Restaurant Menu Trends: The Pumpkin Craze Continues

Restaurant Menu Trends: The Pumpkin Craze Continues

November 7, 2013
4 min read

Halloween has kicked off the holiday season and we are now inundated with pumpkin. If layered with other flavors, pumpkin is even more exciting (eg, Caribou Coffee’s Pumpkin Chai, or Longhorn Steakhouse’s Pumpkin Spice Lava Cake, pumpkin spice cake with a cream cheese icing and drizzled with Maker’s Mark® bourbon-caramel sauce and candied pecans). Starbucks most visibly started the season with its annual Pumpkin Spice Latte, and was then joined by several coffee chains, such as McDonald’s. But, they were late to the party, as several pumpkin-related items, such as a Pumpkin Muffin, Iced Pumpkin Latte and Frozen Pumpkin Pie, by Einstein Bros. Bagels, landed on our LTO radar back in August.

We are seeing seasonal “creep” on the retail level – Halloween pop-up stores in August, for example. Will pumpkin show up as a seasonal flavor even earlier in foodservice next year? Will consumers be ready for their hot pumpkin lattes in August? Keep this up and “seasonal” will no longer have any meaning, leaving operators one less way to drive menu excitement.

September marks not only the start of pumpkin flavor season, but also the start of colder weather. In addition to donning sweaters, many consumers turn to comfort foods:
• First Watch unveiled its Pumpkin Pancake Breakfast. Available through Nov. 3, it’s described as: “The chain’s signature spiced pumpkin pancakes, Aidells grilled all-natural chicken sausages, and two eggs cooked any style.”
• Longhorn Steakhouse offers a Pumpkin Spice Lava Cake, described as: “Warm pumpkin spice cake filled with a cream cheese icing and drizzled with Maker’s Mark® bourbon-caramel sauce and candied pecans. Your new Fall fave.”
• Donuts are getting ever more decadent, and Dunkin’ Donuts rolled out a Pumpkin Pie Donut: “The yeast doughnut is filled with pumpkin pie-flavored buttercream, frosted with white icing and sprinkled with graham cracker topping. “
Another flavor closely aligned with colder weather is bacon. We keep hearing that consumers are trying to eat healthier or are increasingly interested in better-for-you foods. Yet, Mintel research shows 44% of consumers cave into cravings when dining out at restaurants. The plethora of bacon offerings shows operators must be making consumers happy. Some highlights:
• Au Bon Pain offers a Bacon and Egg Frittata with fresh arugula, three Cheddar blend, and oven roasted tomato spread on a honey 9-grain bagel.
• Mimi’s Café offers Pommes Lyonnais Benedict, potato galettes topped with hickory-smoked bacon, sautéed spinach, sliced tomatoes, poached eggs, and hollandaise sauce, served with fruit.
• Longhorn Steakhouse launched its Brussels Sprouts Au Gratin, described as “Roasted Brussels sprouts and bacon in a four-cheese cream sauce topped with provolone and Parmesan bread crumbs.”
Since the holidays are just around the corner, diners look forward to going out and indulging not just on dessert, but on something more expensive, such as seafood. Unfortunately, eating shrimp is going to be more expensive this year, because shrimp imported from Asia (Thailand is the US’s largest shrimp supplier) are dying of a disorder called Early Mortality Syndrome. The LA Times (August 16, 2013) reports that a pound of shrimp cost consumers $3 in 2010; today it costs $6. Operators will have to pass on the higher costs, something unwanted in a recovering economy. Nevertheless, there will be consumers willing to pay more for a seafood dinner.
• Red Lobster features a Crab & Roasted Garlic Seafood Bake, described as “Steamed snow crab legs paired with tender shrimp and bay scallops roasted in a garlic and white wine broth. Served with sweet corn on the cob and red potatoes.”
• Bertucci’s launched a Shrimp & Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto, “Sautéed shrimp and brick oven roasted butternut squash simmered in a savory broth with Arborio rice and fresh basil, topped with shaved Parmesan cheese.”
• Baja Fresh Mexican Grill features Steak & Shrimp Ultimo, “Grilled veggies, freshly made Salsa Baja Jack & Cheddar cheese, Baja rice & sour cream wrapped in a warm flour tortilla with tender steak & fire-grilled shrimp.”

Keep the seasons separated. To keep consumers engaged in the excitement of seasonal items, launch seasonal flavors during the actual season. Offering seasonal items early erodes the novelty of the flavor; you don’t want consumers to tire of it.
Consumers expect comfort foods. Consumers are starting to feel the cold and they crave rich, hearty foods such as pancakes, waffles, pasta, bacon, desserts, burgers, pizza, and other foods they equate with comfort. But, use flavors of the season, such as pumpkin, squash, apple, and bacon, to help make the familiar pop.
Consumers like seafood. Despite the higher prices, operators should continue to offer shrimp and other seafood. While portions may have be smaller to control costs, bulk up on sides and pair it with other proteins to make the plate look fuller.

Julia Gallo-Torres
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