By Laura McGuire
There’s something that makes finger foods hard to resist. Perhaps it is the breaking from the formality of utensils, or maybe it is the often-indulgent positioning associated with these offerings.
It could also be that finger foods come in such varied shapes and sizes—ranging from poppable snack bites to more substantial handhelds. And they feature different flavours and preparations. In addition, these pub grub-style items fit the bill for a variety of dining occasions, often serving as shareable or individual-size appetizers, small plates and snacks, and sometimes even as entrees.
The growing appeal of finger foods among consumers is driving operators to innovate this menu category with everything from street-inspired ethnic small bites to noteworthy twists to traditional chicken wings, sliders and nachos. Let’s look at how restaurants are contemporizing finger foods to mirror today’s leading trends.
A global focus
Growing consumer interest in dining experiences from far-flung markets is diversifying Canada’s finger food selection. These new ethnic-inspired dishes explore a multitude of cuisine types—from Far East Asian to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean to Central and South American—and include savoury and sweet selections.
Within ethnic finger foods, street-inspired preparations are popular consumer choices because they’re typically built around authenticity. These items, which are usually highly portable and boldly flavoured, range from Chinese jianbing to Indian samosas to Mexican churros. Gushi, a two-unit Toronto independent, specializes in Japanese street fare served in portable cardboard containers and often consumed by hand. Menu options include takoyaki octopus balls served with housemade teriyaki sauce and bonito flakes, and chicken karaage, a traditional preparation of fried chicken that uses a potato starch for a light crispy coating and sake and soy sauce marinades for flavouring.
Global finger foods also showcase flavour fusions that marry dishes from multiple cuisines. And leading Canada chains provide prime examples of inventive yet approachable takes on fusion combinations. Specialty chain Smoke’s Poutinerie offers a Korean Poutine that tops fries with flat-iron steak, sambal, Korean barbecue sauce and green onions. Further, Bento Sushi menus an Asian-Mexican fusion line of sushi burritos in several varieties such as steelhead salmon, tuna and crab.
Global sauces and condiments are also providing worldly additions to more classic finger foods like wings and sliders. For instance, sriracha currently tops Technomic’s list of fastest-growing wing flavours, nearly doubling in menu mentions over the past year. Panago Pizza and Turtle Jack’s Muskoka Grill are two chains that offer a sriracha variety of wings selection. Other ethnic wing flavours showing strong growth trajectories are Cajun, sweet chili and Asian. Similar international accents on also appearing on sliders—operators are topping these bite-size burgers with ingredients like kimchi, sauerkraut and chutney.
“Loaded” versions of standard pub grub are also on the rise. Mentions of the term “loaded” have climbed 5.3 per cent year over year on Canadian menus, according to Technomic data. These preparations up the indulgence factor of items such as fries, wings and nachos by piling them high with often generous helpings of sauces, condiments, cheeses, proteins and veggies.
Much of the spike in loaded dishes is attributed to a substantial annual growth of loaded fries on menus (up 12.5 per cent). Loaded fries may be presented as a build-your-own option or can showcase chef-crafted preparations that highlight carefully thought-out flavour dynamics. For instance, the Supreme Fries at casual-dining chain Milestones tops waffle fries with petit filet and seasoned ground chuck, along with queso cheese, salsa, lettuce, scallions and cilantro crema.
Beyond fries, operators are reimagining new ways to top other “loaded” menu items such as nachos, potato skins, wings, breadsticks and cheese breads. For instance, Kelseys Original Roadhouse’s Buff’d Up Chicken Potato Skins swaps the traditional bacon protein for Buffalo grilled chicken and complements it with cheddar and cream cheeses, peppercorn ranch sauce and green onion slivers. Pizza Hotline’s Taco Cheesesticks are a creative rendition of a classic finger food that adds seasoned beef and jalapeno toppings on a garlic butter cheesestick base.
Craveable veggie finger foods may be a more unexpected trend at restaurants. These items appeal to a broad consumer demographic, including vegans and vegetarians, by pairing the better-for-you aspect of veggies with the more indulgent preparations and accompaniments of finger foods. The result is a dish that satisfies guests’ desire to eat healthier without skimping on taste.
Breaded veggies are showing particularly strong growth. Mentions of breaded veggie appetizers grew 10 per cent over the last two years, with the largest growth coming from an increase in fried pickles (up 38 per cent) and fried mushrooms and fried zucchini (both up 14 per cent), according to Technomic data. These fried veggies make for easy, low-cost menu additions for operators while still providing craveable options for guests.
One way operators are enhancing the appeal of fried veggies is to use on-trend ingredients for coatings and dips. Technomic’s list of top sauces and condiments on breaded veggies reflects a proclivity to match these items with ethnic flavours, particularly Mediterranean and Asian options such as tzatziki, plum and peanut sauces. The Pickle Barrel chain capitalizes on this trend with its Thai Fried Cauliflower tossed in a sweet Thai chili sauce and sprinkled with mixed sesame seeds.
Global influences, loaded preparations and veggie-centric creations are contemporizing finger foods to make them more interesting to guests. Since these types of items are so adaptable, expect to see operators further innovate with finger fare as culinary trends evolve. Future takes will likely continue to underscore larger industry shifts towards customization, convenience, snackability, bolder flavour profiles and better-for-you positionings centered on clean eating.
About the author:
Laura McGuire is Content Director at Technomic in Chicago. Technomic provides 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 www.technomic.com.