Industry insider Nancy Kruse has a sharp eye for identifying trends--and a knack for explaining how to implement them in ways that keep your menu fresh and profits strong. We chatted with her about the trends making headlines so far in 2016 to get her expert perspective on where the industry is going.


A handful of large companies have announced their efforts to clean up their menus over the last year or so. How have their updated “clean menus” performed so far?

Nancy Kruse: Because this is a very new phenomenon in the mass market, it’s a little early to say how clean menus have performed—most haven’t had time to build a track record. However, it’s important to note that consumer interest in clean foods is rising dramatically across the board. Technomic reports that 73% of consumers believe that antibiotic-free food is better for them, and Mintel says that 71% of consumers indicate preservative-free as very important. As a result, operators at all levels of the business have embraced the concept of clean, including major quick-service chains like McDonald’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell.

Do you think the consumer perception of locally sourced foods or “clean” ingredients has changed given recent contamination issues that ruled the headlines?

NK: I don’t know if the perception has changed, as much as it’s been reinforced for many consumers already interested in clean foods. Food scares may also drive more consumers into the clean camp, especially families with kids. They have become major targets for operators who are introducing clean-foods initiatives, like Papa John’s or Panera Bread. Both have made families a priority, because they recognize that clean ingredients represent transparency, and transparency equals trust.

How do you see the shift toward global flavors coming to life outside of more diverse and densely populated cities?

NK: I think that chains historically have represented the conduit by which unfamiliar foods and flavors move into the mainstream, especially in smaller and less diverse markets. They represent a safe environment in which to take a chance on the unfamiliar. The impact of the menu at, say, Olive Garden can be very far reaching as it introduces consumers to dishes like calamari, bruschetta or risotto. Asian foods continue to trend, and the Korean Cheesesteak with kimchi at Quizno’s Grill or the Kimchi Bowl at Freshii may act as door openers and encourage patrons to experiment further with more authentic foods.

Are there any ingredient trends or food phenomenons that have surprised you? Why?

NK: The return of animal fats has taken the industry by storm. It represents a remarkable confluence of factors, including the recent FDA ban on trans fats, rising consumer demand for less processed foods, and an overall reconsideration of the proper role of fats in our diet. The result has been a rediscovery of classic cooking agents like lard, beef tallow and especially butter, all of which had pretty much been demonized over the past 50 years. Butter in particular has been on the comeback trail, popping up all over at a wide range of operations like Burger King, Jack in the Box and McDonald’s.  It’s become a real promotional hot button.

It’s no longer enough to be just one thing: seasonally focused, sustainable, fast casual. How can restaurants assert their brand identity while still remaining flexible enough to adapt to changing palates and expectations?
NK: Restaurant brands that are successful in the long run are well positioned and align with customer demands and interests. As those demands evolve, the restaurant needs to evolve its menu and service systems accordingly. It seems to me that this requires management to do two things. First, to keep close tabs on what the customer base is looking for, and, second, to coordinate a response across functions, from R&D to operations, purchasing, marketing and finance in order to maintain clarity of vision and objectives.

What are your tips for making changes that are strategic and sustainable?

NK: Simply put, it begins and ends with the customers, whose expectations are shifting as they work through major disruptions like generational change, technological innovation and economic uncertainty. I think smart operators keep an eye on both the patron and the competition. They listen closely to input from their front line and executive team, and they test vigorously and rigorously before making changes to their core concept.