Bowls have long served Americans as a way to dine on some everyday foods, notably soups, salads, breakfast cereal, and desserts. But these days, limited-service restaurants have adopted bowls for a variety of entrées, especially those that guests can personalize.
“The ability to customize—substituting one ingredient for another—is relatively easy with bowls, both for guests and from an operations standpoint,” says Stephanie Stiel Hoppe, chief marketing officer at Memphis, Tennessee–based LYFE Kitchen.
Customization is a key feature sought by many consumers, particularly Millennnials, adds Mark Mears, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Denver-based Noodles & Co.
“For years, you had to take what the restaurant gave you, forcing you to remove what you didn’t like,” he says. “But bowls make it easier to get exactly what you want.”
And there are plenty of other benefits that come with bowls, experts say, including portability, versatility, and a healthy halo. Hoppe says bowls provide an impressive presentation and fit customers’ needs at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They also give guests the option of eating the meal one ingredient at a time or mixing them all together, she adds.
Dimitri Moshovitis, cofounder and executive chef of Washington, D.C.–based fast casual Cava Grill—where guests can assemble a customized Mediterranean meal in a bowl—says bowls also have become popular because “you get more bang for your buck in the way you can fill them. You can get to play with more flavors.”
And there are few limits to what an operator or diner can add to a bowl, “unlike sandwiches, which can get messy with certain ingredients,” Moshovitis says.
A meal in a bowl is a new and refreshing way customers can experience a dish, particularly ethnic cuisine, says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, a Vermont-based consultancy focused on helping foodservice professionals evaluate and respond to trends.
“The rise of bowls is driven by operators offering ethnic food in fairly authentic ways, even if it is somewhat Americanized,” she says. “There’s an interest in street food, with a lot of different ingredients and textures, and for us, bowls are easier to handle.”
Additionally, bowls can be leveraged as healthy alternatives to meals found between buns, says Andrew Hunter, a consultant and foodservice and industrial chef for Kikkoman Sales USA. “What is inside the bowl has become very important, and those ingredients are easy for people to see,” he says.
Bowls have been a fairly recent center-of-the-plate addition to the American quick-service restaurant world. Some entrée salads were being offered before the turn of the century, but a major breakthrough came with Chipotle’s burrito bowl in 2003.
That item was actually fueled by the chain’s customers, who took advantage of Chipotle’s customization style to order bowl-like naked burritos. This was accomplished by lining the serving baskets with foil to improvise a bowl.
“We’d even do occasional ‘basket amnesty’ promotions where we’d ask customers who’d acquired baskets at home, by virtue of ordering bowls to go, to bring back their collection of bowls for a free burrito or bowl,” says company spokesman Chris Arnold.
In the years since bowls were added as a packaging device at Chipotle, they have become the most requested item at the chain. Customers also began making their own salads by replacing rice and beans with shredded lettuce. The company has since added a salad bowl.
“There wasn’t any great chefiness or R&D in any of this,” Arnold says. “People were simply doing it on their own.”
The use of bowls at Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill goes back a bit further. Bowls were offered as an alternative to ingredients wrapped in a tortilla, says Steven Paperno, chief executive of the Westlake Village, California–based company founded in 1992.
“I really look at bowls as carriers with more of a portion control element,” he says. In addition to the regular menu’s Fajita Bowl, there is a smaller Kids Bowl featuring beans, rice, and a protein.
“Kids like rice and they like a protein, so our Kids Bowl started simply as that,” Paperno says.
The original chicken rice bowl expanded to include other proteins. In addition to chicken, steak, and tofu, Sharky’s features wild-caught Alaskan salmon as a protein. “It has become very strong for us, and we use it across the menu,” Paperno says. “For us, it’s about bringing as many organic and clean ingredients as we can.”
Proteins are an important component to any bowl, along with a starch, a vegetable, and distinct flavors from spices, sauces, or toppings, says Stephen Gerike, director of foodservice marketing at the National Pork Board. He says a protein like pork gives both flavor and texture, while also being versatile across multiple menu items.
“That’s where pork really works; you can do a Japanese noodle bowl, you can do a Latin rice bowl, you can do a breakfast bowl, you can do a barbecue bowl, you can do a Korean barbecue bowl, all with one item,” Gerike says.
Faye Greenberg, LYFE Kitchen’s culinary director, says bowls “are really about easy, versatile, and nutritious meals.” LYFE’s menu features a trio of bowl entrées, such as the Quinoa Crunch bowl, which begins with edamame hummus and has quinoa-black rice tabbouleh, vegetables, avocado, arugula, chipotle vinaigrette, and fireman’s hot sauce.
The Thai Red Curry bowl offers broccoli, eggplant, peppers, peas, and Thai basil on a wheatberry base with a coconut curry sauce. “It’s easily customized with garlic-lime tofu or chicken,” Greenberg says.