Foodservice operators came to the National Restaurant Association 2015 Show to explore ideas and products to build great menus. To find new ways to appeal to guests, many attended a session on food and consumer trends by Annika Stensson, research communications director for the NRA.

Nine of 10 Americans enjoy dining out, and food quality is especially important to them, according to the latest NRA research. Stensson offered a sneak peek at new research the NRA is conducting on consumer attitudes toward ethnic cuisine. The new research, set for release this summer, showed that sushi, Thai and Vietnamese food are most commonly eaten at restaurants; Chinese, Ethiopian and Mexican are most common for takeout and delivery.

Three-quarters of consumers say they like when mainstream restaurants serve ethnic cuisine, and 66 percent eat a wider variety of ethnic cuisines now than they did five years ago. Authenticity is important to consumers, but more than half say they often customize ethnic cuisine dishes to fit their individual tastes.

At a Foodamental Studio presentation on making arepas, Sysco chef Ben Udave explained that today’s consumers are looking for customization and experimentation with flavors.

“A lot of times when it comes to Latino foods, we are afraid to change the techniques. I’m not,” he says. “I prefer to incorporate traditional and nontraditional flavors.”

In another key trend, three in five consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers organic or environmentally friendly food. Consumers who make efforts to reduce their carbon footprint in other areas of their lives look to reconcile their food choices into that pattern.

Operators are seeking more healthful, organic soups, and the options seem plentiful. “Organic soup is a growing trend in restaurants right now,” says Boulder Organic! Foods’ Jen-ai Stokesbary. “Folks perceive soup as more healthful than other menu options, and in many cases they are. They generally tend to have less fat, are water based so they’re hydrating, and are satiating at the same time." Bonus: "Soup is healthful, comforting, convenient and affordable.”

Jimmy DeSisto, president of Venice Bakery in Los Angeles, which makes gluten-free pizza, wraps, flatbreads and breadcrumbs, said the products are here to stay. “I don’t think there’s been a category that’s hit as hard, fast and furious as gluten free has. The demand is there. The way it’s taken the food industry by storm is overwhelming.” Don’t base the success of gluten free on one SKU in your POS system, he points out. “Take a look at everything else wrapped around it on the sales tape.”

Restaurateurs are also looking to offer lower-fat, higher protein alternatives for breakfast, said Howard Bender, founder of Schmaltz Retail Products. The company’s bacon alternative, called Schmacon, is made of whole muscle beef and is lower in sodium, calories and fat than pork bacon. “People are demanding cleaner labels and more natural items. That’s forcing manufacturers like me to make products we still want to eat, but are created without nitrates and are all natural,” he says. “This trend is growing, and … in three or four years, it will be a predominant focus, mainstream.”

Seven of 10 consumers said they wished restaurants would serve breakfast all day long, the NRA research shows. That sentiment is fairly even among age groups, which indicates diners of all ages might want breakfast for dinner, Stensson says.

Local sourcing is one of the hottest umbrella trends on menus – anything from produce to meat to seafood, and the more local the better. Similarly, natural ingredients and minimally processed foods show up in the top five menu trends in the NRA’s annual What’s Hot chef survey. Also playing into the farm-to-table philosophy, consumers are taking a deeper interest in what’s in their food and where it comes from.

Embracing nostalgia

“Talk about a return to the good old days,” said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta, during a presentation at the NRA Show. “The entire category of fats and oils has turned on its head. Many of you operators never left butter, but from the larger customer point of view, butter consumption has increased 24 percent since 2001.”

Kruse discussed profound changes in consumer attitudes and behavior that are affecting the restaurant industry. The confluence of three “mega-trends,” including ongoing economic uncertainty, a shift to technology as the basis of economy, and an unprecedented generational changeover, has created multiple disruptions for operators.

A new consumer mindset of “farm trumps factories” has emerged, with many diners demanding real, clean and authentic foods and many national chains, from Chipotle Mexican Grill to Chick-Fil-A, responding with major menu moves.

The key to delivering on demand for simple and authentic foods is conveying freshness in product, preparation and presentation, Kruse says. Domino’s Pizza, White Castle, Papa Murphy’s and other chains have added open kitchens, allowing consumers a peek at the process, which in turn has led to double-digit increases in customer satisfaction and perception of food quality and service.

Other decor elements embraced by restaurant operators include cast-iron skillets, mason jars and reclaimed wood, creating visual cues of a return to simpler times. In addition to butter, other formerly feared fats, including lard, beef tallow, duck fat and schmaltz, are gaining newfound appreciation. And the revival of butchery as an art isn’t limited to specialty shops. Outback Steakhouse has offered Butcher Cut steaks for a limited time. Offal also is getting more attention on menus.

“The American consumer in the mainstream has never eaten things like tripe, tongue, tendon or marrow,” Kruse says. “Bone marrow is the new black, in culinary terms, ladies and gentlemen.”

The trend may be rooted in sustainability, as chefs seek creative ways to use all of an animal to avoid waste.

To further push authenticity and simplicity, several restaurant chains are sharing the backstory behind menu items. Arby’s, for example, describes its Smokehouse Brisket as smoked for at least 13 hours in a pit smoker in Texas. Chili’s features such items as house-smoked chicken quesadillas and guacamole that is prepared at the customer’s table. Pizza Hut calls its hand-tossed pizza “one of a kind,” with blisters and bumps on the crust as proof the product was not mass-produced in a factory.

“Blisters say ‘authentic,’” Kruse points out. Because authenticity, simplicity and freshness lack standards of identity, operators have ample opportunities to convey these qualities on menus.