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R&IEditorial Archives2001September 15 — Special Report

A Taste for Adventure
In R&I's 2001 Menu Census, operators reveal more diverse diner preferences.

View the leading menu sellers by segment.

As bold, complex flavors become integrated into the dining landscape, another scene is emerging: a hunger for more diversity.

American diners are showing a desire for a wider spectrum of foods, an appetite that encompasses rich, robust flavors and textures, according to the 2001 Restaurants and Institutions Menu Census.

Salmon tartare made the greatest leap, increasing its presence on menus by 208% (although still found almost exclusively at some fine-dining and hotel operations). Restaurants and noncommercial operations serving artisan or specialty bread rose 30%, while chai tea grew 27%.

But cheese fries' increase by 33% show that diners still want comfort.

"It's fairly well established that people want different things that are familiar to them," says John McLean, executive chef for Chicago-based Levy Restaurants Sports and Entertainment.

The Menu Census survey, conducted every other year, was mailed to more than 7,700 commercial and noncommercial operators in May. For each of the 580 menu items listed, operators were asked to indicate whether it is on the menu, a good seller, increasing in sales and whether it might be added to the menu in the next 12 months. A total of 1,399 valid questionnaires were returned. The overall margin of error for results is +/-2.62%.

Survey results offer insight into the foods most often found on menus and which selections are rising in sales. Foods making marked increases in "good seller" status since the 1999 Census include éclairs and cream puffs, also known as profiteroles, Asian noodle bowls, satay and skewers, ice-cream cake and carpaccio.

In the area of starches, polenta's standing as a good seller rose, surpassing ubiquitous macaroni and cheese.

Mexican, Northern Italian, Cajun/Creole, Tex-Mex and Chinese are respectively ethnic cuisines most often represented currently, while Caribbean cuisine emerged as the style of fare respondents are most interested in adding to the menu.

Seafood showed the most significant increases in frequency and sales. Of the top five greatest gains in on-menu status since 1999, three are seafood: salmon tartare (208%), tilapia (54%) and sea bass (31%).

But that doesn't mean menus are becoming meatless. Meat typically rich in flavor made big increases in good-seller ratings, from barbecued beef/brisket at 138% and pulled pork at 59% to barbecued-beef sandwiches (81%) and beef kebabs (65%).

All told, the foodservice industry continues to offer its guests an exciting culinary adventure.


The urge to splurge and venture out on a flavor foray is most evident among fine-dining restaurants.

Smoked salmon ranks near the top of foods increasing in sales and foie gras is a leader among foods that high-end restaurants say they are most likely to add to menus. These operators also point to bruschetta, carpaccio and antipasto-ways to offer interesting flavor profiles-as leading possibilities to join the menu.

The survey results support two ongoing trends that are perhaps most prevalent in the fine-dining segment. Customers are open to new tastes when food is familiar in some way, and they view dining out an opportunity to explore new tastes.

"More than ever people expect restaurants to be exciting in some way, so they aren't about to deprive themselves," says Chef Ed Brown at The Sea Grill in New York City. "It may be the presentation, the food or both, but they also don't want any of it to be too crazy."

For example, while 77% of fine-dining operators responding offer classic Caesar salad, 55% also menu a Caesar with chicken and 39% offer a version with shrimp. At Sia's in Duluth, Ga., hearts of romaine are accompanied by rosemary croutons and lime-chipotle vinaigrette. At Hacienda de la Sierra in Lake Tahoe, Nev., Caesar salad gets a sprinkle of roasted red peppers, pine nuts, zesty cheese and crispy fried tortilla strips.

The same twists are applied to pasta. While a tomato-based red sauce is the most common pasta accompaniment in other foodservice segments, fine-dining operators are most likely to offer pasta topped with shrimp or chicken.

At his eponymous restaurant in Honolulu, Alan Wong brings together penne pasta with shrimp and clams in a spicy lemongrass and black-bean sauce, while Radius in Boston serves rabbit confit tortellini in a sage-infused consommé with Brussels sprout leaves and Granny Smith apples.

Leading sellers among ethnic cuisines include pasta with shrimp for Italian, quesadillas for Mexican and vegetable stir-fry for Asian. Fine-dining operators give equal nods to Latin American and Caribbean foods as the cuisines they are most interested in adding to menus, followed closely by Japanese.

Beverages show the greatest leap among menu categories increasing in sales, with wine and champagne, cappuccino, espresso and bottled still water displaying the largest gains.


Comfort foods may be described as trendy when they show up on restaurant menus, but on school menus, they long have been standard fare. Pizza, burgers, chili, chicken noodle soup, meatloaf and mashed potatoes fill many steam tables, and woe is the cafeteria line that runs out of them before lunch service is over.

