When it comes to menu invention, the ceiling is the roof, as Michael Jordan might say. Adventurous consumers, increased access to lesser-known ingredients, and chef influence have created the perfect storm for bold flavors, daring carriers, and an elevated dining experience. Brands are creating Instagram-worthy dishes while also welcoming ugly, weird, and once-rejected ingredients.
Limited-service concepts have also become more adept in how they promote their menus and tailor the dining experience to fit the fare.
Many of these ideas are part of a growing movement (clean-label foods, mobile ordering, seasonal specials), while others are on the fringe (sous-vide cooking and the so-called Unicorn Melts). This list is far from exhaustive, but think of it as a jumping-off point for taking your menu—and therefore your whole concept—to the next level.
Push the ceiling to the roof, and then break through the roof. The sky is the limit.
1. Bring the streets indoors: Anthony Bourdain is soon to open an entire market of vendors hawking street food, but restaurants like Hai Street Kitchen in Philly and Piada out of Ohio have already beat him to the punch.
2. Love your leftovers: From carrot and beet greens to cheese rinds and aquafaba (thick liquid leftover from cooking beans), once-discarded scraps are finding new life.
3. Better your booze: Concepts going after the evening crowd are expanding their libations beyond generic beer and wine, adding cocktails, kombucha, and more.
4. Add a health halo: Beverage ingredients with purported health benefits, such as fresh-pressed juices and wheatgrass, give a green light to consumers who want to indulge—in moderation.
5. Abandon the daypart paradigm: The unflagging hit that is all-day breakfast opens the door to other meal occasion mixes. Dessert at noon? Snacks for dinner? Rules don’t apply.
6. Put the secret in the sauce: The condiments and dressings of yore are getting fancy updates. Just look at San Francisco–based Souvla’s “Granch” dressing made with Greek yogurt, or by CHLOE’s beet ketchup.
7. Invite the vegans: No need to ditch the burgers and cheese. Consumers aren’t going vegan or vegetarian in droves, but they are incorporating more veg-friendly foods into their diets. 8. Still mete out peculiar proteins: Quick serves are looking beyond the chicken-beef-pork trifecta to more off-the-wall animal proteins. Twisted Root Burger in Dallas dishes everything from venison and elk to alligator and kangaroo.
9. Push fusion 2.0: A decade ago, Mexican-Korean was a novelty, but today it’s more of the norm. The new class of fusion combines cuisines not usually found in quick service. Chicago’s 5411 Empanadas includes French flavors like the savory ratatouille, and sweet banana and Nutella in the traditional Argentine carrier.
10. Embrace old: Mintel named “ancient” products as a top trend for 2017. The trend is cropping up across the country in diverse iterations, from Flower Child’s liberal use of ancient grains like hempseeds, quinoa, and red japonica rice to Farmer’s Keep’s create-your-own kombucha in Philadelphia.
11. Tune up your toppers: Atlanta-based Farm Burger offers roasted bone marrow as an indulgent topping, while Nathan’s Famous finishes one of its specialty hot dogs with macaroni and cheese and toasted Italian breadcrumbs.
12. Move sides to the spotlight: Fries and puny salads once comprised quick service’s selection of sides, but side-centric concepts like Dig Inn encourage customers to build full meals of multiple sides.
13. Challenge taste conventions: It’s not just a sweet-and-savory game anymore. 14. Go sour: Already present in beloved dishes like barbecue and coleslaw, the sharp and tangy taste is getting more play thanks to increased demand for pickled foods, sour beers, and vinegary flavor 15. Be bitter: Like sour, the more nuanced taste is finding traction through an uptick in bitter greens, hoppy brews, and artisan cocktails. 16. Understand umami: First classified more than a century ago, the fifth taste has become a buzzword in recent years (West Coast chain Umami Burger even incorporated it into its name). Chefs and menu innovators who want to make guests salivate need look no further than this savory-meaty taste.
17. Snag a chef: The future belongs to the foodies, as exemplified by a host of chef-driven fast casual 2.0s. But even more established brands could benefit from a little chef guidance.
18. Wow with weird: Never had lengua (beef tongue) or cookie dough hummus? Brands like Uno Dos Tacos and The Hummus & Pita Co., respectively, are embracing the bizarre.
19. Utilize ugly: Like weird ingredients, “ugly” foods get their due at concepts such as Misfit Juicery, which sources fruit and veggie rejects.
20. Think beyond the Happy Meal: Like their parents, many children today have broader, more adventurous palates. Build-your-own concepts give kids the freedom to choose their flavors, while other restaurants, like Grown in Miami, put a healthy spin on staples like chicken tenders and pasta.
21. Add an exotic kick: Gochujang, truffle salt, za’atar, sumac—oh my. The spice rack keeps expanding.
22. Steal from the other coast: Dos Toros brings a California twist to tacos in New York, while Bruxie introduces Angelenos to the Southern staple of fried chicken and waffles.
