Charcuterie is becoming more popular, such as Grimaldi’s Spring Bridge Board Bundle. | Photo courtesy of Grimaldi’s Pizzeria.
In response to the inexorable creep of technology, consumers are turning back the clock. In fact, they’re turning it way, way back to a kinder, gentler, tech-free time before the turn of this century, and they’re influencing many products and industries in the process.
Consider that old-fashioned boardgames are on a roll according to the Washington Post, which reports that category sales jumped 28% between 2019 and 2022, while the BoardGameGeek website counts more than 3,000 new boardgames released last year.
Similarly, The New York Times says that traditional books are hot again and that bookstore sales were up 6% last year to just under $9 billion.
And numerous sources are tracking the resurgence of vinyl, the object formerly known as the record album. Dealt a presumed death blow by innovations like streaming apps, long-playing records have staged a remarkable comeback. Sales have jumped exponentially in recent years and topped 43 million units in 2022, per the trade publication Variety. These numbers are even more extraordinary considering that an estimated 50% of buyers don’t actually own turntables on which to play them.
The blast-from-the-past list includes the second wind of old-fashioned flip phones and the continuing popularity of conventional greeting cards.
Consumers are seeking respite from the digital and (re)discovering the joys of the analog, all of which constitutes unalloyed good news for menu developers. Because regardless of the technology by which a meal is ordered, prepped or delivered, the food itself is and will remain resolutely analog.
Doing the dip. Many operators are exploiting patron sentiment with high-touch dishes, which have been a major menu trend for the past year or so. Dips, for example, require hands-on engagement, and diners have been happily dipping their way around the menu.
Mendocino Farms offers a Chicken Parm Dip Sandwich served with a side of tomato sauce, allowing the operation to also tap into the sizzling hot renaissance of old-fashioned red sauce.
Eureka! has taken a similarly retro approach with the French Dip Sandwich, a true American classic that is contemporized here with whiskey-caramelized onions and horseradish aioli, along with the requisite au jus for dipping.
Birria, the Mexican stew that has been touted as the next big thing since before the pandemic, is finally living up to its promise. Del Taco has been testing Birria Tacos and Quesadillas accompanied by a savory, best-in-class consomé dip, while Hash Kitchen customers can do the dip at brunch with the Best F#*%ing Birria Hash.
It’s notable that, when speaking of his own brand’s wildly successful birria promotion, an El Pollo Loco company spokesperson noted that diners loved the interactive nature of dipping the entrées and then posting the results on social media. Younger consumers were especially enamored of the item, he said.
Breaking bread together. Dispensing with silverware and eating with our hands is a primal pleasure, whether the dish in question is pizza, a plate of wings or the items cited above. It is what’s driving the reemergence of dips and dippables, and it’s also creating the opportunity for some sophisticated shareable appetizer iterations along with some updated classics.
In an example of the former, Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar recently expanded its menu to include Malaysian Chicken Lollipops, a stylish alternative to wings, in which mini chicken drumsticks are tossed in coconut-sesame chili sauce and finished with crispy garlic.
From the quick-serve perspective, Sonic Drive Ins has successfully gone back to the future with classic Mozzarella Sticks, the venerable fern bar-era stalwart served with the requisite marinara. A fan favorite, periodic promotions of the item like the one last February send the internet into a frenzy.
As an aside, according to The New York Times last year, breaded cheese sticks have made a major menu comeback thanks to their belated discovery by fine-dining chefs, who have boldly amped up the pedigree of the cheese or added a finishing dollop of caviar to their higher-priced versions.
Getting on board. The grazing phenomenon of the 20th century has morphed into the charcuterie craze in the 21st, as patrons are presented with an attractive multitude of bits and bites typically offered on a wooden serving piece.
Charcuterie chains, which offer a more contemporary, global take on grazing, are emerging on a national level; Graze Craze, for example, has begun franchising and now operates in about 23 states. The company boasts boards “beautifully curated by a Grazologist, a highly-trained charcuterie concierge.”
Consumers who cannot avail themselves of the services of a highly-trained charcuterie concierge do have other options. Edible is one. The well-known source for fruit arrangements launched a dessert-board program in the fourth quarter of last year, sales of which reached $3.5 million. Some stores reportedly ran out of product, and program extensions are planned for this summer.
Grimaldi’s Pizzeria has jumped on board, too, with starters that change with the seasons. The Spring Bridge Board, for example, included prosciutto, salami, fresh mozzarella, sugar snap peas, bread and more. In addition, the Spring Bridge Board Bundle was a smart, value-driven variation that came with all the above, plus a bottle of wine.
Sizzling in a skillet. One of the oldest prep-and-presentation tricks in the full-service dining playbook, the cast-iron skillet is also one of the best examples of the enduring power of the analog.
In many applications, it offers 360-degree sensory appeal. It is auditory, sizzling when presented to the table; it emits a cozy warmth and reassuring aroma; and its appearance suggests a down-home, grandma’s-in-the-kitchen image. It never goes out of style.
Consider that Denny’s recent and substantial investment in a kitchen revamp included the installation of ovens and led to new, baked-on-premise entrées like the Mac ‘N Brisket Skillet that features slow-smoked brisket over a bed of macaroni and cheese. The item gets bonus points for the beer-battered onion rings on top that patrons can pick up with their fingers.
Looking ahead. The unstoppable emergence of technology in all aspects of a restaurant operation is creating customer demand for an offset in the form of the familiar, the comforting and the tactile. The menu R&D equation going forward will be simple: the higher the tech, the higher the touch required to assuage screen-weary, digitally overloaded diners. It’s a balancing act that plays to restaurateurs’ strengths and will govern product development well into the future.
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