Hamburgers and hot dogs remain the sandwich standards, each menued at nearly 90% of schools that responded to Menu Census. Cheeseburgers, breaded chicken patties, and ham-and-cheese and turkey sandwiches are close behind. Keeping an eye on what's hot at quick-service restaurants, schools are considering wraps and Philly cheese-steak sandwiches for inclusion.

Chicken nuggets, a favorite at QSRs, as well, are on the menus of 87% of schools surveyed. But foods don't have to be fried to be popular: roast turkey is available at 58% of schools, while 48% offer barbecued chicken and 43% include baked or roasted chicken on menus. Still, chicken nuggets get the most responses as the poultry item increasing in sales.

Tacos show up on 80% of school menus, putting them ahead of peanut butter and jelly (79%) and grilled-cheese (75%) sandwiches. Nachos (72%) are within shouting distance.

Asian influences are being felt: chicken stir-fry and fried rice get strong consideration as might-be-added foods.

Of all the commodity foods, potatoes are hard to top. From always popular mashed potatoes (on menus at 79% of schools responding) to french fries (76%), rounds (66%) and baked (62%), spuds are as common to school lunchrooms as food fights. Seasoned fries show sales growth.

When Provo, Utah, public schools analyzed their potato purchases, "We were flabbergasted at how many different ways we served them," says Vaughn Hawkes, coordinator of food services.

Hash browns do their share in the morning, menued by 42% of schools responding. But muffins, eggs, bananas and bagels are the foods most likely to make up school breakfast menus.

Beyond the standards, there is plenty of school menu creativity. In Provo, students love the build-your-own "Hawaiian Haystack," a bowl of rice with teriyaki or grilled chicken, topped by their choice of green onions, pineapple, shredded carrots, peas or bean sprouts. And serving "breakfast for lunch"-in the form of Texas French toast and waffles-also packs kids into cafeterias, Hawkes says.


Casual-dining boomed in the 1990s and the segment's menus reflect that success: Choices are bountiful and a great many rate as good sellers.

Of course, hamburgers and cheeseburgers remain as daylong menu stalwarts. But casual-dining operators have earned repeat business by exploring new toppings and presentations. In July, for example, Plano, Texas-based Bennigan's featured and discounted its line that includes the Wheelhouse (topped with a fried cheese wheel, Parmesan and marinara sauce) and John Bacon's (Cheddar, barbecue sauce, bacon and mustard). "To compete in our segment, you've got to have a good burger," says Bennigan's President Jerry Comstock.

French fries are a top seller and the most common accompaniment for those sandwiches, although seasoned or flavored mashed potatoes make a stronger showing this year.

Soups also do well as sidekicks at lunch and dinner. Clam or seafood chowders get the highest good-seller rating, while operators who serve bean, vegetable and onion soups as well as gumbo and chili rate them as popular.

Beyond burgers, grilled-chicken and barbecued-pork sandwiches are selling well, according to Menu Census. Wraps sell well where offered and top the list of sandwiches casual-dining operations are considering adding.

Almost everything off the grill gets high marks from operators. Barbecued beef ribs, barbecued brisket, grilled chicken and strip steaks rate as good sellers.

Pork entrées are gaining in menu presence and guest orders. Barbecued-pork sandwiches sell well where offered, and pork tenderloin is the number-one meat dish that might be added. Many operators are finding that pork chops sell. Among them is Salvador Gomez, executive chef for Dallas-based Texas Land & Cattle Steak House, who recently added pork chops topped with chipotle-peach glaze as a signature dish for the chain's menu.

One of the biggest menu changes has been the emergence of chicken wings, which are closing the gap on perennial appetizer sales leaders chicken strips and onion rings. Their high-flying days aren't over yet: wings are the appetizer most often cited by casual-dining operators as increasing in sales.

Nachos and quesadillas have established themselves as good sellers, which may explain why Mexican, more than any other, is the cuisine casual-dining operators say they plan to introduce to their menus.


Satisfying hospital patients, nursing-home clients and their visitors takes a dose of reality: You not only are feeding a patient or resident but also serving the family. Food often acts as a bridge that connects people and family with the healing process.

Favorite foods at home and at restaurants, such as burgers, fries, chicken noodle soup and apple pie, show up as leading sellers in data from the 2001 R&I Menu Census. Survey results show that 86% of the 69 nursing-home operators polled feature cheeseburgers on their menus; 55% of those polled treat chicken-breast sandwiches as staples.

The traditional hot lunch of protein, mashed potatoes and gravy is being augmented with lighter, fresher fare: soup with a roll, a shaved-meat sandwich on multigrain bread or an entrée salad of fresh mixed greens, grilled chicken and savory condiments such as a variety of mustards, says Sonia Alexander, a 24-year health-care foodservice veteran and director of food and nutrition at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago.

