Turn Trends into Moneymakers

Nancy Kruse reveals 5 menu must-haves.

How do you get a roomful of foodservice professionals to sit up and listen? Nancy Kruse has the answer: "These are the absolute prerequisites for a successful menu. I don't care what segment of our industry you are in, if you cannot deliver on these five customer demands and expectations you'll be at a serious competitive disadvantage." This is how Kruse, well-respected trendologist and author of "The Kruse Report" (which appears inNation's Restaurant News), started her presentation at the 2013 National Restaurant Association's show in Chicago. We took notes on the rest, and then asked our chefs at the Kraft Culinary Centre to offer winning menu solutions that capture these sustaining trends on the plate.

1. freshness first

"Freshness is the number-one biggest driver of menu R&D," says Kruse. "Your consumers believe that freshness equals flavor, health and value." Freshness easily morphs into local, and according to the NRA, 63% of the casual-dining segment and 56% of the family-dining segment are offering local foods. Kruse points out that fresh and local should be part of your menu branding, where points of origin (grown in the Northwest) and grower identification (Smith Family Farms blueberries) can be called out on the menu. "Take credit for everything that you do," she says. "Reveal your ingredients. Your biggest sales vehicles are your menus and your servers."

Baby Arugula, Kale & Endive Salad in a Crispy Radicchio Bowl
1. freshness first

"Your customers love to experiment within boundaries. Make the unfamiliar flavors approachable. One of the ways to do that is through flavor synergy," says Kruse. And for the American palate, she says, look to sweetness as a familiar flavor to partner with a bolder one: sweet plus heat, like a mango-habanero salsa; sweet plus smoky, like cherry-barbecue sauce; and sweet plus salty, like salted caramel. "And the other flavor marriage that's new in the mass market with real culinary fingerprints is the marriage of sweet and savory," she says. Think soy with a caramel offset.

Cherry Brandy Short Ribs with Cherry-Lime Bacon Slaw
3. premiumization wins

"At this point, your customers assume premium products are their birthright. It's the notion of affordability of luxury goods—getting something really good for not a whole lot of money," says Kruse. Today, premium value is best represented through ingredients and method. "You let your ingredients speak for themselves," says Kruse. And you express culinary values that show off housemade, chef-crafted items: pretzel-crusted, pan-roasted, handmade, fresh-baked.

Pan-roasted Salmon with Sweet Cola BBQ Sauce and Pickled Watermelon Rind
4. customization is king

Giving your customers choices that suit their tastes has never been hotter. "And nobody likes to have it their way more than the Millennials," says Kruse. From gourmet grilled cheese stores with bread choices, cheese choices and lots of topping choices to do-it-yourself sushi to self-serve yogurt shops with a myriad of flavors and toppings, diners seek out customizable options.

Build a Signature Sandwich Spread
5. minis are still huge

"It's really about the small-plates phenomenon. This is so powerful from the customer point of view—sharing and grazing," says Kruse. Indeed, small plates, minis, tapas, bar food, snacks: They all help with experimentation, portion control, calorie count and cost considerations, and they're daypart flexible, she points out. And miniaturization includes building in choice, from entrée size to half portions to sides.

Philly Mini-Cheesecake Cones
upcoming trends
BBQ Beef Brisket Sliders with Mustard-Stout Sauce
what's the next big ingredient?

BBQ Beef Brisket Sliders with Mustard-Stout Sauce

"I think beer is arguably the single hottest ingredient being used on food menus," says Kruse. From Guinness pies to craft beer-braised chicken, customers are gleefully responding to this infusion. It's yet another way to express a premium value, she says.

BBQ Beef Brisket Sliders with Mustard-Stout Sauce
what's the next big ingredient?

Turkey Burger with Fig BBQ Sauce

"Greek is the next big ethnic. The drivers are in place," says Kruse. Greek is riding the tailwind of Mediterranean cuisine and bouncing off of the red-hot Greek yogurt, she says. "Where do we go from here? I think we're going to continue our move around the Mediterranean and moving east to Lebanon, Israel, particularly street foods."