Food trends and brand optimization

Spend some time looking through the time capsule of January’s food trends listicles and something interesting pops up quickly. Most of these food trends don’t apply to your brand. I can write that with confidence despite not knowing for sure which brand you’re from. The problem with endless choice and (endless content for that matter) is that people can chase down niche interests; and each niche interest can become a trend.

Items on your menu should be built to generate interest, for sure. But it’s also important that brands stay in their lane. If your brand is build on fresh, stir-fried flavors, a hamburger might be an awkward addition. Seems easy until burgers show up on a list of top food trends. When we see the burger place next store doing well, we want to add something to our menu to get in on the trend, avoid the veto and compete with the leaders.

What can happen over time is the endless addition of items that build to a trend, but stretch the brand beyond normal range. Especially for brands coming from lower sales, the temptation to add trendy items is huge. But a focus on the core is critical for brands hoping to turn it around.

Inside food trends

Instead of adding items from the latest pile of food trends, understand the reason that each trend is catching on and build an item to capitalize on the ‘why.’ Kombucha and brain stimulants aren’t right for most mass brands, but the trend is about consumers maximizing perceived benefits from their food. Find ways to highlight ingredients that have a positive effect. This might be as simple as Chick-Fil-A’s recent addition of kale salad in place of the higher calorie cole slaw.

Take what works from the trend and apply it to your core customer. Despite the press that a lot of food trends get, most are so niche that there isn’t an audience that will change traffic. But incorporating an element into your menu can earn credit with those aware of the trend.

Improve core items

Sticking with the craveable core items of your brand forces your team to work to make each item as great as it can be. Ever been to a diner? They have a menu 20 pages long and a two-star Yelp! review because they keep adding items but don’t do any of them particularly well. Spend the time to make your menu unique within your category. If the trend is charcuterie, that might be a signal to focus on the cuts of meat on the menu. Look at what Arby’s is doing with their menu.

The goal is to take what the brand is best at and optimize it. For every wild new item added, there is distraction added to the operations which can slow down the kitchen and lead to service lapses.

Just say no

Discipline is easy when things are going well. If it’s not clear how a trend fits with your concept, walk away. Allow the independent shop down the street experiment with fermentation. If your core customer isn’t begging for it, or leaving you to get it elsewhere, be brave enough to pass.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of food trends. They tend to get the short-term attention. The key is to ensure that your brand is incorporating the parts of the food trends that work for your brand – and your guests.

Family matters

Some concepts are designed around kids. A brand like Chuck E. Cheese’s will always have an uphill climb trying to convince adults it is a place they’ll enjoy after decades of marketing kids parties. Winning with the family is no easy task. For every day occasions, people with kids have a simple concern that most brands can address, but few do well.

Kids are little people. People have opinions. This causes stress during family dinners. Not the opinions themselves, but the way those opinions differ from the adults. And the “conversations” that come from those disagreements.

Restaurant brands that make a family comfortable during their visits will win the next one. This is critical to sustaining sales growth because obviously, a family visit accounts for more seats and a higher average check. So winning with the family is becoming less and less optional. Here are three ways to ensure the next family visit is a good one from beginning to end.

The challenge is to give a family a chance to enjoy a meal together, without creating a separate experience in each seat at the table.

1. Menu planning

The first thing a parent does when they’re seated with their kids is to look at the kid’s menu. The best ones have some familiar items and one or two ‘experimental’ dishes. Most kids have a wheelhouse of a few items they love. When a parent doesn’t see anything, they fear the whole family will suffer.

Reading this, the basic items should be clear: chicken fingers, mac and cheese, pizza. The basics. The other side of the coin is finding a way to tie those basic items into your concept and make them your own. Red Robin does a great job of offering a variety of kids dishes with a spin on them. The kids are happy and the adults feel like they are giving them a treat.

2. Balance the kids and the adults

As always, the trickiest part comes with operations. Having a solid kids menu is important, but executing is more important. Train staff to read the table. If the parents appear to be anxious, chances are it is about the kids. There are simple ways to address this. For example, the server might offer to take the kids’ orders early, as with an appetizer course. Getting the kids fed tends to take some stress off of the parents. This simple practice is surprisingly rare.

