Only 16% of restaurant operators in a recent survey said they aren’t planning to change their menus this year.
This story is for the rest of you.
We often find nuggets in our data that surprise us, but this one really threw us for a loop. Menu expert and Datassential Associate Director Claire Conaghan shared this finding with us recently:
“French dip,” the classic, American-born sandwich, is now a top growing dish in Latin American cuisine. Why is this beefy sandwich, that traditionally comes with a side of au jus for dipping, suddenly popping up on Latin menus? Because some restaurants are using it as a way to describe a dish that’s new to many customers: birria.
The fast-growing Mexican dish is showing up in the U.S. in tacos and quesadillas with brothy soup to dip. It’s not that far removed from the French dip. (French dips are also going strong on sandwich menus because they tap into consumers’ desire for an experiential meal.)
It’s a reminder that when adding new items to a menu, it’s important to relate them to something familiar. But it’s also about taking broader conditions into account and knowing when and how to strike out with something new.
Balancing the Ideal vs. Reality
In 2023, “measured cautiousness” seems to be the name of the game.
Despite broader economic concerns, most restaurant operators did not scale back on their new menu introductions last year – and they say they don’t plan to this year, either. About two in five (38%) introduced more menu offerings last year than the year before, and 46% kept innovating at the same pace.
And what is that pace of innovation, exactly?
Over 90% of operators adjust their menus at least once a year and two in three say they undergo a major menu overhaul at least quarterly. Half of operators launch new LTOs at least once a month.
The Innovation Game
Menu innovation is about far more than just adding new items with catchy menu descriptions. Particularly in challenging and uncertain economic times, it can feel like a big risk to introduce something new.
The choice to hold onto the familiar menu and focus on value, or lean toward uniqueness and innovation is a difficult one. But in truth, it doesn’t have to be either/or. And today, restaurant operators tend to be approaching menu development with both fervor and caution.
Despite uneven consumer demand and high inflation, most restaurant operators were able to maintain or even beat their menu development goals in 2022.
The main entrée was the most popular category for the new menu releases last year, followed by sandwiches and desserts. And the lunch menu was the most popular in which to try new things: 65% of those that introduced new items did so at lunch, and 51% put new menu items on the dinner menu.
Although a small number of restaurant operators we surveyed expect major menu overhauls in the coming year, most are focused on keeping menus fresh and exciting through select additions at least quarterly. And when developing these new items, most operators have been paying close attention to feedback from both customers and staff, as well as sourcing inspiration from external outlets from social media to trade shows.
At its core, menu innovation isn’t necessarily about reaching for the stars in terms of emerging trends or extremely unique ingredients, particularly this year.
The key to innovation in 2023 is taking measured steps to add new components or flavors that get your primary visitors excited, while not stretching too far outside the parameters of your existing menu.
Samantha Des Jardins is the Content Marketing Manager at Datassential.
These insights are from our Pulse: 2023 Operator Check-in titled “Menu Innovation.” The full report is available only to subscribers. If you’d like to become a subscriber, reach out here.
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