Menus in 2017, Part 3 | Seeking comfort

When Nancy Kruse spoke at VantagePoint’s Insight2Impact Foodservice Marketing Summit, she laid out five predictions for menus in 2017, which we’re highlighting in this series of blogs. The first entry covered the growing focus on “clean” ingredients and “simple” branding. Next up was dieting, or rather the lack thereof.

Now we move away from those healthful aspects of eating to an arguably more decadent menu trend: comfort foods.

What it is

“When we’re talking about comfort food in the American context, we are absolutely talking about fried foods. We love the stuff,” Kruse said. “From the restaurant perspective, this is a gimme because we don’t do this at home.”

Regionality reigns in this category, from Krystal’s line of country fried sandwiches and biscuits to the now seemingly ubiquitous Nashville hot chicken — the origin story of which is an amusing read itself.

Even restaurants not traditionally in the chicken business have gotten on board with Nashville hot. And since new Nashville hot restaurants are continuing to attract large crowds as far away as Los Angeles, this seems like a trend not nearly on its last legs.

Why it’s coming

Why comfort foods have long remained and will continue to be popular is no mystery — it’s right there in the name. But changes are coming to comfort foods, and the “why” of that shift can be traced to the “simple” messaging that Kruse mentioned among her first prediction for 2017.

“For the last 50 years, fat in general, and animal fat in particular, has been utterly demonized in the American diet,” Kruse said.

That message led to the rise of plant-based oils and the partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats that are now the subject of scorn from health and nutrition experts.

Millennials, huge drivers of menu and dieting trends thanks to their tendency to spend more money dining out than previous generations, are sparking a return to animal fats.

They’re three times more receptive to animal fat use than Boomers, who have been exposed to negative animal fat messaging for decades. And “butter” or “lard” on an ingredient list sounds a lot more natural to them than “partially hydrogenated soybean oil.”

“We understand the ingredient label. This is pretty clean stuff,” Kruse said.

Where it’s showing up

Acceptance of animal fat in diets has been a boon for good old-fashioned butter. (Cue the Paula Deen highlight reel.)

QSRs looking for quick bona fides can turn to butter, and many are — Burger King’s buttery extra long cheeseburger, Jack in the Box’s Classic Buttery Jack and McDonald’s touting a switch from margarine to “real butter” with its all-day breakfast menu.

Among smaller, independent restaurants, animal fats like tallow, lard and duck fat are on the rise, Kruse said.

What’s next

Comfort food in the form of fried dishes will continue to dominate because, well, they’re tasty and often considered a dining out treat. Millennials are embracing them in particular when paired with fats perceived to be more natural.

Support for this trend will come in the form of foods that eschew artificial fats, opportunities to embrace “old-fashioned” animal fats where possible, and a focus on regional and ethnic favorites to offer a sense of place and authenticity in comfort food dishes.

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