The research found that more than three out of five consumers think that turkey (64%) and chicken (61%) are healthier than beef or pork.
Technomic's poultry and beef/pork consumer trends reports, based on more than 3,000 consumer interviews and analysis of approximately 500 restaurant brand menus, also point to raised expectations among diners when they do decide to spring for beef entrées. Customers now expect higher quality of these entrées, including better cuts, aging and seasonings, says Technomic EVP Darren Tristano.
Based on "emerging flavor and preparation trends" and menu descriptions, the restaurant industry seems to be responding to customers' expectations on the beef front, Tristano says.
Among emerging full-service chains and independent restaurants, the top three preparation methods for beef were "cut" (as in hand-cut, center-cut or barrel-cut) at 16.7%, "grilled" (13.3%) and "aged" (12.4%). These were often used together in describing specific beef entrees.
However, Technomic notes that while chicken is consumed more frequently in restaurants than any other type of protein, "turkey is probably the most underutilized protein in all of foodservice."
Restaurant operators need to identify new preferences for both turkey and chicken preparation and flavor profiles, as well as which entrées and sandwiches they are most likely to order, Technomic concludes.
For example, while restaurants have increased their offerings of "bolder, globally inspired poultry dishes," the menu analyses indicated that they have yet to fully meet the growing consumer demand for more ethnic and regional chicken dishes. "Having a wide choice of new variations of glazes, sauces and preparation styles for proteins is very important to consumers," stresses Tristano.
Based on the research, Technomic also advises restaurant owners to understand how consumer attitudes toward health and ethical issues impact purchasing decisions. For example, 41% of consumers believe that it's important to choose free-range poultry, and 37% said that they are willing to pay more for this.
Other recommendations include:
* Tap into the growing interest in turkey among consumers in general (61% report eating turkey at least once every three months and 58% of these eat turkey sandwiches at least once per month). "Consumers understand that turkey is generally a healthier alternative than beef, yet we don't see a lot of turkey dishes out there," notes Tristano.
* Leverage student preferences. Full-time college students' attitudes toward proteins seem somewhat conflicted. Fewer students (39%), as compared with consumers in general (47%) find the high protein content of beef appealing, yet students are actually somewhat more inclined to consider beef to be healthier than pork, chicken or turkey.
"We're seeing a lot of vegetarians at the college level," Tristano comments. "And students are also even more inclined than consumers in general to want a wide variety of flavor and preparation alternatives on menus, including very hot varieties and Asian profiles."
When it comes to beef, students show greater interest in spicy, ethnic flavors such as chili pepper, chipotle and hot sauce, and less preference for traditional flavors such as garlic and black pepper.
* Understand Canadians' differing preferences. Several flavors for beef that are preferred by Americans, such as bourbon and chipotle, are significantly less appealing to Canadian consumers, according to the research.