Despite efforts to regulate sodium intake, restaurant menus rely on salt more than ever

September 26, 2011

Efforts to reduce the daily sodium intake of U.S. consumers have been underway for decades with little progress, in part because salt has many desirable properties and serves as an inexpensive way to enhance the flavor of food, making good food taste even better. 

Despite national salt reduction initiatives, salt mentions on major chain and independent restaurant menus have increased by 144 percent over the last five years. Technomic’s MenuMonitor analysis of over 2,000 top chains, emerging concepts and leading independent restaurants reports that not only have operators included salt on the menu with greater frequency, but the evolution of salt use across menu categories has shifted dramatically.

“Salt and pepper has always been prevalent on the menu,” says Technomic EVP Darren Tristano.  “However, we are seeing more artisan, spice blended and designer finishing salts being introduced broadly across appetizers, entrees and dessert menus. Although the roots of this trend originate in fine dining establishments, it’s catching on in mainstream casual dining, fast casual and quick service restaurant chains.”

Tristano also points out, however, that the addition of these menu descriptors does not necessarily indicate a conflict with the restaurant industry’s efforts to lower the overall sodium content in food, and that the salt not included in menu descriptions has been consistently lessened in recent years, even as these artisanal uses of the spice have increased.

Examples include:

  • Dragon Salt, a blend of salt, cayenne pepper, garlic, ginger and Cajun spices is offered at Asian stir-fry chain Genghis Grill, as a seasoning for several featured bowls.
  • Salt and vinegar French fries appear on the menu at Old Chicago Restaurants while Wendy’s national roll out of Natural-Cut Sea Salt Fries occurred late last year.
  • California-based independent operator, The French Laundry menus Caramel Ice Cream and Maldon Salt on their dessert menu while Firebirds Wood Fired Grill menus Warm Chocolate Brownies with Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Sauce.
  • O Ya, the haute Japanese fusion restaurant in Boston pairs their Seared Petit Strip Loin with a 2 oz. Potato Confit with Sea Salt White Truffle Oil. Miso Braised Beef Marrow featuring Hawaiian black lava sea salt is offered at Tanuki Tavern Japanese gastropub in New York.
  • Ocean Prime offers a specialty martini called Sea Salt Caramel Martini featuring Belvedere Vodka, Navan Vanilla, Caramel and Black Lava Salt while SushiSamba’s Kimori cocktail is served with a Nori-salt rim.

Complimentary breakfast and in-room coffee service sway consumers’ hotel selection

September 26, 2011

When choosing a hotel, it’s not just the amenities they pay for, but the freebies they don’t, that influence consumers’ selection of one hotel over another. A new study from Technomic finds that when choosing a hotel, consumers say complimentary offerings such as breakfast and in-room coffee are more important to them than other amenities.

Overall, 40 percent of business and leisure guests say that foodservice offerings are very important to their choice of hotel. They prefer hotels with a casual-dining restaurant, a bar or lounge, and an extensive room service menu. For many midscale, economy and extended-stay hotels, foodservice is largely defined by the complimentary breakfast.

“Complimentary breakfast is often viewed as a drain on revenues,” says Technomic EVP Darren Tristano. “However, it’s an offering consumers are seeking out when they look over hotel options. It drives traffic and enhances the guest experience.”

The 2011 Hotel Food and Beverage Consumer Trend Report was developed by Technomic to help hotel and foodservice executives understand consumer preferences and needstates associated with hotel foodservice.

Findings include:

  • Business travelers order room service more often than those traveling for leisure. A quarter of business guests (24 percent) compared to just 12 percent of leisure guests purchased room service during their most recent overnight hotel stay.
  • A substantial percentage of consumers are traveling more often today than a couple of years ago for business (34 percent) and leisure (25 percent). Both increases are strongly driven by younger consumers, indicating that operators may want to target younger guests by offering amenities and foodservice options that appeal to these consumers.
  • Bar lounges and lobbies are expanding their menus and offering more tapas-style foods to promote the lobby as a casual, social-gathering place. Hotel catering programs are differentiating themselves through themed carts and onsite food preparation.