23. Follow the seasons—to a degree: Consumers want local, in-season fare, but not at the expense of certain menu staples. Long live the banana and avocado.
24. Have taste buds, will travel: Chopt takes guests on a culinary journey with its Destination Salads like the Beekeeper’s Quinoa Bowl, inspired by the Pacific Northwest.
25. Offer healthy indulgences: California-based Kye’s bakes a vegan brownie that’s 70 percent made of black beans, and North Carolina’s Living Kitchen deploys fresh coconut, cashews, and a chocolate-pecan crust to make a more wholesome caramel Turtle Cake. 26. Or go over the top with sinful sweets: In the world of extremes, consumers are either searching for healthy desserts or the embodiment of all extravagances. Case in point: New York’s OddFellows stuffs its signature ice creams and toppings in a brioche bun.
27. Bring fat back: Consumers are rethinking the long-maligned nutrient thanks to good fats from sources like avocados, olive oil, fish, and nuts.
28. Find a new carrier: Better-burger concepts offer lettuce “buns” while Miami-based Pincho Factory’s puts its sandwiches and burgers between two tostones (fried plantains).
29.Beware of bubbles: Cupcakes and fro-yo boomed and busted. Now fast-casual pizza and poke are ballooning, making points of differentiation all the more critical. 30. Get a game-changer: Even concepts in unsaturated categories would do well to find a memorable point of differentiation—whether it’s the oh-so-colorful “Unicorn Melt” grilled cheese at Chomp Eatery in California or a limited-time doughnut with foie gras icing at Rise Biscuits Donuts in North Carolina.
31. Clean up ingredients: With quick-service titans like McDonald’s, Papa John’s, and Chick-fil-A nixing everything from artificial preservatives to antibiotic-treated meats, the clean is on.
32. Take it to go: A number of fast casuals are building sushi rolls burrito-style to improve portability. Similarly, Kono To-Go puts pizza in an edible cone and New York’s Spaghetti Incident nestles its pasta in a paper cone.
33. Turn up the heat: Popeyes served its Red Stick Chicken in 2015, KFC took Nashville Hot chicken nationwide in 2016, and the temperature is going to continue to rise.
34. Abandon authentic: For as much as consumers want classic dishes, they’re also drawn to brands that break with tradition. Rather than following an established barbecue creed, Mighty Quinn’s whipped up its own New York style.
35. Savor Asian-inspired sweets: Western Europe has long defined the dessert scene stateside, but Americans are familiarizing themselves with sweets from the Far East: bubble tea in exotic flavors like taro, fruit-sweetened sticky rice, and gai daan jai, a Hong Kong–style waffle cone.
36. Come together: No restaurant is an island, and creative collaboration can improve menus all around. Dig Inn and Luke’s Lobster teamed up for a summer Lobster Bake LTO and Mimi Cheng’s brought a vegan dumpling to neighboring by CHLOE.
37. Couple non-complementary items: Chicken and waffles may be the trend origin of combining intuitive opposites, but it’s hardly the last. In Massachusetts, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese enlivens its grilled cheese with guacamole. Overseas, the couplings are even crazier: Japan-based German restaurant Schmatz topped its thin-crust pizza with cherry blossom–flavored cotton candy.
38. Look above and below: The restaurant industry is a fluid space in which a fine-dining restaurant can elevate food-truck fare and a festival vendor can riff on a lavish dish. Wonderfully situated in the middle, limited-service operators can easily pull inspiration from both sides.
39. Slow down with sous vide: Using a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch, sous vide takes longer than conventional cooking techniques, but delivers a juicier, more consistent product. Arby’s has used the sous vide process on its pork belly and chicken, and Starbucks just recently introduced its Sous Vide Egg Bites.
40. Work by hand: Whether it’s building a bowl or kneading a pizza, consumers are looking for an expertly crafted meal.
41. Hand-pull meats: Capriotti’s employees roast whole turkeys overnight and then hand-pull the meat the next morning.
42. Hand-roll ice cream: Part flavor extravaganza, part exhibition, Thai-style rolled ice cream is the heir apparent of brands like Cold Stone Creamery.
43. Go really retro: Fast casual 2.0 Choolaah Indian BBQ equips each of its location with tandoor ovens; the traditional cooking method dates back millennia.
44. Fry friendly: Amid consumer concerns over the low smoke points of some oils, restaurants are opting for sturdier options like high-oleic canola and sunflower oil for frying.
45. Pickle it: No longer restricted to cukes, restaurants are pickling everything from onions and peppers to berries and watermelon rinds. 46. Consider fermentation: A form of pickling, fermentation has become something of a fast-casual darling, with brands serving everything from kombucha and sour beers to kimchi and ceviche.
