Menu Innovations | April 2014 | By Barney Wolf

Pigging Out

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Pork's versatility, cost effectiveness propel its addition to menus.
Limited-time offers that include pork climbed 61 percent between 2012 and 2013 among quick-service and fast-casual brands, according to Technomic. noodles & co.
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Several of the chain’s units serve breakfast featuring hickory-smoked bacon and whole-hog sausage, but chorizo, a spicy Mexican sausage, was tested and rejected. “Our guests made it loud and clear they didn’t want anything over the top,” LaFauci says.

Chorizo is available at a handful of Moe’s Southwest Grill locations that serve the morning meal, but the company’s main pork item across the menu is meat pulled from a shoulder cut rubbed with spices and cooked slowly in a tomatillo-based sauce.

“It’s all about the tender, savory flavor of the pork,” says Pat Peterson, executive chef for the chain, based in Atlanta. “The verde sauce gives it an acidic brightness. There are real Southwestern notes, with brown sugar and garlic salt in the rub.”

Unlike heavier tomato-based barbecue sauces often used with pulled pork, “the tomatillo really lifts up the flavor,” he says. The company is looking at ways to use pulled pork in some new items and is considering chorizo for others.

El Pollo Loco, a quick-service restaurant company known for its Mexican-style chicken dishes, also has dabbled in pork. The chain featured pulled pork in several limited-time offers two years ago that did so well that they returned last year.

“We have the luxury of fitting in a spot in the market that appeals to both Hispanic guests and to the general population,” says Heather Gardea, executive chef and vice president of research and development for the Costa Mesa, California–based company.

“Pork plays well because it is traditional and harkens back to a homey aesthetic,” she adds. “For us, it’s a natural fit for tacos, quesadillas, and burritos.”

El Pollo Loco worked with different cuts of meats, spices, and marinades, layering flavors and textures to create flexible, but authentic, carnitas. A pork cushion was chosen because it provides “this great, deep flavor that develops over time,” Gardea says.

Pork is a major protein in a number of Asian nations, and it shows up in items like the egg rolls at Pei Wei Asian Diner, the barbecue pork baos at Wow Bao, and in pork and chicken meatballs at ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen.

Pizza makers have added a variety of new pork products, with many large and small players making pulled pork and chorizo part of their menus, which already include traditional varieties of sausage, bacon, meatballs, and pepperoni. Some fast-casual pizza operators have gone beyond that. Sbarro’s fast-casual brand, Pizza Cucinova, features toppings like prosciutto and soppressata, a dry Italian salami.

Pork products have been important to sandwich builders for years, and items such as ham, salami, and pepperoni remain popular among consumers. The three top-selling sandwiches at Firehouse Subs include pork, led by the Hook & Ladder, featuring Virginia honey ham from Smithfield Foods among its ingredients.

“Pork brings rich flavor,” says John Robertson, senior director of technical services for the Jacksonville, Florida–based sub chain. “The fat is great for the flavor and moisture.”

Firehouse Subs has also had success with pulled pork in LTOs, using meat from pork butts smoked by a vendor using hickory, pecan, mesquite, and oak woods. The pulled pork also will be part of a new regular sandwich, Thai Chile Pork, Robertson says.

The most popular sandwich at Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin–based Cousins Subs has long been the Ham and Provolone offering, while the most pork-centric is the Big Daddy, with two types of ham, cotechino bologna, Genoa salami, and pepperoni. Cousins has also featured home-state Johnsonville bratwurst in some limited-time specials and created others that use pulled pork.

“When we do LTOs, we usually run them in pairs, so we need something versatile,” says Justin McCoy, vice president of marketing.

One LTO duo last year included a sandwich with pulled pork and steak along with the Cubano, Cousins’ version of a Cuban sandwich, which included other traditional ingredients of that build: ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and dill pickles.

Several limited-service restaurants have looked to their own Cuban-inspired menu items, including Dunkin’ Donuts. Even Moe’s tried a Cuban-style burrito.

Newk’s Eatery, based in Jackson, Mississippi, launched a Cuban sandwich and two other limited-time offerings last fall featuring pork tenderloin that was hand-rubbed with spices and brined at the restaurants before being roasted and sliced.

“We started playing around with the idea of a pork product for a Cuban sandwich that also could be paired with our ‘Q’ white barbecue sauce in another sandwich,” says Alan Wright, vice president of marketing and franchise development for the fast-casual chain. “We also offered it in catering, so it was a great extension to our menu—a win-win-win for us. The pork had a lot of good customer comments, and we’re going to have some variation on it in the future.”

One innovative use of pork in the limited-service industry is the brown sugar roasted pork loin at Fresh To Order, an Atlanta-based fast casual with about a dozen locations. The loin, listed at the top of the chain’s long-plate menu, is house-brined and then crusted with brown sugar, olive oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper. After being roasted daily, the pork is carved to order and served with sweet mashed potatoes and apricot chutney.

“The pork does fantastically well” with those sides, says Jesse Gideon, the company’s chief operating officer and corporate chef. “It is easy to manage, with a great meaty texture. It provides very good plate coverage and great value, because it’s not expensive.”

There’s a smaller, appetizer-size version of the pork loin plate, and the meat does double duty in sandwiches, salads, and the Brunswick stew. The pork panini, for instance, also features sweet potato aioli, caramelized onions, lettuce, and two cheese varieties.

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