For a variety of reasons, consumers are dining out less frequently than they have in recent years as restaurant traffic has slowed. According to Technomic Inc., year over year, the number of Americans who order from restaurants more than once a week dropped from 48% to 46% in Q4 2022.
The primary need consumers wish to satisfy, Technomic said, is the “need to satisfy a craving,” with one-third of diners indicating this is why they chose a specific restaurant for their most recent occasion.
One can make the connection between items prepared with dairy and craveable. Technomic asked consumers to call out the top craveable items at a chain they recently visited.
Here are the aggregated responses across the top 150 chains, ranked in order based on number of consumers calling out items as craveable: chicken, baked goods, burgers, breads, pizza, sandwiches, seafood, beef, fries and ice cream/yogurt.
According to Technomic’s 2022 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, 78% of consumers state they allow dairy, fish and meat in their diet, and an increasing number of consumers who do eat meat (24%) report they eat whatever they want, whenever they want.
For example, cheeseburgers are the most popular burger item across chains where burgers are offered, with bacon cheeseburgers as a close second.
Consumers are balancing many conflicting priorities when dining out, as inflation and busy schedules compete with the desire for high-quality fare that can appeal to all members of the dining party.
To rise above the din, Technomic said chains will promote limited-time offers to create, draw and purchase intent. For example, Chick-fil-A perennially returns its popular Peach Milkshake to its menu, Arby’s recently rolled out a Mint Chocolate Shake and Whataburger touted a Dr. Pepper Shake. Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers added a birthday cake shake back to menus for a limited time.
Consumers are generally using restaurants less but opting to splurge a bit when they do decide to order.
Craveability is a huge draw, and Technomic research has shown that “cheesy” tops the list of craveable flavors for consumers. For many consumers, “cheesy” is synonymous with comfort food, which continues to be a draw to consumers.
For example, Romano’s Macaroni Grill recently brought back three fan-favorite dishes, including toasted ravioli, shrimp scampi and eggplant Parmesan.
“While seasonal menus can be an opportunity to provide guests with innovative and fresh takes on classic dishes, we know that many of us are craving the comfort that can only come from the familiar,” said Holly Wagstaff-Bellomo, chief marketing officer at Dividend Restaurant Group. “After listening to the overwhelming demands of our incredible guests, we are thrilled to be able to bring back three of our most requested dishes for a limited time.”
Applebee’s reintroduced its Sizzlin’ Skillets in late 2022. The entrees include newly added Chicken & Shrimp Scampi, Cheddar Bacon & Chicken and Garlic Parmesan Sirloin. O’Charley’s added a limited-time “Coastal Cravings” menu that features a lobster quesadilla, lobster bisque and steak and lobster mac-and-cheese.
Domino’s Pizza recently added loaded tots – crispy tater tots, topped with cheese and toppings – to its menu ahead of the 2023 Super Bowl. The menu item is available in three varieties: Philly cheese steak, cheddar bacon and melty 3-cheese.
The Philly cheese steak loaded tots feature slices of steak, Alfredo sauce, onions, green peppers and a blend of mozzarella and cheddar cheese. The cheddar bacon loaded tots are topped with bacon, mozzarella, cheddar and a garlic Parmesan sauce. The melty 3-cheese loaded tots feature mozzarella, cheddar, provolone and an Alfredo sauce.
Panera Bread added three sandwiches on toasted baguettes which are cheese forward, including green goddess caprese, pepperoni mozzarella and smoky Buffalo chicken. The green goddess caprese melt features Peppadew peppers, mozzarella, grated Parmesan, basil, arugula, green goddess dressing, garlic aioli and salt and pepper. The pepperoni melt has pepperoni, mozzarella, and a fontina and mozzarella blend with market sauce. The smoky buffalo chicken melt is topped with smoked chicken, American cheese, red onions and Buffalo sauce.
The constancy of queso
The foodservice landscape continues shifting, but one menu item is remaining consistent no matter the changes – queso.
So much, in fact, that Land O’Lakes Foodservice division, Arden Hills, Minn., is declaring the creamy, versatile dish a food trend.
“Not only are we seeing increased demand for our Queso Bravo Cheese Dip or Extra Melt Cheese Sauces to create queso dishes, we are also hearing from operators that queso seems to fill the gap for whatever new challenge comes their way,” said chef Daniel ‘Billy’ Kalil, commercial foodservice product specialist, Land O’Lakes. “Not to mention, it can inspire renewed creativity in your kitchen.”
According to Datassential menu trends research, queso last year earned points as one of the fastest-growing appetizers on the menu with four-year growth at 24% and top menu penetration at midscale (10.1%) and casual dining (24%).
Offering a signature appetizer, such as a regionally-focused queso dish, lets operators stand out among competitors, and patrons are there for it. The same Datassential research found that more than half of all consumers look forward to ordering signature appetizers at specific restaurants they visit.
“Give your customers something to crave that speaks to your region,” Kalil said. “[Using queso] you are able to personalize to your heart’s content without risk of breaking your sauce.”
In the face of continued staffing challenges for restaurants, queso can also be a reliable dish that can hold its flavor and texture well while also serving as a base for an array of dishes, meaning less maintenance for a tighter workforce.
“When you may be short-staffed yet still don’t want to cut corners, a high-performing cheese sauce can save time, cost and headaches,” Kalil added. “A premium queso can maintain its flavor and texture throughout the shift, all while meeting guests’ demands for a craveable appetizer. That very same sauce can also be used as a blank canvas for multiple dishes, from traditional dip to a burger topping.”
A high-performance queso sauce can help operators maintain a consistent and delicious signature dish no matter how it’s served.
“Queso crosses over multiple dayparts, starting the day as a topping on a delicious breakfast bowl or filling nighttime cravings topping nachos,” Kalil said.
Pizza reigns supreme
Pizza continues to be one of the most popular food options for Americans, with 350 slices eaten by the second. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 13% of Americans eat pizza on a given day. Although the first pizza shops didn’t open in the US until the early 20th century, consumers now spend $37 billion a year on pizza, accounting for a third of the global market.
Since 1995, cheese consumption has nearly doubled due to the high consumption of pizza in the United States. The USDA also noted that a usual two-slice serving of pizza accounts for 37% of the daily recommended calcium consumption.
Papa Johns recently debuted a new pizza that has cheese under its crust on the bottom. The Crispy Parm Pizza is served on a thin crust that has been seasoned with a blend of shredded Parmesan and Romano cheeses and can be topped with any toppings.
“At Papa Johns, we pride ourselves on our dedication to innovation,” said Kimberly Bean, vice president of menu strategy and calendar planning. “For this product, we set our sights on one of the most fundamental pizza ingredients – cheese. We have taken cheese where we’ve never had it before – flipping the pizza over and putting it underneath the crust. In doing so, we are providing consumers with more ability to customize their pizza experience, while also enjoying a unique and surprising twist on a fan-favorite meal.”
If consumers crave more than cheese, Little Caesars added new toppings to its Slices-N-Stix, which combine pizza slices and breadsticks. Slices-N-Stix features four pepperoni pizza slices and eight cheese breadsticks in one box. Consumers can now add jalapeños or bacon as a topping to the cheese breadsticks.
“What’s better than the iconic combination of delicious pepperoni pizza and cheesy breadsticks?” said Greg Hamilton, chief marketing officer at Little Caesars. “We think the option of savory bacon or spicy jalapeño will really heat things up for pizza.”