May 29, 2024 - Business

Restaurant menus lean hard on "limited time offers"

Illustration of an alarm clock made from a dinner plate

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Limited-time offers — like IHOP's blue raspberry pancakes tied to the movie "If," Chipotle's Chicken al Pastor and Burger King's 70th anniversary Birthday Pie Slice — are reinvigorating the restaurant industry.

Why it matters: Restaurants have largely recovered from their pandemic-era swoon, but they're still working overtime to keep customers interested and coming back in the age of price inflation and fast-changing TikTok food trends.

Driving the news: The number of limited-time offers at restaurants — or "LTOs" in industry parlance — has grown 53% in the last four years, according to Technomic, a restaurant menu consultancy.

  • "52% of consumers say that the availability of an appealing limited-time offer is important when they're deciding which restaurant to visit," says Lizzy Freier, director of menu research & insights at Technomic.
  • In the last year alone, the number of LTO launches has jumped 46%, Freier said in a presentation at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago last week.
  • And that's at both quick-serve and full-service restaurants.

Where it stands: Technomic regularly polls consumers about 3,000 new LTOs from top-500 chain restaurants.

  • Gen Zers gravitate toward menu items with the word "loaded" and "big" in the description — not just nachos, but donut holes and fries as well.
  • 68% of them wanted to try the loaded beef nachos from Taco Bell, and 66% wanted the Big New Yorker Pizza from Pizza Hut.
  • They adore foods that have familiar brand names as an ingredient — like IHOP's Oreo Cookie Crumble Waffle.
At left, trays of churros; at right, a display of desserts including a soda.
At left, new Oreo churros and churro fries from J&J Snack Foods, which makes Hola Churros. At right, J&J creations include churros filled with Fruity Pebbles and a churro milkshake. Photos by Jennifer A. Kingson for Axios

Baby boomers, by contrast, tilt toward "classics," like Ruby Tuesday's Rib Eye and Ribs, which 76% of Technomic poll respondents wanted to try.

  • Millennials are into cookies and mashups, Freier said — like Baskin-Robbins' Beach Day ice cream, a blue concoction with "caramel-filled sea turtles, frosting flecks & swirls of graham cracker 'sand.'"
  • "Mature" consumers prefer dishes that use "ultimate" in the descriptor or otherwise connote large portions or excess — like the filet mignon and Maine lobster tail from Seasons 52.

🍯 Fun fact: Hot honey still rules the day on LTO menus across the land.

  • So do items that are "swicy" (sweet/spicy), like Starbucks' limited-time Spicy Lemonade Refreshers.
  • Lay's — which has trademarked the word "swicy" to cover the category of potato-based snack foods — recently introduced a new potato chip flavor, Sweet & Spicy Honey.

What they're saying: "Menu innovation is happening on these limited-time offers," said David Henkes of Technomic at a media breakfast at the trade show.

  • Restaurant operators are "seeing what they can generate with this short-time pop."

New international tastes are also trending.

  • "We're seeing more complex flavors on the menu," including some from Korea, Niger, Tunisia and Ethiopia, Henkes said.
  • Restaurant owners spend a lot of time and energy "creating LTOs that are driving and creating a lot of buzz and interest."
At left, a giant pretzel filled with charcuterie; at right, gelato with popcorn.
At left, J&J Snack Foods — maker of Super Pretzels — displayed a charcuterie board in a pretzel. At right, popcorn gelato from Aromitalia seemed to encapsulate the crazes for mashups and swicy creations. Photos by Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

Friction point: "Creating controversy" is now a food trend, Freier said.

  • "Controversial" dishes include KFC's Chizza (fried chicken as a base for traditional pizza toppings) and Starbucks' Oleato — coffee infused with olive oil.
  • There's also popcorn-topped pizza and offbeat menu "swaps" — like a dessert that mimics a ham-and-cheese sandwich, or a tres leches cocktail.
  • Controversial ingredients include colostrum (breast milk), MSG, salted pasta water and Malört, a wormwood-based digestif, said Freier.
  • The phenomenon "very much speaks to operators trying to drive that incremental traffic with consumers," she said.

Zoom out: It's not just restaurants — consumer packaged goods companies are all over the LTO trend as well.

The bottom line: Restaurants and food companies often use LTOs to test new concepts and see if they want to make them permanent — so expect to see some of these weird creations going mainstream.

Go deeper