Poultry has room for growth on breakfast menus and for snacking occasions

September 26, 2011

Canadian consumers recently polled by Technomic say they eat chicken more frequently than any other type of meat. Yet despite this high rate of consumption, consumers indicate that opportunities still exist for new poultry applications during breakfast or for snacking occasions.  

Younger consumers are the most likely to look for chicken on the breakfast menu, with twenty one percent saying they eat chicken for breakfast at least once per week compared to just nine percent of all chicken consumers. Nearly a quarter of consumers eat chicken as a snack at least once a week.

“Poultry is a very versatile protein that can be positioned in a number of ways for different day parts,” says Technomic EVP Darren Tristano. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of turkey items on breakfast menus, and also some high-profile additions of chicken items positioned as snacks.”

To help food industry professionals stay abreast of current issues and evolving consumer need-states in the poultry category, Technomic has developed the Canadian Center of the Plate: Poultry Consumer Trend Report.

Findings include:

  • For poultry, attributes related to fat and sodium content resonate most strongly with consumers as an indicator of healthfulness, and call-outs related to natural processing—especially those that state a lack of additives such as steroids or hormones—are most likely to increase consumer price thresholds.
  • Humane animal treatment and environmentally sound practices are of increasing importance to consumers, with more than 50 percent indicating both of those items as important to them.
  • Both limited-and full-service restaurants have increased their use of turkey on the breakfast menu since 2008, positioning turkey sausage and bacon as a lighter, more healthful alternative to pork.

Canadian casual dining chains could benefit from additional lunch options

September 26, 2011

A new study by Technomic finds that nearly one third of Canadian consumers say they would visit traditional or upscale casual-dining restaurants for lunch more often if their meal could be served in 30 minutes or less.

Technomic EVP Darren Tristano says the survey points to strong opportunities for Canadian chains. “Canadian operators are in a great position to drive lunchtime traffic by offering flexible lunch options, or perhaps by simply making consumers aware of options they don’t yet know are available. The casual dining marketplace is not as saturated in Canada as it is in the U.S, so chains that are able to position themselves well in this day part could really develop an advantage.”

To help operators and manufacturers stay on top of casual-dining trends and evolving consumer needs, Technomic has developed the Future of Casual Dining: Canadian Consumer Trend Report.

Interesting findings include:

  • About a quarter of consumers say they visit traditional casual-dining restaurants once a week or more.
  • Four of five consumers who say they have been patronizing specific locations based on promotional offers as a way to cut back at traditional and upscale casual-dining restaurants indicate they will continue doing so even after a fully realized economic recovery.
  • Consumers expect continuous innovation at casual-dining chains, with more than two in five upscale casual-dining customers and one in three consumers who visit traditional casual-dining restaurants indicating it is very important that these locations offer menu items and limited time offers featuring new and unique flavours.

Canada’s Top 200 restaurant chains improve results, face continued challenges

September 26, 2011

The Top 200 Canadian Restaurant Chains, which account for over $25 billion and nearly 60 percent of the Canadian commercial restaurant industry’s total sales, experienced a $741 million, or 3 percent increase in sales in 2010. While that number is an improvement over 2009, it does reflect an industry still operating in a difficult economic environment. Unit growth was modest, with the net addition of 73 new restaurants, down from 290 net new units in 2009.  

“The industry is continuing to grow. But looking at a breakdown within the Top 200 chains we see that just less than half had positive growth, while 86 of the Top 200 chains experienced declining sales,” says Technomic EVP Darren Tristano. “The key for operators is to understand where that growth is occurring and implement lessons learned throughout the industry into their own business models.”

To help those aligned with the Canadian foodservice industry stay abreast of opportunities and trends, Technomic has teamed with Kostuch Media to release the Top 200 Canadian Chain Restaurant Report.

Findings include:

  • Tim Horton’s continued to lead the Canadian foodservice industry in terms of both sales and units. McDonald’s and Subway both outpaced Tim Horton’s sales growth, but came in second and third respectively in terms of total sales.
  • Of the Top 200 chains, 91 experienced growth in 2010. A total of 17 chains grew at a rate greater than 20 percent, 14 grew between 10 and 20 percent, and 60 chains grew between 0 and 9 percent. 23 chains had sales that were flat from 2009 to 2010.
  • New entrants into the Top 200 include a broad variety of restaurants. Midscale family style restaurants, limited service, fast casual and traditional casual dining chains are all represented by new entrants into the Top 200.

Modest executive compensation increases are helping restaurant chains maintain revenue growth

September 26, 2011

As executive compensation in the banking and financial sectors continues to come under fire, Technomic’s newly released Public Chain and Executive Compensation Performance Reportshows only a modest .04 percent increase in median cash income for executives at the 60 publicly-traded chain restaurant companies.

Total revenues of the 60 public restaurant chain companies included in this report were up 3 percent in 2010 with total net incomes increasing 21 percent.

Restaurants were able to increase the median total compensation of executives at a rate of 8.4 percent using long-term incentives, stock options and non-equity incentive plans to reward performance.

Technomic EVP Darren Tristano says the restaurant industry seems to be doing a better job than others when it comes to tying executive compensation to revenue growth. “The industry gets high marks in terms of aligning the compensation drivers with the company objectives and tying compensation with meaningful performance,” says Tristano. He also points out that the past few years have seen a large increase in non-equity incentive plans, with 33 of the CEOs in the report receiving that type of compensation as part of their pay.

The Public Chain and Executive Compensation Performance Report provides comprehensive financial data on 60 public chain restaurant companies, complete with user-friendly indexes and company profiles. Operators can use this benchmarking tool to compare their performance with competitors on four vital dimensions: size, profitability, growth and productivity. The executive compensation analysis provides an in-depth look at executive compensation practices among these companies.

Additional findings include:

  • Total 2010 CEO compensation ranged from a high of $21.7 million to a low of $97,332.
  • The 60 companies included in the report employ over 1.8 million people, a 1.3 percent increase from 2009.

Poultry has room for growth on breakfast menus

September 26, 2011

Consumers recently polled by Technomic say they eat chicken more frequently than any other type of meat. Yet despite this high rate of consumption, consumers indicate that opportunities still exist for new poultry applications, particularly at breakfast.  

Twenty-five percent of chicken consumers say they would very likely order chicken breakfast sandwiches at restaurants if they were available. The numbers are slightly higher for turkey-eating consumers, with 29 percent saying they would likely order breakfast sandwiches or burritos featuring turkey sausage or bacon.

“Poultry is a very versatile protein that can be positioned in a number of ways for different day parts,” says Technomic EVP Darren Tristano. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of turkey items on breakfast menus, and also some high-profile additions of chicken items at breakfast. If you look at consumers who eat turkey at least occasionally, 22 percent say they are eating it more now for breakfast than they were two years ago, so there is clearly an opportunity.”

To help food industry professionals stay abreast of current issues and evolving consumer need-states in the poultry category, Technomic has developed the Center of the Plate: Poultry Consumer Trend Report.

Findings include:

  • For poultry, attributes related to fat content resonate most strongly with consumers as an indicator of healthfulness, and call-outs related to natural processing—especially those that state a lack of additives such as steroids or hormones—are most likely to increase consumer price thresholds.
  • When it comes to chicken, limited-service menus put barbecue flavored sandwiches at the forefront, while garlic is the top flavor for full-service chicken entrées.
  • Humane animal treatment and environmentally sound practices are of increasing importance to consumers, with more than 50 percent now indicating both of those items as important to them.
  • Both limited- and full-service restaurants have increased their use of turkey on the breakfast menu since 2008, positioning turkey sausage and bacon as a lighter, more healthful alternative to pork.

Fast-casual restaurant growth continues to outpace rest of industry

September 26, 2011

Restaurant operators continue to face challenges caused by the recession and slow pace of the ensuing recovery, with cost pressures and declines in consumer dining making growth difficult to sustain. Fast-casual chains seem perfectly positioned for the prevailing economic and social climate.

The category continued to outpace the restaurant industry as a whole in 2010, with the Top 100 fast-casual chains growing 6 percent to nearly $18.9 billion, a faster rate than in 2009. Total units grew 3.9 percent to 15,827, which is slightly slower than the prior year, but still faster than any other dining segment.

Technomic’s 2011 Top 100 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report provides rankings, analysis and profiles of the leading chains, and helps chain operators and foodservice suppliers understand emerging trends and players in today’s fastest growing segment.

