Appetizers take centre stage with bold flavours and ethnic influences

By Kristin Menas

Appetizers are currently at the forefront of menu development, with operators using starter menus to test and experiment with bold flavours, unique ingredients and creative preparations.

That appetizers can be ordered as a lead-in to a meal or as a snack between meals makes them particularly appealing options for diners looking to explore something new. Want to devour the latest trend? Try ordering an appetizer, where guests can sample emerging foods without fully committing to ordering it as an entrée.

For operators looking to update their appetizer menus, it is important to stay on top of the latest trends. Here we will take a look at some leading appetizer innovations currently popping up on restaurant menus.

Next-level street foods

Ethnic dishes and drinks are moving beyond familiar street foods like tacos and kabobs to lesser-known specialties often found at global markets and food carts. Consumer research shows that diners are significantly interested in ordering ethnic food as shareable plates and appetizers. These handheld and small-portioned street foods are ideal additions to appetizer menus, serving as a way for adventurous diners to explore emerging ethnic favourites in a more affordable way, compared to entrées. We are seeing dishes like Mexican taquitos, Eastern European pierogi and Chinese dim sum make their mark on starter menus. These small bites are a chance for diners to explore the world through authentic, culturally inspired foods.

Delving deeper into this trend, we see Korean as a particularly hot cuisine in appetizers. In fact, mentions of Korean are up 36 per cent on Canadian appetizer menus in the latest year-over-year period, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor data. Some of the bold ingredients commonly seen in Korean street foods, like kimchi, bulgogi and gochujang, are adding new life to starters. This interest in Korean cuisine is also spurring growth in shareable Korean proteins, such as Korean fried chicken and the barbecued short ribs specialty known as kalbi.

We are also seeing leading chains interpret these street foods in more approachable ways, such as with pierogi-inspired nachos or chicken wings in Korean barbecue sauce. For example, Boston Pizza just added spicy pierogi nachos topped with ingredients commonly found in pierogi, including cheese, green onions and sour cream. By spotlighting these flavours in traditional appetizers, diners may feel more comfortable with trying these next-level street foods.

Trendy topped fries

On appetizer menus, loaded fries have grown 12.5 per cent and poutine is up by 35.2 per cent, both over the last two years. Fries are serving as a popular format for operators to flex their creative muscles through the use of trendy toppings. This renowned item is being loaded with everything from specialty sauces to spicy peppers to hearty meats. If diners are open to ordering an item as indulgent as loaded fries, operators may as well trial over-the-top indulgence with unusual and excessive fry toppings like deep-fried candy, corn chips and ranch dressing.

Spicy flavours are up nearly 56 per cent in appetizer fries on Canadian menus in the last two years. This supports a continued consumer interest in snacks and appetizers made with popular spicy ingredients such as ghost peppers, sriracha, Tabasco sauce and Cajun spices. Fitting nicely into this trend are Wendy’s Canada’s newly introduced Ghost Pepper Fries, topped with ghost pepper sauce, diced jalapeños and cheese.

Fries are also serving as a foundation for traditional proteins, such as bacon, chicken and beef. Meat and potatoes, even in fry form, is a classic combination that appeals to diners’ comfort food soft spots. Many operators, like St-Hubert and Trattoria Di Mikes, are taking this growing interest in meat-topped fries a step further with the addition of classic Montreal-style smoked meat. Not only appearing on restaurant appetizer menus, indulgent meat-topped fries are also a perfect bar snack to serve alongside adult beverages, especially beer.

Since Canadian diners are particularly adventurous with their appetizer and snack choices, topped fries are ideal for menu experimentation. Operators should consider introducing limited-time topped fries as an outlet for testing out emerging flavour and ingredient trends without committing to a permanent menu addition.

Standout item names

Beyond actual preparation, we are also seeing operators stay on trend in another way—with standout names. Restaurants are appealing to consumers through humour and wit, introducing starters with names that reference pop culture or slang words. In recent months, The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro launched its Wrecking Balls bacon-wrapped potato tots, inspired by the well-known pop song by Miley Cyrus, and Netflix & Chili Fritos Fries, a playful reference to recent viral slang. Putting thought into appetizer names acts as a way for operators to establish their brands as modern and hip to what’s going on with consumers, particularly of younger generations. On-trend names can also help build a sense that the appetizer is truly a specialty, unique to the restaurant, and further differentiate a menu from competitors.

Appetizers are key to trialing up-and-coming food trends on menus. As we continue to observe important innovation with appetizers, it will be interesting to see the many new culinary interpretations that come from the industry. Expect operators to continue to introduce starters spotlighting emerging ethnic flavours, creatively topped fries and eye-catching item names.

About the author:

Kristin Menas is the Associate Editor, Canada & Adult Beverage at Technomic Inc. in Chicago. Technomic provides foodservice clients with the facts, insights and consulting support they need to enhance their business strategies, decisions and results. Its services include publications and digital products, as well as proprietary studies and ongoing research on all aspects of the food industry. Visit