CHICAGO — Menus are shrinking in size, but appetizers are on the rise. A recent report from Datassential, Chicago, suggests the surge in starters stems from an increase in sharing and snacking behaviors among restaurant customers.
“Millennials in general tend to be more engaged with new things, and certainly the sharing and grazing aspect is probably highly appealing to millennials since they are a snacking group, but I don’t think it’s a trend that’s only driven by millennials,” said Jennifer Aranas, project director at Datassential.
Appetizers may typically feature more adventurous flavors because they represent less of a commitment to consumers than a main dish, she added. Bold spices such as serrano, harissa, sriracha, habanero, and chimichurri are trending in first-course fare.
“Consumers feel like they’re not risking too much if they try things with a strange flavor or a strong flavor they haven’t had before,” Aranas said. “They can share, so they don’t have to eat the whole thing themselves if they have an entree.”
Wings are the most common item on appetizer menus, followed by french fries, jalapeño poppers and calamari.
“The faster growing items are non-fried things, like lettuce wraps, which had double-digit growth, ahi tuna as an ingredient, hummus, meatballs and flatbreads,” Aranas noted.
Seasons play a role in appetizer ingredients. Popular spring flavors include asparagus, artichokes, barbecue chicken, and fontina. Pulled pork, zucchini, pepper jack, pineapple and coconut shrimp are hot in the summertime. In the fall, garlic bread, roasted corn, sweet potato fries and chipotle ranch are more common. Wintertime appetizers are likely to feature apple, hickory, poblano, horseradish and green beans.
Also growing on appetizer menus are premium cheeses, including tellagio, burrata and chevre; seafood, led by scallops, smoked salmon and ceviche; and flavorful preparations, such as adobo, stone-ground, glazed, curried and pickled.
“From a descriptor standpoint, vegan actually tops the list with 61 percent growth over the past year,” Aranas said.
Other trending terms include “heirloom,” “artisan,” “micro” and “build-your-own.”
“Certainly, that customizable aspect is a thing consumers really like, like a build-your-own flatbread, which customers may not have as an option for an entree pizza,” Aranas said.
Small plates have become a key component of appetizer menus, with 22 percent of top restaurant chains offering them. Examples include mini bratwurst sliders at Gordon Biersch Brewery and Restaurant, an olive and cheese plate at Olive Garden, and a mini crab and avocado stack at Outback Steakhouse.
Tailgate classics with culinary twists also are gaining traction. The warm spinach artichoke dip at Mimi’s Café features aged Parmesan cheese and chopped kale with house-made tortilla chips, and the Smoldering Santa Fe wings at Buffalo Wild Wings have guajillo, chipotle and jalapeño peppers.
What do consumers seek in their starting lineup? Great taste tops the list of important attributes for an away-from-home appetizer for 84 percent of consumers, followed by value (72 percent), quality of options (72 percent), cost (72 percent), and visual appeal (69 percent), according to Datassential. Restaurant patrons also pick items they don’t typically prepare at home.
For half of consumers, cost is the primary barrier to skipping this section on the menu. Nearly a third of respondents said they don’t have a large enough appetite for a pre-course and main course.
“Operators could market it to capture different occasions for people to eat,” Aranas said. “Capturing that snacking occasion instead of trying to grab that extra dish off of them, whether it’s an appetizer or dessert, but get someone in who maybe isn’t coming in for dinner but may be looking for something to snack on in the afternoon or mid-morning and capitalize on that smaller menu for meal parts that they don’t have traffic in.”