47. Add some jive to your java 48. Barrel-age it: Once the domain of wine and spirits, coffeehouses are giving coffee the same distinctive treatment.49. Add nitrogen: Molecular gastronomy first broke out in fine dining, then trickled into frozen treats. Now brands like Starbucks are infusing coffee with nitrogen, delivering a silky-smooth brew. 50. Enlist the robots: Although IBM’s Chef Watson isn’t working the back of house just yet, CaliBurger Kitchen has Flippy, a robotic kitchen assistant who helps flip burgers. Yelp Eat24 is also deploying Marble’s delivery automaton to the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District.
51. Smoke it yourself: To produce the juiciest, most flavorful meats, restaurants like Billy Sims BBQ are smoking their cuts in-house.
52. Tell a story: Nothing says authentic like an origin story. At Mimi Cheng’s, each dumpling has a personal tale from sisters Hannah and Marian Cheng.
53. Refresh the lingo: Overused descriptors like sustainable and local are giving way to transparent, ethically raised, and simple.
54. Educate through apps: Just as Netflix and Spotify make suggestions based on past selections, smart apps introduce diners to new menu items based on their preferences.
55. Canvas your customers: Crowdsourcing new menu items never took off, but smart brands know consumers still want to be involved. Just look at Pincho Factory; its fans created a change.org petition to bring back its award-winning Croquetesa Burger.
56. Add social value: Consumer spending is inextricably linked to consumer values, so the restaurant that donates a portion of its sales to a charity, commits to an eco-friendly operation, or supports local suppliers already has a leg up.
57. Make it Insta-worthy: Flavor is paramount, but appearance is not to be overlooked. According to Facebook IQ, 66 percent of frequent diners were enticed to visit fast-food restaurants by their friends’ Instagram posts.
58. Set the table: No need to go full cotillion, but pretty plating and actual silverware enhance the overall dining aesthetic.
59. Make ’em laugh: No one likes a restaurant that takes itself too seriously. Dos Toros keeps customers engaged and amused with its character Pinto the Burrito, who photobombs celebrities and special events on his own Instagram account.
60. Pack it up: Consumer-packaged goods can help regional brands expand their scope. Whataburger’s chips, pancake mixes, and condiments can be found at H-E-B grocery stores, while Lolo’s Seafood Shack in New York City is working to bring its sauces to Whole Foods, something Cava Grill did with its hummus.
61. Do the festival circuit: Coolhaus first introduced fans to its funky, architecture-inspired ice cream sandwiches at Coachella, while Sweetgreen invites local food vendors to sell its wares at the annual Sweetlife Festival.
62. Zero in: Rather than dubbing a menu item “East Coast–style,” go for specifics. Every sandwich on the menu of D.C. independent SUNdeVICH is a different city, from Athens (lamb, sumac onions, and tzatziki) to Zurich (arugula, gruyere, and apple compote).
63. Be upfront: Customers will forgive shortcomings, such as not being able to always source local or organic ingredients, but they will not forgive—nor forget—a misleading menu. That’s why brands like Grabbagreen differentiate organic from non-organic items.
BACK OF HOUSE
64. Bring in an expert: The limited-service sector continues to break barriers with inventive dishes, and sometimes that calls for a specialist. For example, Dog Haus tapped chef and Food Network star Adam Gertler as its würstmacher.
65. Understand allergies and intolerances: In the age of specialized diets, customers have come to expect information on dishes containing common allergens like shellfish and nuts, as well as intolerances like gluten and dairy. 66. Advertise allergen-free offerings: Restaurants with the ability to serve allergen-free foods should celebrate and promote those options. 67. Cross-train staff: Cashiers and line cooks don’t need to switch jobs, but ensuring every staff member is familiar with the restaurant’s menu, mission, and operations makes for quicker and more accurate throughput. 68. Encourage team innovation: More often than not, the best new menu ideas come from the people who work with the food every day. At Illinois-based Hewn Bakery, crewmembers suggested mixing leftover croissants into its almond cream and using surplus brownies in a chocolate-swirl challah bread. 69. Make education proportional to complexity: A chef-driven fast casual will require more extensive staff training than a Subway or Pizza Hut. 70. But don’t make it too complicated: Customers are willing to wait longer for a high-quality meal, but menu items should not eliminate the speed cornerstone of the limited-service industry.
71. Take a cue from Chick-fil-A: Study after study gives the chicken chain top marks for customer service. No matter how good the food tastes, a bad encounter will sour the menu.
72. Invite customer creation: Fast casual was built on brands like Chipotle welcoming customers to build their own burritos, bowls, and more. That DIY trend has, not surprisingly, become ubiquitous. 73. Provide guardrails: Even build-your-own concepts should offer menu guidance, whether it’s steering guests away from a bad combination or suggesting other ingredients.