Skewing too far towards making the kids happy is another way to lose the adults. Don’t forget that the kids aren’t paying the check. A little focus on easing the family into their meal is great, but too much can make a restaurant feel like a carnival, something adults want to avoid. Brands don’t have to ignore the grown-ups to provide an experience kids will enjoy.

3. Let us entertain you

The main idea is to provide some distraction for the kids. Places like Chevys Fresh Mex give kids fresh tortilla dough and crayons to entertain them. This pleases the kids AND reinforces the promise of freshly prepared food. Red Robin has added interesting games and activities that a family can bring back to the table to enjoy separately or together.

Buffalo Wild Wings takes the concept a step further by offering game tablets for the kids. It’s only fair since the adults are provided with dozens of televisions. The balance with entertainment is to give a family a chance to enjoy a meal together, without creating a separate experience in each seat at the table.

Do these steps solve every challenge in pleasing the family guest? Admittedly, no. But surprisingly, many restaurant brands underserve the family and surrender their share of higher count table occasions.

Is your brand experience easy to understand?

I visit a lot of restaurant concepts to find new trends and innovations. I always note is how easy it is for a new customer to understand what they are supposed to do to enjoy their visit. Especially their first visit. Blow that one, and there may not be a second. In our research into Millennial dining habits, 58% told us they base dining decisions on past experience. It is important to get it right early and often.


This is an issue on two levels. First, choosing the menu items and names that let people understand what they are choosing from and what it will taste like. Some concepts go all in on naming conventions that don’t always set expectations. Krystal calls its regular burgers Krystals. Probably fine given the presentation of the menu and focus on that primary items. But also on the menu are variations of hotdogs called Pups and Corn Pups.

Does everything on the menu make sense together? If you’re an Asian wok-based concept like Pei Wei, adding sushi is not a far leap for the customer. Less so at a southern chicken concept. That’s pretty simple. What about new items Buffalo Wild Wings has added? The brand has done great with a straightforward menu and formula of wings, sports and beer. Do burgers make sense there, or is the brand grasping for innovation. They’ve also added a pulled pork sandwich to their menu, even further afield. Raising Cane’s has been disciplined in keeping the menu extremely tight. Time will tell if they feel the need to expand the menu when location growth slows.

Don’t underestimate the importance of menu design. QSR and fast casual brands have the burden of communicating the flavor and experience at distance and often without much conversation. At Culver’s, the menu is much more expansive than a new guest might expect, making the first visit potentially overwhelming. Is the menu organized as simply as it can be? Are there flavor cues where needed? Is the menu divided intelligently, so it can be scanned.


This is sometimes out of your control, but a restaurant layout needs to welcome people. In casual dining, it’s important to have an area near a host’s stand for guests to gather and wait. But also to hear the music and see the sights inside the restaurant. No one likes to wait, but at least give them a chance to absorb the atmosphere and get excited to get to their seats. Texas Roadhouse does a great job with this.

In fast casual and especially QSR, give them an entry that allows them to comfortably view the menu. Even if a restaurant is as simple as Five Guys or Firehouse Subs, the first visit takes some orientation. Give people space to stand back and observe; don’t force them directly into the queue. Watch people’s first visit to a Qdoba and witness the awkward pauses, the questions, the confusion. Don’t position the menu at awkward angles that make it hard for people to read. A common mistake is posting the menu boards on the wall along the queue at chest height; the spacing makes it impossible to read.

When designing a standard footprint we maximize seating, kitchen equipment, safety. Make sure customer experience is included. Especially for new guests. How much does the layout give the guest a chance to understand the brand? Guests need to look at some of the food on other guests tables, see how they’re eating it, and what they’re combining.


Does your staff know their stuff? Do they help people understand? Are they trained to explain the concept and guide people towards favorite menu items? In a perfect world, the answers to all of these are yes. But reality is far from perfection. Even with the best menus and a flawless layout, some guests just won’t read or get it. Some will want to talk to staff and test them.

Find out what the most common questions are from guests. Set up training programs to give staff the help they need to perform at this level. Secret shop to ensure a high standard is being upheld. Reward staff living up to that standard with spot bonuses or other perks.

Staff trained in explaining the experience are trained in hospitality. Executing that well turns a confusing experience into a great one.