Industry surveys say Americans are ready to spend more money on dining out in 2012, but only if they feel that what they are eating is good for them, as well as a good value. Are you ready for the coming Year of More Information?
I've spotted five trends that will have a big impact on the information you share on your menu. Here's what diners will be looking for, and what restaurateurs should watch for, in the New Year.
1. Menu labeling requirements
As you may know, health care reform – 2009's Affordable Care Act -- requires greater disclosure of the nutritional value of restaurant food. However, the Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue final rules, although they could come sometime this spring.
Under the federal standard, restaurants with 20 or more locations will be required to provide calories on menus, menu boards and drive-thrus, and make other written info available on request. The alternative is the patchwork of local laws that have been developing over the past few years.
2. Get fresh
The reason states and larger cities became involved in menu labeling in the first place is the growing consumer demand for healthier dining options and fresh ingredients freshly prepared. Using locally sourced and/or seasonal ingredients when possible — and highlighting them on your menu — can gain customer loyalty.
3. Be safe
Food allergies are on the rise among both children and adults, the most common to milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.
The only way to prevent a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction is to constantly guard against accidental exposures to hidden food allergens through inadvertent cross-contamination.
Showing concern for your patrons' dietary needs with language on your menu that encourages anyone to inquire about any dish is a great first step. Also investing in training on food allergy issues for both front and back of the house staff is well worth it.
4. More fun for the buck
Anything that can make diners feel like your establishment is delivering an experience they couldn't get at the competition down the street will bring them back again. Why not start with what they're drinking?
Diners are looking for new flavors and freshly made refreshers. You can reverse declining beverage sales by offering interesting, inexpensive alternatives to "just water." Creating new versions of existing beverages can help grow sales in an area where people are willing to spend a little more for something different.
5. Mini-size me
A way to sell more of those fun beverages is to serve them alongside smaller versions of your main menu items. Miniature desserts, bite-sized sliders — anything that looks just like a regular-sized item only smaller — can be irresistibly cute.
The mini-me trend also supports the others: it's fun, it's a way for diners to have more control over their budget and their portions — they can always order another — and you are providing a unique experience they will want to repeat.
Betsy Craig brings 20 years of food service industry experience to MenuTrinfo, LLC a menu nutritional labeling Company. Her commitment to the betterment of the food industry and her desire to affect the dining public are the driving forces behind her new company Kitchens with Confidence, LLC.