When it comes to planning a restaurant menu, food is a lot like fashion. Items may be popular for a short time or may exist indefinitely.
Offering new menu items at your restaurant is an easy way to keep customers interested and even generate local media attention. When selecting your new items, consider the concept of your restaurant, your market niche, and the current trends in popular restaurant menus.
Seven Popular Food Trends for Restaurant Menus
- Classic comfort food. Meatloaf, shepherd's pie, pot roast and gravy, and macaroni and cheese have been featured on restaurant menus for decades. Customers enjoy the experience of dining on comforting, home-cooked food that they don't have to prepare themselves. The mass appeal of savory, filling foods that remind customers of home and childhood isn’t likely to disappear any time soon.
- Local ingredients. Menus featuring food that is grown or produced locally have seen an increase in popularity, especially among health-conscious and eco-conscious diners. Often called "farm-to-table," and frequently featuring organic options, local food lets consumers know the origin and quality of the food they are eating and feel connected to the people who produce it. Local offerings can make for great seasonal menu items. In addition to local produce, meats, and cheeses, locally produced spirits or locally brewed beers and ciders are also a popular menu item, especially among younger diners.
- Gourmet versions of classics. Classic foods like hamburgers are some of the most recognizable and popular restaurant menu items. To put a creative spin on these crowd-pleasing menu items, many restaurants are creating gourmet versions. Gourmet burgers can range from the $33 Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern (made with steak, rather than typical ground beef, and topped with caramelized onions) to the Le Burger Brasserie's $777 option, found inside Ceasar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada (made with Kobe beef and topped with, among other delicacies, seared foie gras and Maine lobster). Burgers aren't the only classics getting the gourmet treatment. For patrons with expensive taste, lobster macaroni and cheese, caviar-topped pizza, and more are eye-catching menu options.
- Healthy kids' menus. Growing awareness of the rise in childhood obesity has prompted a new wave of healthy children's menus. Though many restaurants still offer "kid food" such as mac and cheese, pizza, or fried chicken strips, others are finding ways to introduce young diners to a greater variety of dishes, including more produce. Hummus with vegetables for dipping, fruit salads, whole grain pasta, and roasted vegetable chips are all ways to update your own children's menu so it appeals to health-conscious parents as well as to kids. Even fast-food restaurants now offer many healthy food options for kids, such as grilled chicken wraps, yogurt, and apple slices.
- CBD-infused foods/drinks. CBD oil has become a popular (though largely untested) treatment for a range of anxiety and stress disorders. As a result, it has also started making its way into the menus of restaurants eager to capitalize on the health trend. Food and drinks infused with CBD can be found everywhere from coffee shop menus to five-start restaurants. However, it's important to follow all state and federal regulations if you plan to incorporate CBD into your restaurant menu.
- Zero-waste cooking. Zero-waste cooking is a branch of the sustainability movement that uses food scraps, leftovers, and damaged produce to create full dishes, limiting food waste in the kitchen. Zero-waste also generally incorporates on-site or outsourced composting into your restaurant's food-disposal model. From pesto made out of carrot and turnip greens that would once have been discarded to using coffee grounds to flavor ice cream, this type of cooking is especially attractive to Millennial and Gen-Z diners. As a bonus for restaurants, this type of cooking can save money by reducing your budget for ingredients.
- Vegetable-centric dishes. Rather than focusing on meat dishes, or even substituting meatless "meats" such as veggie burgers for traditional ingredients, many restaurants are choosing to create dishes that showcase a variety of vegetables, legumes, pulses, and other produce. This is a response to the increase in plant-based diets followed by both health-conscious and eco-conscious diners. To appeal to a variety of consumers, consider creating plant-based meals, then offering optional proteins, such as salmon or steak, that can be added on.
How to Choose the Right Menu for Your Restaurant
No matter what type of restaurant you run, a yearly menu update should be part of your business plan. You don't have to change everything, but adding a few new items or updating less-popular dishes will help attract new diners and keep loyal customers coming back.
To choose the right menu items for your restaurant, take learning about popular trends one step further. Market research, on both your competitors' menus and the interests and values of diners in your region, can help guide you towards profitable and popular choices.
Menu trends come and go for most restaurants. Knowing what's popular—and what has classic appeal—will help you make sure your restaurant menu stays fresh and attractive enough to encourage repeat visits.