Modern twists on classic menu items make old favorites new again.
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7 Menu Items to Create a Nostalgic Feel
These feel good classics will help your customers recall the simple pleasures of their childhood. Create them following traditional recipes or consider punching them up with ethnic or trendy ingredients which might have more appeal to your millennial customers.
Mac and Cheese
The beauty of macaroni and cheese is its versatility. Create your own cheese blends for classic mac and cheese, or mix in some additional ingredients that appeal to your customer base, from bacon to short ribs to lobster.
These classic desserts can be offered up in traditional formulations with a choice of toppings, or deconstructed creatively using the basic ingredients—think banana split cakes or tortes.
Try making it with a buttermilk batter and serving it with housemade biscuits, or, for a Southern twist, substitute waffles for the biscuits. The key is serving it fresh and hot from the fryer to ensure crunchiness.
The internet abounds with myriad recipes for this classic diner dessert. Consider topping it with ice cream or perhaps a sweet rum- or whiskey-based sauce.
Make it like mom used to, topped with bacon and ketchup, or give it a new presentation or an ethnic twist by using Asian or Latin American seasonings.
Go as artisan as you please with this classic comfort food, or keep it basic with American cheese on white bread. Fillings can run the gamut from grilled onions to ethnic ingredients such as kimchi or habanero peppers.
Milkshakes by themselves might be viewed by some as nostalgic comfort foods, but when you offer the opportunity to mix in classic cookie, cereal or candy brands, they take an even deeper turn down memory lane for consumers who crave a little indulgence.
Is red velvet cake nostalgic or trendy?
It all depends on your perspective, says Maeve Webster, president of food industry consulting firm Menu Matters.
“That’s something that’s new to millennials, but it’s familiar to boomers,” she says of the resurgent dessert. “To millennials it’s trendy, but to boomers it’s nostalgic.”
As traditional favorite menu items circle back around for a fresh turn in the spotlight, many operators are seeking to make traditional experiences new again for their customers. Some fine-dining operators are completely deconstructing classic comfort foods or combining high-end ingredients — such as lobster mac-and-cheese — while others are embracing the old-fashioned simplicity of traditional favorites.
“The vast majority of consumers want nostalgia at some time, but what those nostalgic items are will vary,” says Webster.
Nostalgia’s consumer appeal grows stronger during times of anxiety, such as during this year’s election campaigns, says Judy Kadylak, vice president of marketing at Dallas-based Bruegger’s Enterprises Inc., parent of the Bruegger’s Bagels chain. Consumers seek feel-good experiences to escape the conflict and stress of the world around them, she says.
That’s what led Bruegger’s to craft its fall menu additions around what it describes as a “nostalgic drive down Route 66.” The new additions include a Route 66 egg-and-bacon breakfast sandwich and a new melt with bacon and ham on jalapeño corn bread.
“We felt like this was a great opportunity to bring a flavor profile that evokes a kinder, gentler time for a lot of people — a simpler time,” says Kadylak. “The chef’s idea was that it invoked memories of the diners along Route 66, and it just felt like this was the time of year, with everything going on, to have something simple and good that people could feel good about.” The chain has a heavy base of male millennials as customers, especially for its egg sandwiches, says Kadylak, which is why the new Route 66 breakfast sandwich — made with egg, hickory-smoked bacon and cheddar cheese on a new French toast bagel — also includes a spicy Sriracha maple syrup.
“It’s a current twist,” says Kadylak. “Millennials have grown up with a wide variety of ethnic foods and flavor profiles, and anytime we can add something with a little bit of a kick or a little something different, we find that it bridges the gap between all of the age groups.”
The new breakfast sandwich has been “wildly popular,” she says.
Bruegger’s is also in the process of rolling out a nostalgic line of desserts, which include a cream cheese brownie, a peanut butter bar and classic coffee cake.
“We are having a great response to the desserts as well,” says Kadylak. “They really fit into the core of what we are doing with our positioning.”
At Quaker Steak & Lube, a 50-unit casual-dining chain specializing in wings, nostalgia is at the heart of both the menu and the décor.
The interior of the restaurants “are completely designed to recall yesteryear,” says Tom Liutkus, senior vice president, marketing and public relations at Quaker’s parent company, TravelCenters of America, Westlake Ohio.
Props — often hanging from the ceiling — include old-fashioned gas pumps and vintage and classic muscle cars and motorcycles.
Menu items conjure up muscle-car nostalgia with items such as the Arizona El Camino burger, the Mustang Chicken sandwich and the chain’s signature Thunderbird steak. Nostalgic desserts include the chocolate chuck cookie skillet, designed to recall mom’s fresh-baked treats.
Liutkus says older guests at Quaker Steak enjoy reminiscing about the older items on display, while younger patrons learn about the history behind the items.
“We find overall that the nostalgic items help connect all age groups through history, and promote a great deal of communication and storytelling that deepens relationships and creates a true dining experience beyond just eating a meal,” he says.
Often nostalgia can have a strong local focus, as is the case with North Main Diner, opened last year by veteran hotel chef Jack Krissinger in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
Krissinger acquired a 1940s soda fountain that hadn’t been used in decades and had it refurbished. He also brought back some locally popular menu items, including the Northeast Ohio favorite Mawby burger — topped with slow-cooked onions and paprika — and Grape Nuts Custard, a dessert that had been a hit at the restaurant that previously occupied the North Main Diner space.
“Here in Chagrin everything has gone high-end, and we’re just a good, old-fashioned diner,” says Krissinger, who touts his made-from-scratch approach to the menu. “People are getting kind of tired of the next, newest, greatest thing.”
Webster of Menu Matters says the familiarity of nostalgia and comfort foods is hard for consumers to resist.
“You know how much you love it, and you look forward to getting that feeling every single time,” she says. “A lot of people say, ‘Comfort food is back.’ But the reality is that it’s probably never really going to go away.”