Sausage may have the dollar menu at McDonald’s to thank for its resilience last year.

Savvy breakfast eaters could find sausage biscuits, burritos and McMuffins at their local drive-throughs, and other fast-food and quick-serve restaurants (QSR) — including a surprising rebound from pizza restaurants — offered more low-priced options.

Like most other food categories, sausage sales were flat overall, notes Gary Karp, executive vice president, Technomic, a food industry consulting and research firm based in Chicago. But the category held its own thanks to the continued popularity of the breakfast meal 
occasion — during the week at fast-food and full-service restaurants and at home over the weekend.

“It’s a consumer-preferred ‘comfort food’ product that’s good-tasting and is an economical protein product that is easy to cook,” he says. “It has tremendous menu flexibility as it can be made in different flavors, shapes and sizes to fit uses from biscuit-size, English muffin-size to roll-size patties and various-sized breakfast and lunch links.”

Going forward, Karp says the same themes of convenience and flavor will be popular for the sausage category, with the best opportunities to be found with breakfast items, as well as continued efforts to get regional (such as bratwursts) and ethnic (like Polish, Italian, etc.) links on more plates.

The latest chef survey from the National Restaurant Association (NRA), “What’s Hot in 2011,” reveals that local and hyper-local sourcing will be among the hottest trends on restaurant menus this year. For sausage, this means restaurant items may be artisan (made in-house by the chef), such as at Vancouver’s Medina Café.

The Center for Culinary Development classifies artisan sausage as just entering stage one (out of a possible five) of its trend-mapping process — by cropping up in fine-dining restaurants before it makes its way to more mainstream acceptance, says Kara Nielsen, trendologist, Center for Culinary Development (CCD), based in San Francisco.

“Artisan sausage allows for more experimenting with flavors, and there is a segment of consumers who will appreciate its quality, flavor and local sourcing,” she says.

Ethnic-inspired breakfast items, such as chorizo, also cracked the NRA’s top 20 of hot trends, with gourmet sausage (98), sausage in general (140) and breakfast sandwiches (183) rounding out the top 200.

“Both consumers and foodservice operators are looking for new flavors and products that can deliver versatility for many meal applications,” says Gary Kolling, director of foodservice, Johnsonville Sausage, based in Sheboygan Falls, Wis. “We have seen that in even more intensity in foodservice, as operators are consistently looking for products that can bring intense flavor to their customers.”

Johnsonville offers a variety of flavors to retail consumers, such as Grilling Chorizo, Four Cheese Italian Sausage, Wisconsin Cheddar Breakfast Sausage Links and Bold Jalapeno & Cheese Smoked Sausage.

Chicken sausage processors have also rolled out quite a few flavors to mainstream consumers the past few years, including mango, artichoke, jalepeno peppers and other spices, beyond the popular apple and spinach-and-feta cheese varieties.

Another foodservice trend, says Kolling, is the use of sausage expanding across the entire menu and dayparts. Sausage is extremely versatile and can be paired with upscale toppings, as well as being the featured ingredient in dishes across the entire menu.

“Due to the flavor that sausage brings to a menu, the mindset of how sausage can be used is evolving,” he says. “We are consistently working with operators on new product and menu ideas, and include appetizers, sandwiches, wraps, entrées, salads, soups, sides, pizza and more during breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night.”

Both foodservice operators and retailers have been incorporating sausage into convenient, portable breakfast bowls, pizza, burritos and sandwiches.

“Sausage as a side seems to be diminishing in importance, in my opinion, but it’s showing up in breakfast bowls, pizza and the frozen-food section,” says Nielsen. “From our point of view, the flavor of sausage and bacon is still an important part of breakfast but is being incorporated in new ways, such as with the one-stop shopping aspect of breakfast bowls.”

Certainly, most breakfast bowls in QSR and retail include sausage with eggs, cheese and potatoes. Bob Evans’ Border Scramble omelet (smothered in sausage, fries, cheeses and sauces), Jack in the Box’s Hearty Breakfast Bowl and Jimmy Dean D-lights Turkey Sausage Bowl are just a few of the options available to consumers, notes Nielsen.

“People realize a savory breakfast with protein is the best way to start the day,” she says. “While sausage has a higher fat factor, donuts and pastries provide empty carbs that aren’t as filling.”

Although the economy may be affecting consumers’ purchasing decisions regarding anything seen as an indulgence or extra, sausage may buck the trend with its new artisan or nostalgic offerings, says Nielsen. “It’s an exciting time for consumers who appreciate hand-quality and strong flavors,” she says.