The composition of the modern American meal is pretty well established. The main dish/side dish/beverage/dessert formula hasn’t changed appreciably in eons, and though occasional upstarts surface to challenge this sequence from time to time (think small plates, one-pot meals, sharing menus, and tapas), the basic arrangement seems pretty stable and generally well suited to our appetites and mealtime rituals.
You’ll notice I said “stable,” not “stale.” That’s because, within each meal subcategory of the modern meal, there are mini-revolutions brewing. Having incorporated endless reinterpretations of sandwiches, salads, burgers, burritos, pizzas, and pastas on the entrée end to countless varieties of soft drinks and coffee- and tea-based beverages, quick-serve and fast-casual menus have been anything but static in recent years.
Side dishes, on the other hand, haven’t quite kept pace. Fried potatoes remain the default side at many concepts, and while options have expanded somewhat since the 1980s, I believe this section of the plate is ready to break out in a big way, thanks to some culinary trends that are already brewing and to chains’ need to find creative ways to grow transactions and check totals. Here are a few suggestions on where to start digging.
Get back to the garden. In 2011, the NPD Group surveyed Americans to find out which side dishes were most popular at home. Surprisingly, vegetables came out on top, with potatoes, breads, and rice trailing fairly far behind. If, like me, you tend to think of the U.S. as a nation of starch-eaters, this was an eye-opener. And if you’re a menu developer, it opens doors to many interesting side-dish options as diners grow ever wiser to the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables for better health.
Today, plates at high-end and midscale restaurants are frequently adorned with interesting greens and leafy vegetables—kale, chard, mustard greens, broccolini, endive, fennel, radicchio, broccoli rabe, and Brussels sprouts, to name a few. The leafier items on this list lend themselves well to salads, sautéed dishes, and stir-fries, while Brussels sprouts are being grilled or pan-fried, seasoned, and served as a solo dish just about everywhere in the white-tablecloth world at the moment. Various types of peppers, eggplant, and squash are also seeing an uptick in popularity, if their ubiquity at farmers’ markets around the country is any indication. It seems inevitable that some major chain will one day soon offer fried zucchini chips, tempura-style vegetables, or some other fast-food-friendly variant alongside fries and onion rings. But to my knowledge, it hasn’t happened in a big way quite yet.
Go beyond standard grains. A September Wall Street Journal article noted that some consumers are revolting against quinoa creep—the sneaking sensation that this increasingly prominent ancestral grain has become too big, too fast. But while some foodies are up in arms, the rest of us simply marvel at quinoa’s versatility, delicate flavor, and near-peerlessness as an accompaniment to rival rice. And if variety and novelty in grains are the goals, it may also pay to investigate the likes of amaranth, farro, barley, bulgur, wheat berries, khorasan wheat, and freekah, green wheat that’s oven-dried, ground into flour, and great in salads, soups, and pilafs. Despite the exotic names, none of these grains would strike the average quick-serve consumer as terribly strange or foreign, making them interesting sources of potential inspiration for menu professionals.
Get comfortable. Comfort foods have for years been a source of solace to consumers in every demographic, in every corner of the country. And with a few tweaks, some of the most notable comfort-food favorites can be adapted for creative deployment on quick-serve and fast-casual menus.
If the goal is a healthier twist on comfort-food staples, R&D teams could consider adding fried chickpea fritters and bites to their traditional french-fry and onion-ring offerings. If the chief aim is novelty and differentiation, then something as simple as mixing in brown butter with your mashed potatoes can make a world of difference. Hash browns are just hash browns, unless you give them the Swiss rösti treatment, which entails adding extras such as fresh herbs, bacon, onions, cheeses, or apple. And if we wander over to the increasingly wide world of mac and cheese, the variants are almost too numerous to mention. At a concept called Homeroom in Oakland, California, the options include a Mexican mac and cheese made with chorizo, chipotles, Jack cheese, and cilantro, and a special creation called Mac the Goat, with sliced scallions, breadcrumbs, olive oil, and, of course, goat cheese.
Take the potato out for a spin. At the end of the day, of course, the mighty potato still has a place in our fast-food and fast-casual dining worlds. But let’s give it a little spin, shall we? Maybe it’s time to explore poutine, the French-Canadian favorite traditionally made with cheese curds and gravy; instead of a blanket of gravy, try flavoring with various oils and herbs, or Thai hot sauce, enchilada sauce, or blue cheese.
Varietal potatoes are also all the rage in upper-end dining, from fingerlings to red, purple, and Yukon Gold varieties, all of which can be prepared in a vast range of different and interesting ways. While they’re not technically potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams are also likable alternatives to the standard tuber. We’ve seen them already in fries; where might they turn up next?
Any or all of these notions may be worth exploring if you’re eager to make side dishes a main focus of your forthcoming product-development efforts. From where I sit, the opportunities, and the potential rewards, look more enticing than ever.