Trends & Insights
Comfort Food Makes a Comeback
Wednesday, September 6, 2017
A growing number of consumers are looking for ways to relax when they dine out—including, of course, enjoying comfort foods. Homestyle ingredients and dishes can offer an experience that’s nostalgic and familiar—which is why comfort foods never go out of style.
They do, however, benefit from flavorful tweaks or upscale twists.
Comfort foods such as macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie and fried chicken are increasing in popularity on menus, and breaded protein dishes in particular are having a bit of a moment—breaded chicken, for instance, appears on 25% of full-service restaurant menus, according to Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Poultry Consumer Trend Report, powered by Ignite. Fried chicken appears on 45% of full-service restaurant menus and 50% of limited-service restaurant menus.
The consumer demand for comfort
According to Technomic’s 2017 Comfort Foods Consumer Study on Breaded Protein, conducted exclusively for AdvancePierre, consumers tend to prefer traditional styles of comfort-food classics over modern takes.
The Technomic Comfort Foods Consumer Study found that 40% of consumers ordered comfort foods to satisfy a craving, compared to 34% who order it as a simple meal and 25% who order it to connect/socialize. When ordering breaded protein dishes, the biggest motivator for doing so is flavor—47% of consumers cited this as their reasoning. Beyond taste, consumers most frequently choose these foods because they enjoy fried foods (34%).
Nostalgia can be a driver of comfort-food orders as well. Damon Gordon, culinary director for King Signature Group, which oversees several restaurants in California, including Santa Monica’s Meat On Ocean, says of comfort food menu items, “People say, ‘This is what I ate growing up,’ or ‘This reminds me of back home when my mom or my parents would make something for me.’”
When consumers look at menus for comfort foods, they’re not necessarily looking for a specific food, but rather something that recreates a familiar feeling. Comfort foods offer a way for diners to relax and eat something they’ve had before and know they’ll enjoy—and they’re especially popular with older generations. According to Technomic’s 2016 Generational Consumer Trend Report, more boomers now (compared to 2014) say they would order dishes such as barbecue and beef dishes, which could be due to an increase in innovative comfort foods on menus.
As for what consumers classify as comfort foods, Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report reports that 47% say they consider beef dishes (such as meatloaf or burgers) to be comfort foods, compared to 35% who say pork dishes are comfort foods.
Beyond beef and pork, though, Technomic’s Comfort Foods Consumer Study finds that top-of-mind comfort foods are desserts, with 23% of consumers saying that’s what they think of when they think about comfort foods. After desserts, 20% of consumers say mashed potatoes signify comfort food, while 15% say burgers do and 13% say pizza does.
Breaded proteins are a popular comfort food as well, and when consumers order a breaded protein as a main dish, breaded chicken dishes are the most popular choice, with lunch being the most common time to order them.
Offering craveable comfort foods that boost the bottom line
According to Technomic’s MenuMonitor, instances of “comfort food” have grown 34% year over year, which means there’s still plenty of opportunity for operators to get in on the trend.
Offering craveable options that boost the bottom line is key—chicken fingers might be tasty, but country fried steak with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy can be sold at a higher price. And, says Gordon, it’s one of the restaurant’s best sellers.
Offering comfort foods with an upscale edge—such as a housemade gravy or scratch-made mashed potatoes—is a great way to maximize profitability on these familiar dishes. Technomic’s Comfort Foods Consumer Study shows that chicken takes the top spot when it comes to what types of protein consumers typically eat—91% of consumers say that they typically choose it as their main source of protein, so it stands to reason that many popular comfort-food dishes involve breaded chicken.
Breaded proteins such as fried chicken, country-fried steak, fried pork chops and schnitzel are all classic comfort foods that consumers enjoy and that can be paired with upscale or housemade sides with real, whole ingredients to increase check averages. Though the Technomic Comfort Foods Consumer Study found that breaded is the third most popular preparation of proteins (behind grilled and baked), heavy comfort foods consumers are more likely to prefer breaded proteins (55%) than their peers.
Beyond the bottom line, though, Gordon says comfort food is also helpful for creating a certain atmosphere: “It gets people into a mindset of being relaxed and comfortable and creating a connection with the restaurant—wherever they are.”