming a year-round ingredient – look out for the roast spiced cauliflower dish (O’Neill’s) and cauliflower cheese tart (Hungry Horse).

It’s likely that this preoccupation with vegetables and innovative ways to serve them is here to stay – consumer concern with healthy eating is only likely to increase and for operators, vegetables are cheaper to source and offer greater margin than other forms of protein.

Other summer 2015 menu trends

  • Brioche has become the bread of choice, up 67% since last year, particularly when served with burgers and hot dogs.
  • The use of ethical terminology in describing dishes has risen 10% year-on-year; suggesting it has become even more important to customers.
  • 63% of operators use the terminology ‘allergy’ or ‘allergen’ on their menus, up 4% since winter 2014.
  • Gluten-free descriptions have risen 23% since winter 2014.
  • Curry appears to be making a comeback, up 31% year-on-year but with a new pan-Asian twist.

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