(May 27, 6:07 p.m.) CHICAGO — Restaurants that don’t highlight freshness, flavor and healthfulness on the menu probably won’t thrive for very long.

That’s the word from Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta, a menu trends specialist who spoke at the May 19 workshop session, “Focus on the Future: Turning Up the Heat on Your Menu” at the National Restaurant Association’s 2008 Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show.

The three trends put produce in a very good light, and in fact, “There may be a produce renaissance. I think side dishes will take on a whole new life as we move through the seasons,” she said.

FRESHNESS

A survey of chefs a few years ago revealed that chefs overwhelmingly believe that freshness is the No. 1 menu trend. In a follow-up survey that asked why, the chefs said that freshness connotes better taste with a healthy and value perception. The mention of a fresh seasonal produce item in the name of a dish helps convey freshness. For example, Kruse noted Mimis Café’s citrus-broiled shrimp springtime special with fresh asparagus and strawberries and Panera Bread’s tomato and fresh mozzarella salad with fresh basil.

FLAVOR

The fresh basil also fits in with the second trend, flavor, which Kruse said will remain as long as we’re around.

Pointing out TGI Friday’s crispy green bean fries with wasabi-cucumber sauce, Kruse said that there’s been a revival with cucumbers for the cooling sense it gives. With wasabi as the No. 1 fastest growing condiment, the pairing of its hotness with the cooling quality of cucumbers demonstrates a juxtaposition that is a flavor opportunity for other restaurants.

Among ethnic flavors, Asian is the hottest trend that Kruse expects to continue. Though Mexican food is popular, and is almost a menu staple, Asian cuisine is the fastest growing ethnic category, she believes because it is less familiar and broader in regional types, such as Chinese, Japanese and Thai.

HEALTHFULNESS

With health as the third menu driver, Kruse suggested that restaurants add some of the popular superfoods to dishes. A few of those superfoods known for their nutrition benefits are blueberries, pomegranates, broccoli, oranges, spinach and tomatoes. She highlighted Uno Chicago Grill’s watermelon and blueberry salad.

With beverages as the fastest growing menu category in 2007, adding those superfoods to the beverage lineup also makes sense. For example, Kruse highlighted Bugaboo Creek Steak House’s wild Maine blueberry lemonade; TGI Friday’s fresh margaritas (blueberry-mango margarita, raspberry-cherry margarita and tropical passion margarita with guava and mango); and Maggie Moo’s raspberry-pomegranate smoothie.

Top menu trends: ‘Freshness, flavor and health’
The three mega menu trends to watch are freshness, flavor and healthfulness, says Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta, during the May 19 National Restaurant Association workshop session "Focus on the Future: Turning up the heat on your menu."