According to Mintel International’s Menu Insights, barbecue is rising steadily in restaurants, with overall barbecue menu items increasing 11% from the fourth quarter of 2016 to the fourth quarter of 2019. (MMI). Boneless chicken wings (up 32%), chicken wings (up 13%), barbecue pizza (up 13%), and bacon burgers are among the fastest increasing menu items utilizing barbecue sauces (up 4 percent).
“The increase in chicken reflects a bigger industry trend toward this protein, which lets consumers to experience certain decadent preps — barbecue sauces, fried chicken — while still reaping the health benefits of a leaner protein,” explains Jill Failla, Mintel foodservice analyst. “Pizza and bacon burgers, on the other hand, show that customers are still willing to indulge in their favorite dishes while dining out.” These last two recipes also show how barbecue sauces are expanding beyond their typical applications, such as ribs and classic barbecue proteins, and showing up in a wider range of foods.”
Chicken is also the most menued protein when the term BBQ is used, according to Datassential in Chicago. For example, 68 percent of barbecue restaurants have at least one item with chicken on the menu, followed by 37 percent with pork.
More boneless chicken preparations, such as chicken tenders, are also emerging in barbecue dishes at restaurants, according to Anne Mills, senior manager of consumer insights at Technomic, a Winsight Co. in Chicago. A movement has evolved that claims poultry is free of antibiotics, hormones, tastes, colors, and preservatives.
According to Phil Butler, vice president of company stores and culinary at Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurant in Dallas, people who follow diet trends like the Keto diet go toward grilled, fire, and roasted cooking procedures. As a result, hickory-smoked, antibiotic-free chicken breasts and hickory-smoked turkey sandwiches have become popular at Dickey’s 500 locations. Fried chicken, on the other hand, continues to be popular.
Chicken thighs with barbeque are also becoming more popular on menus, with 1 percent of menus featuring barbecue and a 65 percent increase over the previous year, according to Datassential.
Pork belly is also being combined with barbecue more these days, and it currently features on 1% of barbecue menus, up 68 percent in the last four years. Brisket is also on the rise, appearing on 9 percent of barbecue menus, representing a 36 percent increase.
According to Rick Husted, vice president, market research and strategic planning at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a contractor to the Beef Checkoff based in Centennial, Colorado, short ribs have had strong volume and growth at full-service restaurants (FSR) and limited-service restaurants (LSR) since 2015.
Brisket has seen good volume and growth as well, rising from 19 million pounds to 36 million pounds in FSR and 11 million pounds to 33 million pounds in LSR.
Tri-tip volume has remained relatively stable since 2015, at around 7 million pounds in FSR and 1 million pounds in LSR.
Since 2015, the volume of back ribs has increased somewhat in FSR, from 6 million pounds to 9 million pounds, and in LSR, from less than 1 million pounds to 3 million pounds.
Innovation is being pushed
According to Datassential, barbeque is flat on menus but still appears on roughly 60% of restaurant menus. However, some flavor variants are becoming more popular, such as Korean barbecue, which now appears on 2% of menus and has grown 56 percent in the last four years.
Bourbon barbecue is presently on 1% of menus and has grown by 44% in the last four years. According to Datassential, honey BBQ is on 4% of menus and has increased by 22% in the same time period.
Hawaiian, basil, pineapple, savory, and spicy are the fastest-growing flavors combined with barbecue sauce, according to Technomic Ignite Menu data.
Barbecue/buffalo chicken pizza, barbecue burger, barbecue chicken sandwich, chicken sandwich, wings/chicken wings appetizer, pork ribs, pork sandwich, and speciality burgers are the top menued items with barbecue sauces, according to Technomic.
According to Claire Conaghan, Datassential’s product excellence group manager, calls to regional barbecue styles are rare, with fewer than 1% outside of barbecue-specific cuisine varieties stated on menus.
Regional styles such as white barbecue (6 percent of barbecue cuisine restaurants menu this year and up 202 percent in the last four years), Kansas City barbecue (1 percent of barbecue cuisine restaurants menu this year and up 201 percent in the last four years), and Carolina barbecue are all seeing increased demand (4 percent of barbecue cuisine restaurants menu this year and rose 51 percent during the past four years). Korean, honey, and spicy flavors are also popular at barbecue restaurants, according to Conaghan.
“Overall, barbecue is a well-loved flavor profile that can be used to make almost any new item more approachable,” she says. “We see it coupled with all trending formats like bowls and tacos.”
According to Conaghan, barbecue is being employed in novel applications, such as mac & cheese, in addition to the popular bowls and tacos. Soups, stews, chills, nachos, quesadillas, and sliders, for example, are becoming more popular as BBQ turkey-based appetizers.
Conaghan predicts that interest in regional styles will continue to grow. “This is a simple way for customers to feel adventurous,” she explains. “… Clearly, pulled pork and brisket, as well as chicken mixed with barbecue sauce, will remain favorites, but pairing barbecue sauce with plant-based proteins can make these less carnivorous foods feel more familiar, and we are already seeing this.”
According to Marci Levine, NCBA’s director of culinary, more chefs are putting barbecue on their menus in unusual ways. “You’ll find more house-smoked beef items that highlight varied smoking (medium), such as different woods, pellets, charcoal, tea leaves, fruit, and so on, as well as foreign barbecue at show-stopper quality,” she says.
According to Mills of Technomic, another trend affecting barbecue is large, sharing quantities. For example, Jack Stack Barbecue in Overland Park, Kan., offers the Kansas City Combo, which allows diners to create their own platter from burned ends, pulled pork, sliced meat, pork spare ribs, beef ribs, lamb ribs, and barbecued chicken. Dickey’s also introduced a smoked wings and ribs platter in 6, 9, 12, 18, or 24 wing sizes with six sauce options and two rub options for main meals, appetizers, or party packs.
As a Texas barbecue restaurant, Dickey’s continues to sell a lot of brisket. The ‘Cueban, a citrus pulled pork with jalapeño cheddar sausage, mustard, and pickles, and the Double Dip, sliced smoked brisket, caramelized smoked onions, cheddar cheese, and a smoked beef au jus, are two new sandwiches from the franchise. Dickey’s is also selling burned ends in select markets, as well as a Texas-style chili made using its chopped smoked brisket.
According to Mills, more meat combinations, some of which involve barbeque, are growing increasingly popular. The Arby’s Meat Mountain Sandwich, for example, is made with ham, brisket, corned beef, Angus steak, roast beef, pepper bacon, and chicken tenders and is available from Inspire Brands in Sandy Springs, Ga.
Barbecue is also becoming increasingly common on breakfast menus, according to Mills. Brisket Benedict, for example, is a jalapeno-cheddar cornbread waffle topped with brisket, poached eggs, hollandaise, a spicy barbecue sauce, and green onions from Another Broken Egg Café in Orlando, Fla.
This year, Mills believes that restaurants serving barbecue will continue to innovate in terms of flavors and cuts of meat. She believes that in order for barbecue to continue to develop, restaurant owners must focus on innovation and meat quality, emphasizing sustainability or barbecue free of antibiotics, hormones, and artificial chemicals.