Side Order

Consumers want more value from the left side of menu, says Technomic

CHICAGO -- During tight times, consumers are less willing to order appetizers, soups and salads. "To justify spending on items from the left side of the menu, they want more valuedishes with unique flavors they can't make at home, or are large enough to share or eat as an entree," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at foodservice consultant Technomic.

"Consumers are trying to cut their dining budgets, in many cases by eliminating starters," Tristano said. "To drive cravings and create interest in appetizers, salads and soups, operators must innovate with exciting [image-nocss] dressings and dips, unusual ingredients, and preparation techniques that can't easily be duplicated at home. These encourage consumers to feel the experience is worth the extra cost."

These and other findings are detailed in three new reports from Technomic's "Left Side of the Menu" series, which includes the Appetizer Consumer Trend Report, the Salad Consumer Trend Report and the Soup Consumer Trend Report. Based on more than 4,500 consumer interviews and analysis of the menus of the Top 250 chain restaurants, emerging chains and independent restaurants, the reports examine consumer attitudes, purchase behavior and price sensitivity, plus emerging trends in flavor, preparation and presentation.

Select findings include:
The number of heavy consumers of starters has dropped considerably in the last two years. Roughly half (51%) of consumers were considered to be heavy purchasers of salads in 2007; in 2009, that number was 33%. Heavy consumer numbers have slid from 40% to 24% for appetizers, and from 25 to 15% for soup. 58% of consumers overall, and 64% of consumers aged 18 to 34, are not fully satisfied with the variety of appetizers menued at full-service restaurants. Over two-thirds (70%) said that salad variety could be improved as well. Though most consumers (68%) expect restaurants to menu just three or four soups, 40% would like to see more ethnic soups offered. For shareability and for making a starter the main course, size is important in appetizer purchases. Four out of five (82%) consumers felt that appetizers should be shared, and 61% said that portions should be large enough to do so. Three quarters would consider ordering a combination platter. For soups, global flavor profiles are in vogue, especially those derived from the cuisines of Asia and Mexico. Mexican flavors tend to dominate at the Top 250 chains, while Asian-inspired soups are widely menued by emerging chains and large independents. Health drives the decision to order a salad as an entree for 66% of consumers at lunch and 63% at dinner. Chicago-based Technomic provides clients with the facts, insights and consulting support they need to enhance their business strategies, decisions and results. Its services include numerous publications and digital products, as well as proprietary studies and ongoing research on all aspects of the food industry.