Those time-honored familiar dishes that bring comfort in uncertain times—or any time—are always in vogue. You may have to adjust your menu and prices to relieve economic and labor pressures, but it’s the comfort foods that keep your guests coming back.
Phelix Gardner, executive chef and partner at PAGO in Salt Lake City, defines comfort food as “dishes that warm the soul and nourish the body,” citing such items as breads, pastas, braises and soups. “They hit the spot and remind us of better times.”1
Perhaps it’s that nostalgic “better times” sense that led chefs to vote for “comfort food” as one of the top five culinary trends for 2022 in the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot 2022 Culinary Forecast” survey.2 As you conjure ways to win guest favor with comfort food on your menu, consider these three angles.
Bring fun and adventure
Hit your guests’ taste buds with something familiar combined with something current. Mix up starchy classic favorites like bread, pasta and potatoes with other menu favorites, new sauces and spices. Buffalo Wild Wings recently added Buffalo Chicken Tots to its appetizer menu featuring tater tots, pulled chicken, buffalo seasoning, bleu cheese crumbles, pickled hot peppers, buffalo sauce, ranch and green onions. Along that same comfort line, it also added Buffalo Mac & Cheese including boneless wings, buffalo sauce, cheddar jack cheese and a panko topping.
Convenience store Maverik also went with tots for a tater tots/nachos mashup in a 2021 “Tachos-Grilled Chicken” LTO. The tater tots came loaded with queso blanco, grilled chicken, three-cheese blend and pico de gallo.
Offer global takes
Liven up comfort food dishes with flavors and ingredients common in other cultures. The same “What’s Hot” survey that ranks comfort food in the top five culinary trends also includes global fare and flavors.2 Maneet Chauhan, chef, TV personality, restaurateur and author, regularly combines comfort and Indian flavors, saying “My Indian twist on the traditional meatloaf is kabob style with the warm Indian spices I know and love.”1
Velvet Taco’s Spicy Tikka Chicken taco combines comfort and global cuisine, featuring crispy tenders, spicy tikka sauce, buttered cilantro basmati rice, raita crema, Thai basil and a flour tortilla.
Combining American comfort with Asian comfort, Urbanbelly added Hot Chicken Bao Buns to its menu. In addition to hot chicken, the buns feature cabbage, pickle, lemongrass and fire sauce.
Add popular proteins
Not only do proteins add a satiating quality, but they also help break up the starch that is inherent to many comfort foods and bring value to command a higher price. You likely already have chicken somewhere on the menu. Fried chicken alone is found on about 45% of menus. That increases to nearly 56% among midscale restaurants and 54% in casual dining.3
Ramen, a long-time comfort food, is in the proliferation phase on menus.4 Noodle Theory Restaurant in Oakland, California, menus Fried Chicken Karaage Ramen in a spicy pork miso broth.
Even a classic grilled cheese sandwich gets a boost with added chicken. Consider multiunit Zaxby’s offer of Buffalo Chicken Grilled Cheese with wheatberry toast, shredded chicken, melted American and cheddar cheese and buffalo sauce.
Don’t forget the comfort of turkey and stuffing, which is in the ubiquity phase on menus.4 But turkey has more plays than traditional Thanksgiving fare. For one of its comfort foods, health-focused Snap Kitchen offers Turkey Meatloaf with Potato-Turnip Mash & Green Beans.
There are so many opportunities for comfort food with a flavorful, adventurous and global twist. These favorite dishes will never go out of style. Treat the classic favorites like a blank canvas to give your spin, adding value and fresh flavor notes. Your guests will keep coming back.
- Stephens, Regan, “These Will be the 25 Biggest Dining Trends in 2022, According to Chefs,” Foodandwine.com, Dec. 9, 2021, https://www.foodandwine.com/lifestyle/biggest-food-restaurant-trends-2022
- What’s Hot 2022 Culinary Forecast (National Restaurant Association, Nov. 16, 2021, https://go.restaurant.org/rs/078-ZLA-461/images/2022_What%27s_Hot_Report.pdf
- Datassential Comfort Foods Penetration, Menu Trends Infinite Report, June 7, 2022
- Datassential Comfort Foods Menu Adoption Cycle Chart, March 2022