While the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t drastically change menu trends influencing the limited-service restaurant industry, it certainly did place an emphasis on two characteristics that operators would be wise to pursue for at least the short-term: portability and comfort. And side-dish innovation might be an easy way for operators to check those two boxes without committing to major menu evolution.
Fried sides, of course, continue to reign, specifically fried potatoes in the form of french fries, tots, and chips. And those platforms can be a great starting place for creative new sides.
Chef Adam Moore is consulting chef for the Idaho Potato Commission. He says restaurant operators that are looking to go beyond the standard french fry should consider things like scalloped potatoes and loaded mashed potatoes, both of which travel well. In addition, there are plenty of opportunities to get creative with signature potato chips and loaded french fries.
“We know that hot and crispy french fries can be tricky with off-premises dining, but change your customers’ expectation by loading them up with ooey and gooey ingredients such as cheese or gravy,” Moore says. “Add crunch with crispy garnishes, held separately, for your customer to add right before eating—such as bacon bits, crunchy croutons, cheese crisps, etc.”
Indeed, with off-premises business ruling during the pandemic—and likely enduring long after—Moore says operators must remember to steer menu innovation toward travel-friendly items served in durable, functional packaging with tamper-proof labels. He adds that operators should mimic their delivery process for any new side innovation to gauge its portability.
Some national brands have already discovered the opportunity in loaded fries; just look at Wingstop with its Cheese Fries, Louisiana Voodoo Fries, and Buffalo Ranch Fries. Others have branched into loaded tots, like Sonic Drive-In with its Chili Cheese Tots and recent test of “Totchos,” which were topped with cheese sauce, bacon pieces, diced onions, jalapeños, and a baja sauce.
While onion rings, chips, and tots have become popular alternatives to fries, one less-common fried side with plenty of potential is the cheese curd. Not only are the small, fried cheese balls portable, dippable, and open to innovation, but also, Rick Findlay, vice president of foodservice for the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, says they can command a double-digit price premium over fries.
While curds are an easy sell for Wisconsin-based brands like Cousins Subs and Toppers Pizza—the latter of which offers a beer-battered version both as a side or on top of a pizza—Findlay says they’re finding a home on more menus across the country. A&W, for one, developed a Sriracha Cheese Curds LTO that’s proved massively popular.
“Sriracha Cheese Curds advance A&W’s strategy to innovate and expand our menu while staying true to customers’ tastes,” says Kevin Bazner, A&W’s CEO. “First a regional delicacy, they now are one of our most distinctive and popular items.”
Regionality can indeed play an important role in side-dish development. That’s especially true of international flavors, which continue to gain favor with American audiences and bring a vast opportunity for menu innovation.
San Francisco–based SAJJ Mediterranean has sides like eggplant ragout, sumac cauliflower, and chocolate hummus with cinnamon chips. It also introduced a Mezze menu late last year that includes sides akin to shareable appetizers or tapas, including Pita Tacos as well as Hummus Plates, which are hummus and pita topped with chicken shawarma, steak shawarma, eggplant ragout, pomegranate chicken, sumac cauliflower, or garbanzo beans.
CEO Zaid Ayoub says Mediterranean cuisine offers hundreds of options for sides, which lets operators provide a food adventure for guests. “[The quick-serve industry] is given the unique opportunity to diversify the menu and give a similar experience to what options customers would have at a dine-in restaurant with appetizers,” Ayoub says. “The Mezze menu options at SAJJ are especially attractive because, with many people at home, these are sides that feature traditional flavors and travel well for delivery, and can be shared among more than one person at home.”
The Hummus & Pita Co. similarly offers a wide range of Mediterranean-inspired sides. Guests can order any of the entrée toppings as sides, whether that’s Israeli cous cous, quinoa salad, or tabbouleh. There are also traditional sides like grape leaves, pita chips, and spanakopita, and of course, several hummus options. There are even regular and sweet potato fries on the menu.
CEO Dave Pesso says the brand tailors all of its dishes to a wide range of diets and preferences, which allows for a broader swath of customers to find something they can enjoy. He says guests today are especially looking for healthy and immunity-boosting options.
“For example, our latest spin on babaganoush, which we call Avoganoush because it features the addition of avocado, is vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free,” he says. “Our roasted Lebanese cauliflower, black bean hummus, or Corfu cauliflower rice all can be enjoyed by someone with any diet, are made with the freshest ingredients, and still deliver great taste.”