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.
LYFE’s Hoppe says a series of seasonal specials, including bowls, are going to be launched this year.
Grains, most notably rice, are among the most often used bases in American bowls, especially those influenced by Asian and Mexican cuisine. Another base is pasta, which is featured in bowls shaped by both Italian and Asian cuisines.
“Traditionally, the world’s great noodle and pasta dishes are served in a bowl,” Mears says. That’s why the entrées at Noodles & Co. come in bowls that have high rims to allow for better mixing of ingredients.
With both noodle and grain bowls, sauces play an important role in coating the ingredients and providing a wide range of flavors, Hunter says.
“When you are using rice or other grains, you need to have something like a light vinaigrette that dresses the grain,” he says. “It’s more like a seasoning than a sauce, providing flavor and helping keep the grains singular and not clumpy.”
A finishing sauce then gives the dish even more flavor. That’s necessary for the sauce to have some viscosity, he says, so that it not only coats the grains, noodles, and other ingredients, but also gives the dish a dash of color.
At Noodles & Co., “we believe the complex sauces and vegetables we serve every day contribute to the really highly fresh, bold flavors,” Mears says of the chain’s entrées, which feature recipes from Asia, America, and the Mediterranean.
A popular Italian dish, Pesto Cavatappi, includes curly pasta, basil pesto, garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes, wine, cream, Parmesan cheese, and parsley. Pork is recommended as the protein. From the Far East comes Japanese Pan Noodles with caramelized udon noodles in a sweet soy sauce along with broccoli, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, sprouts, black sesame seeds, and cilantro. Marinated steak is the favored protein.
After the dish is made, customers can add more, like sriracha or a proprietary spice mix.
One new item being introduced this year is Korean BBQ Meatballs that will feature gochujang, a sweet and spicy Korean sauce that Mears says will likely become as popular as sriracha. The dish will have bamboo skewers “to make it easier for guests to share,” he says.
When New York City–based Fields Good Chicken was in development, the menu was designed with bowls in mind, says founder and managing partner Field Failing. Today, there are varieties that take pages from Asian, Mexican, Mediterranean, and American cuisines.
The most popular dish is the Bueno Bowl, which is “kind of a classic Mexican flavor,” he says. It has guacamole, pico de gallo, maple-chipotle sauce, black beans, corn, brown rice, and chicken thigh mojo, which is marinated overnight and then grilled. “That maple-chipotle sauce is sweet and spicy, and people love it,” he says.
While most fast-casual restaurants featuring bowls give guests an opportunity to customize them, Cava Grill goes a step further. There is no set menu or signature dishes.
“It’s all build-your-own,” Moshovitis says. “We have 40 or so ingredients on our lines for our bowls.”
Guests can get a base of grains—saffron, brown basmati rice, or black lentils—or greens. Although grain bowls are not particularly a Mediterranean concept, “it’s the ingredients added in that are more traditional,” Moshovitis says. Those include hummus, tzatziki, harissa, Feta cheese, falafel, and braised lamb.
Grain bowls were added two years ago at Miami-based Giardino Gourmet Salads, which already featured salads and wraps. “There was a need for another item for people who weren’t looking for greens but still wanted to eat healthy,” says founder Kenny Lugo.
The decision was fairly easy for operations. All the toppings and sauces were already on hand for the salads and wraps. The cost was about $1,400 per unit to launch the bowls, most of which went to add rice cookers and hot holders since the grains are served warm.
There are three grain bowls. The Gardener, for instance, has a quinoa base with avocado, plum tomatoes, garbanzo beans, dried cranberries, and an olive vinaigrette. There is also the La Fiesta with a brown rice base, and the Wok, which features jasmine rice.
“Like our salads, you can substitute grains, dressings, and proteins,” Lugo says.
Another menu item seeing growth at some restaurants is the açai bowl, which includes frozen açai berry pulp, bananas, and granola. It originated in Brazil but evolved as it became popular in Hawaii among surfers before making its way to the mainland.
The açai bowl is the main item at Bowl of Heaven, which also sells juices and smoothies.
“We have a standard eight bowls, and some are made with apple juice, almond milk, or coconut milk,” says Dan McCormick, cofounder of the Rancho Santa Margarita, California–based company. Most of the bowls include açai and blends of fruits like bananas, strawberries, and blueberries, and toppings such as flax seed, granola, honey, and fruit.
The most popular is the original North Shore bowl, which has açai, strawberries, bananas, blueberries, apple juice, a proprietary blend of açai and six other superfruits, granola, fresh bananas, and honey. “But you can customize any bowl to your taste,” he adds.
Açai is one of three fruit bowls on the menu at Los Angeles–based Robeks, which is known for smoothies and juices. The bowls’ main components include flash-frozen fruit, yogurt or yogurt sherbet, and juices.
“There are three reasons guests buy these bowls,” says chief marketing officer Chad Bailey. “One is a meal replacement for breakfast or lunch. They also can be an in-between snack—popular with students as a pick-me-up—and also as a treat for athletes.”
Robeks also launched a trio of limited-time Hawaiian Açai Bowls in the fall. All used açai, watermelon, and bananas, along with sprinkled coconut and raw honey drizzle. The Nutty Hawaiian had peanut butter blended in, while the Seedsation featured chia and flax.
“They did tremendously well—so well that we extended the promotion twice due to demand,” Bailey says. “There was so much flavor, texture, and nutrition in one bowl.”