Chicken quesadillas, calamari or sliders are on almost any family restaurant’s appetizer menu. And it seems that the use of protein in appetizers is not going anywhere — not necessarily increasing but at least holding steady.

The problem is the fluctuating price of proteins, and a still recovering economy, that may prevent consumers from indulging in appetizers or side dishes that naturally cost more. On the other hand, one strength that protein-based sides and appetizers feature is their value proposition.

“When there is a protein involved, price thresholds often go up because consumers recognize the higher food costs, but that they are getting something more substantial,” says Kelly Weikel, senior consumer research manager, Technomic Inc., a consulting and research firm based in Chicago.

High protein callouts for menu items have also been popping up as a potential trend, but not enough to drive an increase in orders.

“While we do see that more consumers are becoming more open to not including any proteins in their meals, I don’t think it will significantly impact anything in the next few years,” says Weikel. “And you have so many leaders, especially in appetizers like wings, calamari, etc., that feature meats so heavily.”

Focus on health and versatility

“In appetizers, operators are experimenting with a wide range of proteins from chicken and pork to a variety of seafood and fish,” says Maeve Webster, senior director, Datassential, a Chicago-based market research firm. “This experimentation is being driven by the continued influence of small plates, ethnic cuisines, world street food and shareable platters.”

In addition, foodservice operators are trying to save money in their appetizers by using less protein and more starch and vegetables, says Julia Gallo Torres, category manager of US Foodservice Report, Mintel Group, a market research firm based in Chicago.

“Consumers are also cutting down on the amount of protein they are eating so they don’t mind these changes, but they still want bite and texture with their menu items,” she says.

Chicken, for one, is always popular because it is versatile and can be paired with so many different flavors and type of menu items, says Weikel.

“Chicken, beef and pork are still the leading proteins on the menu,” notes Gallo Torres. “We’ll see more chicken due to consumers’ focus on health, which will also help turkey step into the spotlight. Operators can control portions and consumers get the health benefits or health halo of chicken or turkey.”

According to Tom Super, vice president of communications for Washington D.C.-based National Chicken Council, chicken remains popular because of its affordability and versatility.

“You don’t have to break the bank to get a filling and delicious appetizer,” he says. He notes that there are a variety of appetizers that feature chicken in some way, even though they are all very different, such as chicken wings, chicken quesadillas, chicken peanut satay skewers, chicken pot stickers, grilled chicken wonton tacos, chicken dumplings, California chicken flatbread and Buffalo chicken dip.

“I would say we’re also seeing more restaurants offer boneless wings as an appetizer on menus,” says Super.

Get spicy

Consumers certainly still want hot and spicy applications for their chicken dishes, but prefer to describe them as Cajun, teriyaki and chipotle pepper-flavored now, notes Gallo Torres.

“We’ll see chicken start to receive meat-like treatments, such as being smoked, marinated in bourbon, or having Cajun and teriyaki spices,” she says.

Turkey is also a good candidate for strong flavors, says Gallo Torres, such as smoked, slow smoked, seasoned and barbeque.

And seafood, another light protein, tends to be pretty popular for appetizers relative to other categories, notes Webster.

“Proteins are far less common in sides than in appetizers,” says Webster. “Consumers have been, over the past four to five years, cutting back on their ordering of a la carte sides. Couple that with the prices of appetizers, sides have not focused on proteins as much as grains, beans and produce.”

Proteins will always be a key element to many appetizer applications, and a variety of proteins will continue to be popular to satisfy demands for ethnic, indulgent and healthier options.

Foodservice operators will continue to be creative to promote the health aspects of chicken and turkey while controlling pricing, and make them attractive choices on the menu,” says Gallo Torres.