CHICAGO -- In 2017, menu exploration moved to the forefront at restaurant chains and foodservice operations in general. While kitchens experimented with new offerings, simplicity was also key. For some operators, innovation meant tapping a different cuisine for new ingredients or flavors. For others, it was a matter of tinkering with proven favorites.
The menu trends that rose to the top most closely aligned with consumer demands; however, those needs often teetered between polarizing forces: health vs. indulgence or classic vs. cutting-edge.
Operators have been swapping out beef for less-traditional proteins in burger preparations. Shake Shack introduced smoked eel, while Arby's brought back its venison burger and added an elk option for a limited time.
But it was plant-based burgers that saw significant growth in 2017. Chains from The Counter, Umami Burger and Hopdoddy Burger Bar to TGI Fridays, BurgerFi and Epic Burger either tested or rolled out plant-based burgers or patties blended with mushrooms and other vegetables.
Limited-service players such as McDonald's, Wendy's and Chipotle found gold in queso, both as a side item and as a topping on fries and burgers. And mozzarella sticks were served in myriad ways: getting fancy at The Cheesecake Factory, going global at Buffalo Wings & Rings, topping a protein of choice at Applebee's and crowning a burger at P.J. Whelihan's. Mac and cheese and beer cheese also found nontraditional applications in top chains.
Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey's General Stores got in on the trend, with the retailer bringing back its specialty Mac N' Cheese pizza in fall 2017, featuring macaroni and a blend of melted cheeses.
3. The new local
Chains took local sourcing to the next level by heavily promoting regional favorites on the menu. Alabama white barbecue sauce showed up as a topping for burgers and chicken dishes, while Wisconsin cheese curds appeared on the menus of several steakhouses.
Chefs are calling out the specific regionality of ingredients and flavors more often than ever before. Instead of a dish merely being labeled Middle Eastern, for example, it is increasingly described as Israeli, Yemenite or Persian to highlight the authenticity and transparency of the dish.
4. On-the-go snack boxes
Few consumer behavioral trends have influenced the foodservice industry as much as snacking. In recent years, the shift toward all-day snacking has led healthful-minded chains and foodservice operations to change course to meet consumer demand. This past year, Au Bon Pain introduced Bon to Go boxes that are available all day, Zoe's Kitchen rolled out a line of Snack Boxes, and Just Salad expanded beyond its namesake with the debut of three Toast Boxes for snacking.
2017 was the year that Instagram became a driving force behind menu development, especially for beverages and desserts. Starbucks created a ton of buzz with its colorful Unicorn Frappuccino and Ombre Pink Drink, and Tim Hortons was hot on its heels with its unique Buffalo Latte.
On the dessert side, Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer has become known for its towering milkshakes, stacked high with billows of cotton candy, slices of layer cake and assorted candies. These and other eye-catching, camera-friendly offerings swell the ranks of chains' social-media followers, while bumping up traffic and sales.
6. Naturally sweet
The American palate is strongly geared toward sweetness, but ever-increasing concerns about health and the risks that may result from eating processed sugar are causing consumers to gravitate toward natural sweeteners such as agave, maple, molasses and honey. The hottest pairing of 2017 was honey and chicken; Dairy Queen, Panda Express, KFC and numerous other chains have spotlighted honey-topped chicken items.
Toward the end of the year, spicy honey made a push, as seen in Taco Bell's test of Chicken & Biscuits topped with jalapeno honey. Maple has also been showing up in new ways on restaurant menus, particularly in beverages.
7. The chicken and the egg
Operators are reimagining traditional breakfast fare, with poultry and eggs getting the most attention. Chicken surged as a breakfast protein in 2017, making more appearances in breakfast entrees, including Arooga's Chicken & Waffles and Peet's Maple Waffle & Gouda Chicken Breakfast Sandwich. Eggs are being featured in unexpected preparations, including Taco Bell's Naked Breakfast Taco, which used a fried egg as a "shell" to hold diced potatoes, cheese and choice of meat. And Wagamama topped a breakfast ramen dish with a soft-cooked egg and smoked bacon.