Chow Town

Applebee’s keeps its pulse on tastes of mainstream America

Two decades ago, if a recipe called for couscous, my phone would ring off the hook.

“What is couscous?” the exasperated readers on the other end of the line would ask.

It was my job to calm their fears about trying a seemingly new-fangled food, even if it was already showing up on supermarket shelves.

But with the ensuing explosion of food media, an increasing number of readers are now eager to move on to other grains, including quinoa (keen-WAH), a nutritious plant that means “mother grain” and dates back to the Incas.

Same goes for garam masala, kale and kefir.

“People are much more food savvy these days, which is great for us,” says Peter Czizek, the new vice president of culinary and menu strategy for Applebee’s.

Although there are currently no plans to add quinoa on the menu, Czizek says it is an example of a trend he is closely watching.

Each year the Kansas City-based fast-casual restaurant comes up with ideas for 500 new products, although only 200 actually make it to the menu. So how does a team of corporate chefs know when the time is right to introduce an ingredient or an unfamiliar flavor profile that appears to be making waves on the culinary scene?

“We have to do the same things that our guests do,” