CARLSBAD, Calif. – During an April 17 session at the North American Meat Institute’s Management Conference, Patricia Johnson, global food analyst with Chicago-based Mintel Group Ltd., discussed the upwardly trending foodservice segment and the role of red meat on the menus of US restaurants.
“We’re in a positive mode,” Johnson said of the prospect of the year ahead for the foodservice industry, which has struggled since the recession that began about eight years ago. With estimates from the National Restaurant Association forecasting sales growth of approximately 3.8 percent in the coming year, fast-casual and quick-service segments will lead that growth.
“That, of course, is being driven by the millennial consumers who’ve really latched onto that segment,” she said.
She also attributed the onset of the recovery, which was especially notable in January of this year, to lower per-gallon gasoline prices, and the fact that consumers saving at the pump were more likely to eat out. The dormant desire of US consumers to eat out before January was stirred awake and they responded.
“When we get a little extra money in our pocket, we go out,” said Johnson, reflecting one of the trends she identified among today’s diners, which are driven largely by millennials and baby boomers.
Some of the menu trends Johnson shared, included an increase in demand for beef at fine dining and conversely in the fast-casual segment. Driving this trend are menu items that include beef as an ingredient in salads and beef as a staple at the growing number of “better burger” chains.
When it comes to beef featured on foodservice menus, more operators are including nutritional information and marketing claims. Cooking techniques are also more frequently highlighted, whether the item is grilled, smoked or seared.
“The consumer wants to know more,” said Johnson, adding that consumers also want to spend less in an era of record-high beef prices, which is evident in the smaller portion sizes of beef-based items on menus.
Meanwhile, any lull in beef consumption at foodservice outlets is being offset by the popularity of pork, due in large part to the recent drop in prices of pork seen by operators. However, traditional cuts of pork, including pork chops, are on the decline, according to Mintel data.
“Pork is being used more throughout the menu,” often as an ingredient, Johnson said. She added that the meteoric popularity of bacon, continues at foodservice. “It’s everywhere; it’s the highest mentioned item on the menu. We love bacon,” she said.
This uptick in pork includes the fine-dining segment, as charcuterie and artisan-type claims appeal to that dining audience as well as traditional, comfort food-based claims on menus.
“Pork is also the basis for a lot of ethnic foods around the world,” including, but not limited to Latin American and Asian fare. Chefs are answering the increased demand for preparation claims that include: shredded, roasted and braised.
Before menus are ever opened, factors that affect dining decisions have also evolved. Price-quantity factors are always a consideration as consumers decide where to dine, but other factors come into play in that decision. According to Johnson, those include:
• Convenience — saving time has become as important as saving money, in many cases;
• Health and wellness — consumers are drawn to a lifestyle, not a diet and they are more interested in the details of what they are eating;
• Customization — consumers want to have it their way;
• Ethnic cuisine is on the rise;
• Small plates and portions remain popular;
• Food participation — consumers use social media to research and decide on venues;
• Indulgence — consumers still like to indulge and ‘cheat’ occasionally and that option remains popular.