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Chef Brian Duffy is a crowd favorite whenever he speaks at the Nightclub & Bar Show. He presented two excellent education sessions at this year’s show. One of these focused on bar food trends. It’s all well and good to embrace and keep ahead of beer, wine, spirit and cocktail trends, but don’t neglect your food menu. Here’s what Chef Duffy had to say about trends in bar food.

Mind the Media

Want to keep your pulse on what’s popular and fashionable? You only have to pay attention to what’s going on via social media. See what everybody is into, what your peers and competition are doing, and decide how you can enter the fray. Two trends that don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon (thankfully) are social responsibility/sustainability and informing consumers about the sources of their food items.

Keep Tabs on the Trash

One of the best ways to see what people are eating – and how much – is to monitor your trash cans. Chef Duffy recommends checking your trash at the end of the night. This will give you an idea of what’s coming back to your kitchen. Perhaps an item just isn’t catching on. Maybe your portions are too large. There’s a lot your trash cans can tell you.

Respect the Classics

In our industry classic doesn’t mean “old,” it means tried, true and staying power. One of the best ways to respect the classics is to either elevate them or create interesting (and delicious) riffs on them. Burgers are hot on menus right now, as are all sorts of sandwiches: grilled cheeses, bánh mì, po’ boys, muffaletta, panini and sliders. Some people have declared sliders to be “over” but Chef Duffy disagrees, saying that a trio (pulled pork, chicken and beef) is still a consistent top 10 menu item. In regards to grilled cheeses, make sure to build your sandwiches with cheese and protein in each corner and experiment with flavored butters. Muffalettas can be served cold, allowing operators to build them with the proper technique, make them ahead of time, and play with marinades. At the risk of stirring up controversy, tacos and hotdogs can be considered sandwiches and both make for excellent bar food. Tacos are, as Chef Duffy puts it, “stupid easy,” and hot dogs can be elevated with toppings.

Of course, it’s possible that nothing is more classic when it comes to food and alcohol beverages than cheese. Chef Duffy declared that, “Cheese is king,” pairing very well with craft beers, wine, and craft cocktails. Potato products are also hot, so consider offering tater tots and hand-cut fries since the food cost is so low and they’re crowd pleasers. Wings are also performing well and allow you to play with all sorts of sauces, dips and vegetables. No list of popular bar food would be complete without nachos, which play right into the trend of big, shareable apps that work well with vegetables as the star or as an accompaniment.

Tasteful Trends

Living in a health-conscious society as we do, vegetables are in demand. Be sure to offer them as sides on your menu. That leads us to another trend: seasonality. Adjust your menu – including vegetables – seasonally for success and to keep guests coming back to see what’s new. On the topic of guests, listen to what they have to tell you, your managers, your bartenders and your servers; they’ll you what they want and expect. If guests are asking for gluten-free items, give them those items. In Chef Duffy’s opinion it’s our job to give guests what they want. He credits allowing changes to happen with making him a better chef and operator.

Chef also shared these hot trends:

  • Bitter is in, sweet is out.
  • Have at least 4 items on your menu that are vegetarian or vegan friendly.
  • Get creative! Make a Scotch egg out of Brussels sprouts. Plate your food with artistic presentations. Use wantons to create nachos.
  • Falafels are one of the hottest fried foods right now. Another popular fried item is shiitake mushrooms.
  • Make your own bleu cheese powder and use it to elevate dishes: egg white, bleu cheese and hot sauce powder.
  • Big, bold flavors aren’t just considered creative, they’re considered fun.
  • Comfort foods are always in, but they become hot items that really move when you make them healthier with superior products and techniques.
  • House-made and artisanal products are popular. Make your own pickles, make your own fries, etc.

Make it Work

Knowing what the hottest trends are doesn’t mean much if you don’t act on them. Meet with your reps once per week and ask them point-blank what people are buying. Your reps need to be informed on trends and be able to communicate that information to you. Keep your kitchen staff engaged, excited and creative by keeping them busy every single hour they’re at work. You need to engage the rest of your staff as well, so choose one piece of information (trends, items, operations, etc.) and talk to them about it. Come up with 10 core values, a mission statement, and goals and share that with your employees. Engage them and you’ll instill in them a love for your business and the industry. Finally, don’t forget to listen to your staff about what’s hot and what trends are already over.

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chef-brian-duffy-on-menu-engineering-development-videoChef Brian Duffy