For the food industry in this post-COVID era, the dust has not yet settled.
As COVID restrictions fell away and marked a path for the return of dine-in, a perfect storm of labor shortages, inflation and supply chain disruptions have swooped in to slow the restaurant industry’s recovery. Still, despite these continued challenges, the trajectory of menu trends and limited-time offerings reveals that the industry is on its way to normalcy.
Recovery: What it looks like
Overall, the average size of menus is the same as last year. But yet the menu expansion wasn’t even across the industry. Restaurant segments with smaller labor force needs and streamlined operations – the limited-service fast casual and quick-service segments – were the only ones to expand menus.
And growth was not even across individual operator menus, either. Entrées were the top-growing menu part, while most others declined.
Help Wanted: Innovation
The pace of introduction of limited-time offers and new menu items are approaching what they were pre-COVID, but uniqueness scores - a measure of how common or rare a menu item is compared with similar items from other operators - have started to decline as consumer expectations for interesting and unrivaled items aren’t necessarily being met, as operators are forced to focus attention on issues like ingredient shortages and inflation.
But the operators who are pushing through and experimenting with new items despite a host of challenges are highlighting how global influences, versatility, and safe experimentation can bring big rewards.
So far this year, menus are approaching a return to normalcy. While less than half of foods, beverages, and ingredients grew on menus, and more than half declined in 2022, this is an improvement from last year where more than four in five foods, beverages, and ingredients declined on menus.
In terms of menu share, side dishes, bread, flavors/sauces/spices and cheese took up more space on menus this year. What do all those categories have in common? They often provide variability for entrees that consumers might customize, whether dining in or ordering for delivery.
And drilling down even more, here are some key trends that are growing on menus:
Global dishes: Global flavors continue to show strong growth on menus - Mexican, in particular. Whether it’s a versatile dish like birria, mangonada, or Tajin, a variety of Mexican-inspired trends continue to climb.
“Fusebiquity” has huge potential: This is the art of pairing a ubiquitous and versatile base with global flavors. For example, Mediterranean bowls that combine a classic base (like rice) with Mediterranean flavor and are poised for growth in the coming years, according to Datassential’s proprietary Haiku.
Plant-based varieties, like plant-based seafood and eggs, are outpacing plant-based burger and sausage replacements on menus.
Hearty premium proteins are seeing a lift. Game meats, wild-caught salmon and imported lamb are among the proteins that are drawing consumers to fine dining and all seeing growth on menus.
In dessert, old is new again. Nostalgic desserts, from angel food cake to icebox and run cake, have grown thanks to social media and online recipe shares.
Boozy superstars skyrocket. Booze is seeing strong growth post-COVID, particularly with beverages that were already prominently featured. Ranch water, for instance, has soared 182% on menus in the last 12 months.
Samantha Des Jardins is a copywriter at Datassential.
This article highlights findings from our recently published State of the Menu 2022 report available to Datassential Report Pro subscribers. To get access to our presentation-ready insights or our menu database that includes 10+ years of trend data and over 1 million menu items, contact us.