74. Release the runners: Limited service has long lacked the quality control of full service. Deploying table runners, especially for the dinner crowd, can provide that touch point.
75. Go to market: The tired buffet gets new life at brands like California’s Lemonade, where guests pick sides and proteins as team members assemble their plates behind the make line.
76. Cater to the kiddies: Some operators are going a step beyond healthy children’s menus. Nékter Juice Bar cofounder Alexis Schulze wrote a children’s book, Sneaky Spinach, to encourage healthier eating habits.
77. Dare to drive thru: Hardly a novel idea, the drive thru has been a defining feature of quick service for decades. But emerging concepts like Bryn + Dane’s and Start: Real Food Fast are garnering praise thanks to better-for-you menus in the classic drive-thru format.
78. Expand your meal occasions: Limited service will never leave lunch behind, but operators are glimpsing new opportunities in breakfast, dinner, and even snack times in between. 79. But still make adjustments: Everything from daypart-specific dishes to softer mood lighting at night kicks up a restaurant’s meal occasion dexterity. Atlanta-based MetroFresh not only dims the lights at night, but it also adds candles, cloth linens, and china to the table.
80. Deliver the goods: The on-demand era means consumers expect the full menus of their favorite restaurants delivered right to their doorstep.
81. Act on impulse: Customers might not be diving for packaged potato chips and candy as in years past, but operators still have an opportunity to upsell with premium items, like Corner Bakery does with house-baked, counter-side pastries.
82. Build a new value proposition: The days of nickel-and-dime discounts are long gone. Modern menus keep price in mind but drive the value message through quality and enhanced in-store experiences.
83. Suggest pairings: Another full-service flourish finding purchase in quick service is drink pairings. Smashburger hosts burger-beer events with brews spotlighting the local craft scene, while Your Pie recommends beer pairings for its pizzas.
84. Serve samples: Food court chains have had this strategy down for years, but it’s also a viable option for traditional-format brands, particularly those peddling unfamiliar dishes.
85. Make your own meal: The fledgling meal-kit sector hasn’t been cornered yet. Restaurant brands like Muscle Maker Grill have rolled out their own meal kits to challenge the likes of Blue Apron and HelloFresh.
86. Net a nutrition superstar: Freshii and Snap Kitchen are driving their health-forward menus with the help of in-house dieticians who can educate and field questions from consumers.
87. Order and pay ahead: Placing orders online (usually through a proprietary app) can speed throughput for the back of house and cut wait time for the customer. 88. But don’t forget the rest of your guests: As Starbucks recently discovered, too much line cutting by customers who ordered ahead left others with an unsatisfying experience.
89. Partner with a third-party service: Not all brands have the time or manpower to create a delivery arm to their business. Tech outfits like Postmates, GrubHub, and now Amazon can fill the gap while ensuring menu items stay fresh en route.
90. Mine big data: Whether analyzing the success of LTO items or storing individual customer preferences through loyalty programs, big data is now an indispensible tool in menu development and evolution.
91. Install a kiosk: Panera’s push toward kiosks not only increased efficiency, but it also simplified customization. Plus, kiosks that employ visuals could entice guests to try new options.
92. Turn TVs into jumbotrons: Video screens can double as in-house marketing channels for restaurants to show off the most visually stunning menu items or aggregate guests’ photos and social media posts.
93. Drone on: While not a viable delivery source (at least not yet), drone technology can be a unique marketing tool at special events such as sports, where the devices bring meals straight to attendees.
94. Invest in equipment: Specialty brands can pay it forward with top-of-the-line equipment—as demonstrated by a number of fast-casual pizzerias purchasing custom-built wood-fired ovens.
95. Better know your farmer: It’s been decades since Berkeley, California’s Chez Panisse began calling out its farm partners on its menus. The trend has since trickled down to limited service. 96. Better yet, buy a farm: The next wave of the farm-to-table movement brings concepts-cum-farms like b. good, Dig Inn, and Homegrown even closer to the source. 97. Explore indoor farming: Read about hydroponics and more here. 98. Or start more modestly with an herb garden: Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop takes advantage of California’s temperate climate with on-site chef gardens.
99. Look locally: Beyond partnering with local farmers and ranchers, brands are stocking specialty goods and condiments to complement their menus. Luke’s Lobster serves Maine Root sodas, while Cava brings in goods from D.C. neighbors like Gordy’s Pickle Jar and Whisked! Bakery.
100. Substitute supply: When it comes to supply shortages and price hikes, necessity is the mother of invention. The 2014 kale shortage spotlighted other leafy greens like collards and broccoli rabe, which are now mainstays on many a menu.
This story originally appeared in QSR's June 2017 issue with the title "100 Innovation Ideas."