The decline in foot traffic at the average quick-serve restaurant is a clear sign that brands are competing with retail like never before. The pandemic also pushed things like family meal kits into the mainstream, highlighting an age-old challenge for chefs that’s only grown in importance: How do you draw in consumers with something unique and unforgettable that they can’t easily be made by a home chef?
One clear solution in driving foot traffic into restaurants is fresh, innovative menu items: Datassential recently reported that 34 percent of consumers now say they’ll seek out a restaurant if it offers “something new,” with one in ten millenials reporting that they try something new every single time they go out.
Mike Leccese, vice president of innovation at Haliburton International Foods, says that creating trendy sides can be a great difference-maker for chefs. Consumers love unique sides both because they are a low-risk proposition in that you can order multiple or pair them with more familiar items like a sandwich, but diners also like trendy sides because they can be difficult to create at home.
“Sides have only become more important in the past 12 months,” says Leccese. “With so many people at home using delivery and meal replacement avenues, sides are a place to play with trends and create something elevated that compliments an entree or protein.”
Some of the innovation Leccese has witnessed around the industry includes thoughtful new spins on familiar sides, including a root vegetable medley flavored with a savory red wine demi seasoning, or roasting cauliflower and carrots with an exotic vadouvan spice. Running with the same theme of taking the familiar and elevating it to draw in diners interested in something new, a few sides Leccese and his team at Haliburton have developed include a southwestern artisan style bean and roasted corn salad, elote-style fire-roasted street corn, or fire roasted Brussels sprouts hash. Other sides are small-bite-spins on traditional center-of-the-plate items like grilled bratwurst mixed with fire roasted peppers and onions, or wild rice blended with grilled pork loin, fire roasted root vegetables, and apples.
“Operators should be trying to offer variety with their sides,” Leccese says. “If I’m at a fast casual or quick-serve restaurant, am I really going to want to spend an extra $4 on a garden salad or just a plain mac and cheese? It’s like the classic old debate with dessert. Do you want to spend that money on two scoops of vanilla ice cream when you could get it for far cheaper at the grocery store? But if the restaurant offers fresh churros, topped with cinnamon vanilla ice cream, toasted coconut shavings, and dulce de leche sauce, that’s going to move the needle.”
But Leccese knows that labor is an ongoing issue for the industry right now, and making some of these elevated, time-intensive sides can be tough for many kitchens to pull off. That’s what he and his team are there for, he says, to help create operational efficiencies in their client partner kitchens. The team brings with it a breadth of experience and industry knowledge, and they’re always looking to create custom solutions that help a brand stand out from the competition.
“We spend so much of our time staying on top of the market, recognizing trends, and helping operators execute on them,” Leccese says. “The added value that we do in house includes blanching, fire roasting vegetables and blending them with custom seasoning profiles, and that’s different from what our competitors do. Another thing that is different? We never rely on frozen vegetables to create our ready-made solutions. We are pulling produce from Mexico, California, and Canada at peak times throughout the year to make sure we’re creating the freshest possible products.”
For more on adding fresh, on-trend sides to your menu, visit the Haliburton website.