Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Trend or fad: Two to handicap

As I’ve mentioned here before, two publications where I worked had hard and fast rules to differentiate a fad from what we could suggest was a trend. If there were two or fewer examples of something new, it was a hula hoop. But if at least three instances could be cited, all hail the next mini-dessert or slider.

I’ve been rethinking that standard as I consider the flurry of new items appearing on restaurant menus, especially the ones that have been adopted by more than one concept. Two products in particular seem as if they could have legs, even if they haven’t yet met The Rule of Three.

Consider, for instance, funnel cakes, or variations there of. Scanning the food court at a Florida airport last week, I noticed that a conventional funnel cake, just like the one you’d munch at a country fair while viewing the prize zucchinis, was being offered at a combination Nathan’s/Arthur Treacher’s walk-up counter.

A few hours later, a business acquaintance mentioned that he’d tried a new dessert at Burger King the day before, a serving of “funnel cake sticks” that he adjudged “right on.” A day later, BK issued an announcement that the product, first tested at its Whopper Bar spin-off concept, would be rolled into every conventional U.S. store. The dessert consists of long, separate sticks of a chewy cake, rather than the tangled rope of fried dough that constitutes a traditional funnel cake.

Consider for a second that fast-food restaurants haven't exactly been printing their dessert menus in pencil to handle the slew of the changes. There’s been a new strawberry shortcake here, a new cheesecake on a stick there. But that section of the menu board has hardly been the scene of dizzying switches. Might funnel cakes be on their way to joining deep-fried fruit pies as a new add-on staple?

Fast-food chains would no doubt appreciate that a funnel cake requires a fryer rather than a freezer or refrigerator space. As long as they could fry it without cutting into French fry production, they'd be happy to use a piece of equipment that is in virtually every quick-service kitchen out there. There's a lot going for the product, speaking purely in operational terms.

But, alas, we’ve yet to see that third example that verifies this is a true wave rather than a coincidence.

The other potential trend is already at the 2.5-instance mark, with an asterisk. Fresh asparagus is hardly a rarity on restaurant menus. But recent appearances suggest the spears may be set for more of an embrace by mainstream chains.

Consider, for instance, the Sausage Sandwich at Parasole Restaurant Group’s just-unveiled concept, Il Gatto in Minneapolis. Parasole is the independent group that has hatched such concepts as Oceanaire, Buca de Beppo, Manny’s, and Burger Jones. Il Gatto is being promoted as a casual place featuring "uptown Italian" fare.

In an early look at the concept, blogger James Norton touted the Sausage Sandwich as a must-try selection. It consists of a sausage made on premise, garnished with stracchino cheese and nestled atop a toasted bun with several stalks of asparagus. “Asparagus gives the sandwich a bit of vegetal balance and a pleasant textural snap,” writes Norton.

The picture he posted suggests the asparagus delivers considerable eye appeal as well.

Asparagus is being similarly wielded by Dogmatic Gourmet Sausage System, the upscale, organic hot dog concept that chain-restaurant veteran Brad Blum opened in 2008 in New York City.

The injection of color, flavor and a snappy texture could be a strong differentiator for fast-casual sandwich concepts—provided the high-volume users could buy sufficient supplies of acceptable quality at a reasonable cost.

Those are all big if’s, of course. But Mimi’s, the family chain that’s more of an upscale casual brand than a competitor of Denny’s, has featured asparagus as an ingredient for several years now.

Granted, it’s incorporated in the spring, when asparagus is in season. But if demand were high enough, areas whose growing seasons fall in the winter would presumably start cultivating the vegetable. If we can get strawberries all year long, why not asparagus?

Maybe with a funnel cake for dessert.

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