Top trends at US restaurants in 2008 to gather pace in ’09?

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 29th January 2009

The biggest things on 2008 menus were small, with mini food, low prices and lighter options. Looking back at menus in the US from 2008, Mintel Menu Insights reveals that three of the year’s top trends had to do with downsizing: mini food, value pricing, and lighter food options (the result of strengthened nutrition labelling laws in America).

restaurant food

“2008 was an extremely difficult year for the restaurant industry. Many Americans were trying to save money by going out to eat less, so restaurants were looking for new ways to attract diners,” Maria Caranfa, Director of Mintel Menu Insights, noted. “Many foodservice establishments focussed on providing targeted value, the exact food people wanted at prices they could afford.”

This year, Ms Caranfa expects 2008’s “downsizing” trends to continue as restaurants find new ways to stretch a dollar.

Mini Food Creates Big Splash

“Mini food was the runaway trend of 2008,” Ms Caranfa advised. “Fun and frivolous, yet reasonably priced, mini foods offered the perfect balance between sensibility and satisfaction.” Mini burgers dominated the mini trend: Mintel Menu Insights reports that 28 restaurants added mini burgers to their menus last year. But mini sandwiches and bite-sized desserts were also popular, spotted on restaurant menus ranging from casual to fine dining.

Value Pricing Makes Cheap Chic

In 2008, Mintel Menu Insights saw many restaurants offer meals for special, affordable prices. “Value pricing was a natural fit for 2008. Consumers had less to spend, but they still wanted to dine out for convenience and enjoyment,” explained Ms Caranfa. Special/value pricing appeared everywhere from quick-service restaurants, like Subway, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, to upscale establishments.

Nutrition Labelling Laws Spark Lighter Dining Options

The movement for mandatory nutritional labeling on restaurant menus gained traction as cities like New York and Philadelphia joined in. It has since spread to the UK, and is currently being assessed as a potential option by the Preventative Health Taskforce here in Australia. With more attention paid to the health of restaurant food, Mintel Menu Insights saw some restaurants offering lower calorie items on their menus last year. For example, Cosi – an American restaurant chain with a focus on gourmet salads and sandwiches – launched a “Lighten Up!” menu with less-than-500-calorie versions of its sandwiches and salads. “Restaurants realise that increasing transparency about their food’s health is paramount to gaining consumer trust and loyalty,” Ms Caranfa concluded.

Mintel also expects comfort food and Mediterranean food to be among the other restaurant trends for 2009.