Nancy Kruse is one of the names on everyone’s lips when it comes to trends. President of The Kruse Company, author of the Kruse Report (which appears in Nation’s Restaurant News), a guest lecturer at the Culinary Institute of America, and an international speaker and menu trends analyst, Kruse simply says, “I eat and talk for a living.”
She was doing both during the opening day of COEX, the annual Chain Operators Exchange put on by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association (IFMA). We sat down and asked her a few questions:
How did you become a food trends analyst?
Not by design. It was not a career path I plotted. It’s a combination of my past work that allowed me to take an analytical look at menu trends, and the need for people to understand menu trends. It’s why I do so many conferences. I’m forced to stay abreast of, and even ahead of, the trends. My job requires me to be out in restaurants around the world.
Do you consider yourself a foodie?
It depends on your definition of a “foodie.” I consider a foodie someone who appreciates the food and, at the same time, appreciates the talent, effort and creativity that went into creating the food. In that case, I’m a foodie.
What do you think is the current state of the restaurant business?
I’ve been tracking the chain restaurant business for 25 years, and over the last decade I’ve seen the mass market undergo a real culinary revolution. You know, trained culinarians are now doing menu development at the major chains. Real Americans eat in chains, and they are truly America’s test kitchen. Chefs guiding menu development—it’s the most exciting development I’ve seen in my entire career.
You mentioned kimchee. What other flavor trends do you see?
Kimchee is easy because Korean is the fastest growing ethnic cuisine. In California you are seeing a combining of Korean with Mexican. But I’m also seeing comfort foods with a twist. Grilled cheese with brie and lobster, so you now have comfort with the addition of premium. There are three major trends guiding chain restaurant menu development: 1) freshness; 2) flavor; 3) premium. When you add premium, it elevates the dish in terms of perception. Yes, premium is really hot.
Minis and sliders doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. It started in the dessert category, flipped to the burger category, and now Ruby Tuesday has mini eggs benedict. Restaurants are offering mini soup samples, and they are good, too. Every section of the menu is being reconsidered and right-sized.
There is nothing hotter at the moment than smoking. It suggests artisanal, Southern comfort, a more flavorful experience. Chain chefs are rethinking their barbecue.
Is your knowledge enhanced by a refined palate?
You know, because I don’t have a culinary background I’ve gone through the introductory courses at the Culinary Institute of America. But it’s not my palate as much as my analytical skills that are in play. Those may be more important. I read menus on a constant basis. I read the city magazines just to watch the restaurant stories, in both big cities and small. I read about restaurants in major and minor markets. The more you read, the more you see patterns emerging. So, it’s not palate—this is a subjective enough business, and I try to be as objective as possible.
What do you see as the impact of health & nutrition on the restaurant industry?
By and large it’s very much a question of stealth health. It’s not clear to me that federal agencies will be able to legislate health on the menu. At the end of the day, the restaurant customer is driven by a flavorful, satisfying restaurant experience. It’s a plus if it’s also good for you, but not a driving force. It goes back to that culinary revolution. Chefs recognize they can make foods better. They’ve learned to engineer the use of herbs, spices, flavoring systems, and still deliver a totally satisfying dish.
Are you a cook?
No; I never cook at home. I consider it intimidating. I spent most of my time in those culinary classes hiding in the corner.
Nancy Kruse may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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