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The key to LTO success: Balance the new with the familiar

Datassential outlines menu strategy, flavor trends at Menu Insights and Innovation event

The most successful dishes introduce bold, trending flavors in a familiar format, letting consumers dabble in the next big thing without veering too far out of their comfort zone, according to new research from Datassential.

Marie Molde of Chicago-based research firm Datassential presented those findings at the Menu Insights & Innovation Workshop earlier this month in Denver in a keynote address on “The Changing Food Landscape.”

Co-presented by Nation’s Restaurant News and Datassential, the event was a deep dive on menu development featuring cooking demonstrations, hands-on LTO development workshops and education sessions. 

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Molde said customers are compelled to try new menu items, noting that nearly half of consumers, or 49%, had tried an LTO in the past two weeks according to Datassential. And 40% of consumers said they did so because they “wanted to try something new.”

But the majority of them didn’t push the limits too far. In fact, 59% of consumer said the last LTO they tried was “extremely similar” to permanent menu items.

That figure spurred discussion among event attendees on whether or not it’s a good idea to get more inventive and “out there” with LTOs.

Molde encouraged restaurants not to shy away from buzzworthy flavors but to incorporate them into a tried-and-true dish.

She cited as an example the recent growth in unusual barbecue sauce flavors that go beyond traditional sweet and hickory versions, including lemongrass, soda and curry.

“Something we encourage our customers to think about is the excitement that’s around the inception and adoption phases,” Molde said.

Trending flavors Molde said to keep an eye on include sumac, za’atar, Aleppo pepper, nduja, black sesame, chimichurri, guajillo, achiote, furikake and XO sauce.

The language used on menus can also make or break whether a customer takes a chance on a dish. Molde suggested a formula consisting of “familiar name, unique description.” An example: “Prime Rib Tacos: tender pieces of prime rib over jack cheese topped with chimichurri sauce, housemade pico de gallo, sliced avocado, chopped cilantro and queso fresco.”

The event also included presentations by sponsors Ventura Foods, Southstream Seafood and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture on consumer trends and menu applications for popular ingredients. Here are three takeaways from those sessions.

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Choose chiles for flavor not fire

As attendees arrived at the workshop, they were treated to the sights and scents of a barrel of green chiles roasting on a custom-made grilling contraption that looked part bingo barrel and part beginning of the best salsa you’ve ever had.

Dennis Hogan, state food and beverage specialist from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, summed up the state’s enduring love of green chiles simply:

“We put green chiles in just about everything and red chiles in everything else,” Hogan said, adding that ordering any dish “Christmas” style was the best of both worlds: a combo of red and green chiles.

New Mexico green chiles aren’t about daredevil heat levels, either.

“It’s really about the taste, the flavor, the uniqueness,” Hogan said.

As a result, he said, the milder flavor can complement a wide variety of dishes, from stews to meatloaf. During the event, attendees tasted green chile cheeseburgers and green chile pizza.

Sweet plus heat: A winning combination

Marci Needham, vice president of insights and category management for Ventura Foods, gave attendees a window into the years-long development process of Sauce Craft, one of its recent lines of sauces.

Needham said the team looked to incorporate bold new flavors and less traditional combinations, citing the growth a 14.3% rise in condiments with “adventurous/global flavors,” compared with a 1.8% growth in traditional condiments.

Looking at emerging flavors, including harissa, Aleppo chile, chimichurri, habanero-mango, Korean BBQ, sweet ginger sesame, bulgogi and chipotle-raspberry, the team zeroed in on consumer demand for more flavor combos, such as “sweet heat, spicy pickled, earthy fieriness and smoky spice.”

“We’ve found that sweet heat is a very big idea,” Needham said.

Among the flavors that made the final cut: honey sriracha, cayenne pepper and gochujang.

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Hake offers a new sustainable option

What is hake? Short answer: It’s a firm, mild white fish that could be interchangeable with cod. Long answer: It’s being fished off the coast of South Africa in a transparent, trackable, sustainably responsible way.

Presenters Chris Pokorski, vice president of sales for I&J distributed by Southstream Seafoods and Adiel Fortune, business development manager, showed attendees a bit of the company’s hundred-year history of wild-caught fishing as well as its present-day applications for operations looking for seafood they (and their customers) can feel good about.

“There’s a sports venue that wanted to move away from tilapia because customers weren’t comfortable with that,” Pokorski said. “This is a wild-caught, sustainable replacement.”

Hake is more common in the U.K., where it’s ubiquitous — but not named specifically — in the iconic British fish ’n’ chips. Menu Insights and Innovation attendees got to sample the flaky hake in this application, fried to golden perfection.

Contact Tara Fitzpatrick at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @Tara_Fitzie

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