Top | Sift

Move over, meatloaf

(article, Melanie Mesaros)

Cedar-seared salmon and braised sea bass aren't just for foodies dining at four-star restaurants anymore. Across America, mid-level chain restaurants are expanding their menus to include ingredients and preparations from around the world. 

Those fish dishes are being offered at places like T.G.I. Friday's, a nationwide chain with nearly 600 locations, and Claim Jumper, another chain popular with families and business people.  

“Palates are so sophisticated now because of the Food Network and travel,” says Phil Costner of T.G.I. Friday's customers. “They are exposed to more through the media than ever before.” 

Costner, the vice president of research and development for the restaurant, left behind a career as a chef for white-tablecloth diners to cook for the masses. He says consumers today are not only more cultured but are more educated about what they eat.  

“They're looking for spice blends, sweet-and-hot combinations,” he says. 

John Merlino, a corporate chef for Claim Jumper, says his company has been incorporating more global flavors into its lineup. 

“Our Malaysian salad is something our guests had never seen. We were a little bit worried because the marinated seared steak that we're serving is cold,” he says. “Who would have thought? People love it.”

Everybody wants flavor, of course. But the average customer at these restaurants tends to shy away from the extreme. One of T.G.I. Friday's newest menu items is crispy green-bean fries with a cucumber-wasabi-ranch dressing. 

“Wasabi is a real trendy thing,” Costner says. “But they aren't looking for an authentic Asian experience; they probably aren't ready.” He says it's a balance not only with taste but with timing: “If we had done that \[wasabi dressing\] two years ago, it would have flopped.” 

Even takeout pizza has gone gourmet. Papa Murphy's, a chain with 970 stores across the country, is having great success with its latest creation: a Mediterranean-themed pie topped with olive oil, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and chicken. 

“It's probably been our most successful product launch in the last year and a half,” says Jim Simmons, the director of Papa Murphy's brand development. 

Variety is essential, Simmons says, especially in the pizza business, an industry with relatively flat growth. Right now, the company is testing a chicken, bacon, and artichoke pizza in — of all places — Fargo, North Dakota. 

“If you can sell it in Fargo, you can probably sell it just about anywhere,” Simmons says. 

Costner has a prediction for the next big “it” flavor: chimichurri, an Argentinian sauce traditionally used as a meat marinade. 

“It's quickly becoming the new chipotle,” says Costner. “The flavor of chipotle never changed; it was the public that changed.”