CHICAGO – Rising costs for beef have pushed restaurant operators to find creative ways of offering proteins on their menus, according to Mintel, a market research firm. Protein alternatives were among the four trends Mintel identified that will impact the restaurant industry in 2013.

“Through extensive research and intelligence culled from our Menu Insights database and consumer surveys, we’ve narrowed down the four biggest foodservice trends that consumers and restaurant operators alike will be focusing on when it comes to nutrition, menus and new concepts,” said Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst at Mintel.

The rising cost of beef has outpaced other proteins. With consumer confidence still fragile, restaurant operators won’t impost drastic price hikes but they will be more creative with menus to help soften the blow of high ingredient prices in 2013, according to Mintel.

“This could mean more cuts like tri-tips or steaks or kabobs that use smaller pieces,” Hayden said. “It could also mean the premium treatment given to burgers that we've been seeing over the years is now being shifted to chicken sandwiches, and other chicken options are soaring into the market.”

Mintel has recorded a 52 percent increase in chicken breasts appearing as menu items, and turkey is showing potential as an alternative protein. Poultry is the most popular alternative to beef and differentiation will be key for restaurants. For example, everybody has a version of "chicken bites" including KFC, McDonald's and even Weinerschnitzel.

“There are so many chicken bites on the market that people need to individualize theirs and make them stand out with the sauces,” Hayden said.

Vegetarian menu items have increased 22 percent, which means pizzas, burritos and other entrees consumers are accustomed to seeing on menus are now available with in a meat-free option, she added.
Consumers will also see pulled meats such as pork and chicken come to the fore as a menu item, according to Mintel.

“It seems like barbecued or slowly cooked pork are the new nacho topper or even a pizza topper or on a plate of chili-type fries,” Hayden said. “It's an inexpensive way to use pork, and it adds value to a meal by making something that used to be a snack or a shareable a little more hearty.”

For example Ram Restaurant & Brewery is serving pulled pork potato skins and TGI Friday's offers pulled chicken breast on a flatbread.

But restaurants won’t abandon beef altogether, according to Mintel. Mixed protein entrees will increase and smaller or less expensive cuts of beef will receive gourmet treatment. For example, the focus on burgers has shifted from patty size to all of the extras, Hayden said.

Other trends impacting the food service industry include:

• An emphasis on clean labels. “While 2012’s ‘pink slime’ story may have simmered down, each new food safety scare leaves a residue that will continue for years to come,” Mintel said. “Growing consumer concern about food quality, processing and safety means that operators can’t cut corners when it comes to ingredient sourcing. And, whether it is ‘cage-free eggs’ or ‘made-on-premises,’ choosing the right menu language is as important as choosing the right ingredients in building customers’ trust.”

• Addressing 24/7 hunger. “From roaming food trucks to self-serve coffee kiosks and fancier vending machines, fresh, high quality food is available in more places and whenever customers want it,” according to Mintel. “Such all-access eating means that traditional restaurants need to adjust their business models and find ways to stay nimble to keep up with the many new ways people can feed their cravings.”

• Liquid assets. “Beverages have always been a reliable profit center for restaurants, but relying on these add-on sales isn’t as easy as pouring a big gulp any longer,” Mintel said. “Today’s gourmet cocktails, craft beers and super-nutritional juices and smoothies have raised expectations for the beverage category, and keeping up with the waves of innovation will become a vital part of all segments of the foodservice industry.”