"People don't want big, heavy breakfasts or lunches anymore,'' says Alexander, who oversees 1,800 patient trays per day as well as outlets that feed 6,700 customers daily. The continental breakfast is replacing the stereotypical hot breakfast, she says. Patients want simplicity: cold cereal, a muffin or bagel, juice or an egg sandwich, for example.

Menu Census respondents (86 hospitals and 80 nursing homes) point to taco salad, fruit salad and tossed greens as increasing in popularity. Hospitals list roasted and stir-fry vegetables as being among leading sales gainers.

Soups-especially chicken noodle, vegetable, broccoli and potato-are menu mainstays in both health-care categories. About 3% of hospital respondents tab turkey chili as the addition they'll most likely make.

Health-care menus are gaining global flavor. Mexican and both Northern and Southern Italian dishes already are represented on 27% of hospital menus, according to respondents. Interest in adding Mediterranean, Thai and Latin American foods is high.

Nothing soothes body and soul like dessert, and health-care operators keep the list of meal-ending treats long and diverse. Apple pie and chocolate and carrot cake are most often offered and ordered. In fact, 6% of hospitals claim cookies are increasing in popularity, and 3% say signature or specialty desserts increasingly are sweetening menus.


While its "core audience is a little more adventurous than it used to be," Lowell Petrie, senior director of brand marketing for Spartanburg, S.C.-based Denny's, says these diners "also want their favorites." Such is the tension that defines menu development in the family-dining segment, where familiarity breeds profitability.

Good sellers at breakfast are eggs, bacon and hash browns. Gaining ground are breakfast sandwiches. At lunch, the orders are for hamburgers, grilled-chicken sandwiches and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Where offered, club sandwiches, wraps and turkey burgers show strength.

At dinner, what sells best at family-dining restaurants is what is most familiar in family dining rooms: fried chicken, steaks, barbecued beef and pot roast. Operations that menu rotisserie chicken and chicken pot pie give those entrées high good-seller ratings.

"A lot of regulars don't even look at the menu," says Ron Rumley, vice president of marketing for Decatur, Ga.-based Huddle House. That makes suggestive selling vital to the success of new entrées. Through October, the front of Huddle House menus promotes a Philly cheese steak sandwich (which ranks at the top of might-be-added foods in the category) as a limited-time special. "People will try whatever's on the front of the menu," Rumley says, but the chain is careful not to venture too far into the unknown. The cheese steak sandwich, for example, is served on Texas toast, which may not be the way it's done in Philadelphia but is "more recognizable" to guests.

Petrie says Denny's also looks at adding items that are variations on traditional foods, not complicated to prepare and that don't require new ingredients to be stocked. Only the bread is new in its Dagwood breakfast sandwich. "For us, new items are most likely to be new presentations," he says.

Pancakes are a family-dining segment favorite and are part of Denny's Grand Slam platters, popular with men. To appeal to women, a single pancake topped with fruit, rolled up and finished with whipped cream became its popular Rollover Fruit Slam.

Sometimes the new twist is in the seasonings. Both Petrie and Rumley say their customers are looking for bolder-but not threatening-flavors.

"People are more adventuresome when times are good," says Rumley. "When times get tight, they go back to their old faithfuls. We have to keep that in mind with food and prices."


The faces and fashions of post-secondary students may be perpetually in flux, but what they eat remains relatively constant. R&I's 2001 Menu Census illustrates that when it comes to college and university dining, oldies still are goodies.

Mornings are most likely to start with bagels, the leading seller at breakfast. Among those with more time before the first class, omelets, bacon, hash browns and muffins are popular. Cinnamon rolls are moving up fast.

Simple, comfortable fare leads the way midday, with hamburgers and ham-and-cheese and roast-beef sandwiches on the menu at 80% of colleges and universities responding. These sandwiches, along with breaded chicken and turkey, remain leading sellers.

Chili tops the list of most-offered meat items, while roast beef, meatloaf, ham and beef stew closely follow. Among poultry dishes, chicken strips and fried, baked or roasted chicken are most common, included on the menus of three-fourths of those surveyed. Operators rank these as good sellers where served, as they do chicken wings, chicken nuggets and grilled chicken breasts.

Students like fried foods, and breaded and fried fish portions or shrimp are top sellers among the most commonly offered seafood dishes on campuses. Crab cakes, salmon and cod also post strong showings as good sellers.

Pizza and spaghetti are the most-often-offered Italian foods, although lasagna as well as pasta with red or white sauce show up on at least 70% of menus. In the Mexican segment, tacos and burritos reign among top sellers, with taco salad, nachos and beef or chicken fajitas moving up. Noodle bowls and teriyaki chicken and beef dishes top the list of Asian dishes.

Ralph Perrotto, acting director of dining and business services at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., points to grilled chicken breasts as a top-seller and Menu Census back up the claim.

College dining programs are hotbeds of ethnic interest, with Japanese, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Thai and Latin American named as cuisines operators would like to add. Perrotto says Tufts is rolling out a "Mediterranean Sauté" concept this fall, combining that region's ingredients with the popularity of made-to-order pastas.

For those of college age, there's ample room for dessert, and dining-services operators oblige with a broad array of choices. Apple and cherry pies, carrot cake, cheesecake and fresh fruit are popular offerings. Not surprisingly, soft-serve ice cream proves a strong seller where available.


Cheryl Bachelder, president of Louisville, Ky.-based KFC, announced the chain's latest advertising campaign in July, saying, "It's time America stops calling a burger and fries dinner." Judging by Menu Census results, however, that time hasn't yet arrived. Hamburgers and fries remain core items for quick-service restaurants, most often menued and solidly rated as good sellers.

To leverage burgers' popularity, QSR operations are transforming them into decadent signature items. Jack in the Box has created a Triple Ultimate Cheeseburger with three beef patties, two slices of American cheese and one of Swiss plus an onion-mayonnaise sauce, targeting customers Tammy Bailey, the San Diego-based chain's senior product manager, says are "cheeseburger purists who don't want a salad on their burgers." To those who like a little "salad" (along with Monterey jack and Cheddar cheeses and four slices of bacon), Burger King offers the Xtreme Bacon & Cheese Whopper.

But Menu Census also reveals increased diversity in the segment, which has gone beyond burgers to encompass all manner of hand-held foods. Grilled chicken sandwiches are common, as are breaded and fried fish, turkey and ham sandwiches. Ham and cheese tops the list of sandwiches respondents are thinking of adding.

Arby's already is there. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based chain in March introduced its latest burger challengers: a four-item (roast beef and Swiss, turkey and Swiss, ham and Swiss, and chicken Caesar) line of roasted Market Fresh deli-style sandwiches served on honey-wheat bread.

It has been 30 years since McDonald's served the first Egg McMuffin. In that time, the breakfast sandwich has come to anchor the QSR morning menu as strongly as burgers dominate other dayparts. Egg and muffin sandwiches are rated good sellers by 63% of those serving them; sausage biscuits and breakfast burritos are strong sellers as well.

QSR menus are borrowing trends popularized by casual-dining operations. Chicken wings are increasing in popularity as are barbecued foods. Atlanta-based Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits has merged chicken strips and Buffalo chicken wings in one of its latest products, Buffalo Style Nuggets.

Quick-service menus aren't so mono-cultural any more. Nachos and taco salads are menu stalwarts. Tacos and burritos garner high marks as good sellers where offered, as do pizza, calzone and Italian sausage.


Hotels once had a reputation for serving less than memorable food. That this has changed is evident in R&I's 2001 Menu Census. Results indicate that hotels want to appeal to their guests' receptivity to new flavors and preparations while at the same time offering them classic dishes with which they can feel at home.

Hotel dining already is a global affair: The world's cuisines are represented on menus in this segment more broadly than in any other. For example, 17% of respondents say they offer at least some Thai dishes, while 41% menu Spanish fare. Operators are most interested in adding Northern Italian dishes, followed by Caribbean food.

Interstate Hotels Corp. is featuring a special "Pacifica" menu of Pacific Rim-influenced foods through year-end. Developed by Don Stanczak, vice president of food and beverage at the Stafford, Texas-based company, the menu includes pepper-seared ahi tuna and hoisin-marinated lamb chops.

Atlanta-based Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. has brought an Italian chef-Fabio Trabocchi, previously at Floriana in London-to conduct the kitchen at Maestro, recently opened at its McLean, Va., location. Willow Creek restaurant at the chain's Aspen, Colo., location offers "hints" of Caribbean and Latin cuisines, as does the new Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Fla.

Foods popular in other segments are at home on hotel menus as well. Hamburgers are commonly offered, as is chicken in many familiar forms: Chicken strips, chicken wings and Caesar salad with chicken continue to hold appeal for hotel guests. The Mansion on Turtle Creek, a Rosewood Hotels & Resorts property in Dallas, gives the omnipresent Caesar salad a spicy, local twist, creating the Mansion Red Jalapeo Caesar Salad with Shrimp Diablo "Tamale."

For the future, hotel restaurateurs have their eyes on veal: tied for the top spot among foods that these operators might add to menus are veal chops and veal shanks or osso buco.

Breakfast is an important meal in lodging: On average, operators say they serve 404 morning meals, only slightly fewer than their average lunch covers. As in other segments, bacon, eggs, omelets and pancakes are strong sellers, but hot and cold cereals, waffles, fruit plates, sausage, potatoes, muffins, yogurt and other breakfast foods are rated more highly as good sellers by hotels than by any other industry segment.

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