Trends & Insights

Comfort Food Upgrades

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Just because comfort foods are familiar, traditional and enduringly popular doesn’t mean they must be boring and predictable. Stalwarts like meatloaf, fried chicken, steaks, ribs, sandwiches and burgers are easy to elevate and turn into signature dishes. Customers are much more likely to try a new menu item, ingredient or flavor if they’re already comfortable with the general idea.

According to proprietary research prepared for Advance Pierre Foods by Technomic, the most popular comfort foods encompass a wide variety of product categories, from chicken sandwiches/wraps to burgers, pizza, steaks and other beef dishes, breakfast foods and pasta. More operators are beginning to offer specialty dishes within these categories as competition intensifies and signature menuing becomes more important.

That means it’s more important than ever to make comfort food count by menuing it in unique, contemporary ways.

Ramp up ingredients

Instead of mashed potatoes or plain rice, serve a saucy meat dish like meatballs, Salisbury steak or beef stew with orzo, polenta or an ancient grain pilaf. Top meatloaf with wild mushroom demi-glace and pair it with on-theme side dishes such as roasted asparagus and a twice-stuffed baked potato. Swap out lettuce, tomato and onion on a burger with a chiffonade of arugula, smoked tomato jam, and quick-pickled onions, or use a specialty breadstuff like brioche, Portuguese muffin, marble rye or ciabatta.

For Example: Pork Chop Milanese (pounded thin, breaded with panko and Parmesan, fried until golden brown and served with red-skinned mashed potatoes, grilled lemon and wild arugula salad) – The Kettle, a family restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Build in more flavor, especially with chicken

When it comes to chicken, flavor sells, and this protein’s neutral character responds well to flavor cues provided by preparation styles, seasonings and spices, marinades, glazes, and sauces, spreads or condiments. This is where paying attention to fast-growing flavor-profile categories, as identified by Technomic, pays off, including Asian, sweet flavors like maple and honey, lemon, buttermilk, Buffalo and chili.

For Example: General Janes Honey-Fried Chicken with chili, sesame seeds and cilantro – Au Cheval, a casual restaurant in Chicago

Dress up the presentation

Serve comfort-food entrees in an individual cast iron skillet or gratin dish, or even a casserole that customers can help themselves from. Build an on-trend bowl with protein and other ingredients, including an interesting sauce and condiments. Showcase colors and shapes on the plate with distinctive garnishes and side dishes like halved, seared Brussels sprouts or spiral-cut fries. Even presenting an oversized steakhouse-style knife with a steak, pork chop or roast chicken builds anticipation by highlighting the experience of meaty satisfaction.

For Example: Chili Mac n' Cheese with macaroni, cheese sauce, chili, bacon, herb breadcrumbs and green onions, served in a rustic gratin dish – The Kroft, a fast-casual gastropub with three locations in Southern California

Upgrade breakfast or brunch

Add indulgent steak-and-eggs, an item Technomic says is appearing on more menus. Other comfort-food proteins that can make the morning daypart more memorable include hash, pulled or smoked pork, fried chicken and waffles, Joe’s Special (scrambled eggs with spinach and crumbled beef or turkey) or an over-the-top specialty breakfast sandwich.

For Example: Country-Fried Steak & Eggs with two steaks, battered and fried and smothered in Coco’s Sausage-Pepper Gravy; served with two eggs) – Coco’s Bakery Restaurant, a Texas-based family restaurant chain

Use your words

Menu copy emphasizing quality signifiers such as “fresh,” “made from scratch,” “housemade” and “artisan” entices guests to purchase, and many consumers say they are willing to pay more for food with these attributes—all of which lend themselves particularly well to comfort foods. Other strategies: Sourcing (and touting) organic or local ingredients; featuring well-known brands in menu-item copy; showcasing seasonal preparations and specials on blackboards or daily sheets.

For Example: Monday night special, Pot Pie Night! (Classic homemade goodness! Comes with seasonal vegetable and mashed potatoes and gravy!) – Ted’s Bulletin, a casual restaurant with five locations in the Washington, D.C., area

Signature versions of comforting favorites are a win-win on menus at all price points. They give the kitchen a change to stretch its creativity, and they satisfy customer demand for options that are both accessible and exciting.

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