Start at the Top: Latest Appetizer Trends

Not only do appetizers come first in menu positioning, but often this meal part is also the place where new flavor and ingredients get a start. Because appetizers represent a smaller commitment than a main entrée, diners are willing to take more chances with them. Chefs take this dining behavior as an invitation to experiment with new flavors and preparation styles, and often use the appetizer category as a testing ground for bigger menu changes.

Aside from the flavor shifts that have come from appetizer experimentation, the past 10 years have shown how appetizers, starters, smaller dishes and shareable samplers have helped change the way we dine. Increasingly, people are opting to order a greater number of small plates for a variety-packed meal, or are looking to appetizer lists for more snacking options throughout the day. Mintel finds that 30% of people look to the appetizer menu for snacking options, and snacking is a growing opportunity in the restaurant industry.

Not surprisingly, some of the biggest changes in appetizers come from the way this menu section is being named, from the cute – “nibbles” and “bites” – to the festive, like the “Appeateaser Crowd Pleasers” featured at Mongolian Grill last spring, operators are offering more top-of-the-menu options to make the most of new “anytime eating” patterns, often listing several sections of small dishes above the entrées.

Wings Still the Thing

Wings began as a thrifty way to make the most of an inexpensive and underutilized part of the bird, and this dish has sometimes fallen victim to its own success – with chicken wing prices and availability often causing a problem in supply and demand. But, price fluctuations aside, wings are not going anywhere; in fact, this dish has grown in menu mentions by a hefty 44% over the past three years. Aside from the popularity of wings-centric places like Buffalo Wings & Things, they are now a standard in other concepts, like delivery chains and family dining.

Because wings have been the reigning appetizer for years, their familiarity has bred new flavors in dipping sauces. The top chicken wing sauces are mostly the familiar Buffalo, barbecue and teriyaki; but leading-concept Buffalo Wild Wings is expanding the flavor possibilities, and now offers 16 sauce flavors and four dry seasonings.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

The fact that chicken wings, with their sauce varieties and appetizer samplers, are the most menued appetizers offers clear examples of how new flavors can take flight in product and menu development. Samplers and wings are dippable, mix-and-matchable and shareable. Wings, in particular, have given rise to the hot and cooling combination of a chili pepper sauce and blue cheese or ranch dressing – a flavor pairing that now shows up on sandwiches, sauces and pizzas.

Appetizer Evolution

Another interesting pattern in the appetizer category is the way some traditional favorites, like chicken fingers (flat), garlic bread (down 2%) and potato skins (down 13%) have declined in menu mentions in the past three years. These declines support the fact that variety and experimentation are vital to the appetizer category, but they also show how tastes evolve. For instance, chicken fingers are flat, yet wings are still soaring.

While traditionally flavored garlic bread is down, Mintel is tracking strong growth patterns in other bread-based appetizers, such as flatbreads (up 466% in the appetizer category) and breadsticks (up 19%). Bread is a great platform for more varied flavors, toppings and add-ons. What’s more, refashioning pizza dough and French or Italian bread into shareable appetizers is cost-effective and extends the use of ingredients already on hand.

Likewise, loaded potato skins are down, but French fries are being cross-purposed for a dippable, toppable appetizer, showing a 36% jump in menu mentions over the past three years in the appetizer category.

Source: ConAgra Foodservice