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More Choices on Restaurant Menus in 2008

June 25, 2008
More choices on restaurant menus means more choices on the dinner table

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Cooking up a storm

A healthier foodservice menu

Despite the challenges of a slumping overall economy, restaurant industry sales are projected to increase 4.4 percent this year, reaching a record $558.3 billion, according to the Washington-based National Restaurant Association (NRA). For a quick perspective, sales were just $42.8 billion in 1970.

There are 945,000 restaurants and foodservice outlets and a workforce of 12.8 million employees for the largest employer in the U.S. The restaurant industry’s share of the food dollar is 48 percent.

Now in its 89th year, NRA held its annual Restaurant-Hotel-Motel Show in May in Chicago. It’s the largest gathering of restaurant and hospitality industry professionals in the U.S., pulling more than 70,000 visitors and 2,200 exhibitors from all 50 states and 115 countries. It officially sold out for the third year in a row even though square footage increased.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain -- curiously accompanied by Joe Lieberman, Democratic senator from Connecticut -- delivered a campaign speech (without notes) to attendees, who have a lot of clout and dollars. “Considering both of my opponents call Chicago their home, I got a great welcome,” he joked after his introduction.

Why didn’t you think of it: Sara Lee Foodservice introduced Chef Pierre Pre-Sliced Pies.

When demonstrators against the war in Iraq tried to disrupt his speech, he patiently waited until they were peacefully escorted out and said, “We all have the right to free speech, and as I was saying ….”

There were some signs of cutbacks by food processors and foodservice companies, who normally spare no expense at this show. Perdue Farms cancelled its annual party for customers, and Tyson Foods did not serve chicken at its booth because of spiraling costs. McCain Foods didn’t exhibit at all.

But Coca-Cola Foodservice had a brimming portfolio of new beverage and beverage dispensing products, including Juan Valdez caféReale, a shelf-stable liquid coffee extract in Bag-in-Box form which eliminates mess, waste, and filters. Coke’s proprietary Bevariety Drop-In Dispenser is a versatile, eight-valve fountain dispenser that expands to 12 brands with flavor shot capability.

That means a Coca-Cola Classic can be turned into a flavored Coke by adding a vanilla or cherry shot, or a Minute Maid Lemonade can be turned into a cherry-lemonade. All together, it can create more than 50 different drink options.

Sara Lee Foodservice had Chef Pierre Pre-Sliced Pies, the foodservice industry’s first, pre-portioned and pre-sliced pies. Available in seven thaw and serve varieties, slices can be thawed as needed.

Popular foods for 2008

Sauces/condiments/special ingredients:
Salts (sea, smoked, colored, kosher), Infused oil, Balsamic vinegar, Lemon grass, Vinaigrettes

Ethnic fusion, Latin American, Mediterranean, Thai, Pan Asian

Pomegranates, Dragon fruit, Figs, Passion fruit, Prickly pear/cactus pear/cactus

Quinoa, Fresh pasta, Couscous, Bulgur wheat, Nuts

Bite-size desserts, Sorbet/gelato, Cheese plates/platters, Fresh fruit, Chocolate desserts

Entrée salads:
Asian, Vegetarian/vegan, Salmon, Mexican/Tex-Mex/Southwest, Steak 

Source: Survey of 1,200 members of the American Culinary Federation


The name of the game for restaurant menus in 2008 is more choices -- more portion-sizes, more healthy options,and more tastes, flavors and innovations.

NRA research finds that six of 10 consumers would likely choose a restaurant based on its environmental friendliness. So it’s no surprise that environmental and sustainability efforts were one of the foremost trends at the show. Much talk was devoted to multi-purpose equipment and “green” equipment, anything that can reduce utility costs and increase productivity, technology that can improve dining experiences for guests, and advice from industry leaders and experts on how to best integrate these concepts into operations.

Other trends mirror those in the food processing industry. Three of four adults (and about the same percentage of teens) are trying to eat more healthfully. Bite-size desserts and small plates/tapas/mezze are hot, as are sourcing ingredients (local produce, organics, sustainable seafood, grass-fed and free-range) for menus. So is serving specialty alcohol products (craft beer, signature cocktails, organic wine).

“Gelato is a perfect example of trends driving business in foodservice,” says Greg Kirrish, NRA’s vice president sales and marketing. “Consumers are looking for high-satisfaction in small packages.”

There were many examples of gelato and sorbet. David Zablocki, founder and sorbet sommelier at Greenpoint, N.Y.-based Wine Cellar Sorbets, sources wines he can turn into premium, all natural fat-free sorbets. His latest sorbets are made from port wine and sake and are available nationally.

On the health front, sweet potatoes were everywhere regular fries used to be. And one of the more curious findings was Texturas kits from Solex Partners LLC. They were created by Spain’s foremost molecular gastronomist, Chef Ferran Adrià, to allow chefs to experiment and make the foods served at Adrià's el bulli, Alinea and moto restaurants.

NRA has a new president. Dawn Sweeney, who started last October, grew annual revenues from $200 million to $785 million in only five years at AARP.

What’s new in quickservice

Some 90 percent of quickservice operators reported that wraps/pitas/tortillas (64 percent) were gaining in popularity. Entrée salads, chicken sandwiches and breakfast sandwiches are also on the rise, according to 59 percent operators. When it comes to beverages, energy drinks (77 percent) and espresso/specialty coffees (75 percent) topped the list.

Source: NRA, operator survey October 2007

She acknowledged the restaurant industry had challenges, but 82 percent of Americans say dining out with family and friends is a better use of their leisure time than cooking. “Restaurant spending is tied to disposable income, but the good news is that this industry is still projected to show growth in 2008 over 2007 – almost 4.5 percent,” she said.

On a typical day, the nation’s restaurants serve 133 million consumers of every age and ethnicity. And companies in the business of manufacturing, selling and distributing food and beverages to the restaurant industry should see a good year in 2008.

Restaurateurs and foodservice operators are expected to buy $202.5 billion in food and drink from industry suppliers this year. The biggest share of these purchases will come from commercial restaurant services, the category that includes full-service and limited-service restaurants, and they will spend an estimated $163.4 billion, about 80 percent of the restaurant industry’s total food and drink spending. Noncommercial restaurant services (schools, hospitals and prisons) will fork over some $27.7 billion, and the military will spend nearly $3.1 billion.

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