Select findings include:

  • The Mexican menu category overtook bakery café/bagel restaurants as the most prevalent type of fast-casual restaurant in the Top 100 last year. Bakery cafés did, however, continue to lead all menu categories in terms of total U.S. system wide sales in 2010, driven primarily by its largest player, Panera Bread. 
  • The fastest growing menu categories for the Top 100 fast-casual chains were “Better Burger” (up 16.1 percent), Asian/noodle (up 10.1 percent) and Mexican (up 9 percent).
  • Fast-casual menus are differentiating themselves through adult beverages. While they still have more room to grow, beer, wine or spirits are now sold in nearly 40 percent of fast-casual chains.  
  • Panera Bread remained the sales leader among all fast-casual chains, with 2010 sales nearly over $2.9 billion, a 4.3 percent increase from 2009. Its U.S. units increased 5.5 percent to 1,376.
  • Chipotle Mexican Grill held onto the number two spot, growing sales a whopping 20.7 percent to $1.8 billion, and units 13.5 percent to 1,084 locations.

“This category has essentially blown through the recession without skipping a beat,” says Technomic EVP Darren Tristano. “The real pressures are now coming from other types of concepts that have taken note and are positioning themselves alongside their fast-casual counterparts. Quick-service restaurants are revamping their offerings and décor in an attempt to provide value beyond low prices and take back market share.” Tristano also points out that increased competition is becoming a concern, as new concepts continue to establish themselves and compete in the fast-casual marketplace.


Lower calorie items gaining momentum on restaurant menus

September 26, 2011

As America ramps up its fight against bulging waist lines, restaurant chains are providing ammunition in the form of great-tasting menu items with 550 or fewer calories. The trend not only caters to increasing consumer demand for such items, but also helps restaurants prepare for the implementation of pending legislation that will require any brand operating twenty or more units to display nutritional information for all permanent menu items.

Technomic EVP Darren Tristano says restaurants have become more adept at positioning these menu items to consumers. “If you can menu these lighter items in a way that does not make consumers feel as though they are sacrificing flavor or satisfaction, they will be more likely to order them. You can tout them as savory and delicious, as well as better for you, rather than picking just one aspect over another.”

New menu items that contain less than 550 calories include:

  • La Madeleine – Shrimp and Tilapia Provençal – 460 calories
  • Friendly’s – Half Turkey Club SuperMelt Sandwich and Garden Salad – 420 calories
  • Logan’s Roadhouse – 6 oz Filet Mignon under 550 calories
  • Carvel Ice Cream – Low Fat Sundae Dishes under 300 Calories
  • Mimi’s Café – Veggie Burger with Fresh Fruit – 364 calories
  • Taco Cabana – Build-Your-Own Cabana Bowl. Four under 400 Calories
  • Fazoli’s – New Mini Bakes – 400 Calories
  • Carl’s Jr. – Charbroiled Guacamole Turkey Burger – 490 Calories
  • Z’Tejas –Turkey Jalapeño Wrap – Under 550 Calories

Premium and natural descriptors resonate with consumers of beef and pork menu items

September 26, 2011

Nearly two out of three consumers recently surveyed by Technomic say they think beef and pork products labeled or menued with premium descriptors such as grass-fed, lean, organic or natural will taste better than other beef and pork products that do not carry these same labels. Terms describing premium types and cuts of meat had a strong influence on perception of flavor and price thresholds, while terms describing natural farming and preparation were likely to influence consumers’ perception of healthfulness.

“Consumers have gained familiarity in the retail sector with descriptions of beef and pork products denoting them as premium,” says Technomic EVP Darren Tristano. “Now as they visit restaurants, they are carrying those experiences with them and seeking out quality cuts, breeds, and preparation through descriptors on the menu.”

To help food industry professionals stay abreast of how the current issues and evolving consumer need-states impact the beef and pork categories, Technomic has developed the Center of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report.

Findings include:

  • Among consumers who do not eat meat regularly, health is the number one deterrent. Interestingly, many consumers feel that lean and extra lean cuts of meat actually taste better while also being healthier.
  • New menu trends on the horizon for beef and pork include Asian and Caribbean culinary influences, as well as upscale positioning for urban barbecue concepts.
  • Consumers crave more variety from the pork offerings at restaurants and indicate that they would order pork dishes more often if these needs were satisfied.