Few people have as firm a pulse on what consumers want from their menus than those actually working in the trenches – the culinarians.
They're the ones who get paid to know and to test and to experiment the food.
So when the kitchen captain speaks, it's in the industry's best interest to listen. That means us in the media, those running the business and everyone inbetween.
Wendy's Gerard Lewis, senior vice president of Wendy's who oversees culinary innovation, new product marketing, operational testing and product optimization, spoke briefly at the company's Investor Day Jan. 30 in New York City about the five biggest trends he is seeing. They include:
Americans are finding their inner foodie. "There has been explosive growth in people experimenting with recipes. People are more enamored with food," Lewis said.
He pointed to the diversification of ingredients at grocery stores (including more "exotic" offerings) as an example, as well as Wendy's No. 1 selling salad: the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad.
"The salad has 12 different kinds of greens, apples, all-natural bleu cheese and a pomegranate dressing," he said. "Who would have thought that would be our top seller a few years ago?"
Hamburgers are relevant. "Take a look at some of the fastest growing restaurant chains and they're selling a lot of hamburgers. And we're seeing adventure with the hamburgers," Lewis said.
Which leads into the third trend:
People are being more adventurous with their food. For example, Lewis recently tried a hamburger that was topped with a hot dog and an egg. The entire creation was served in the middle of a grilled cheese sandwich.
Calorie counters, don't worry. This type of hamburger will not be showing up on Wendy's menu anytime soon, he promised.
Customization. "People want to customize their food. They want to see it being prepared. They don't want to see it coming out of a box or a drawer," Lewis said.
Ingredients matter. "More folks are looking at what's in their food; they care what's in there. They want ingredient labels to be short and sweet," Lewis said.
Of course, Lewis, who has a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, is just one of many in the increasingly crowded QSR kitchen space. It's no wonder menu innovation seems to be evolving at a rapid speed.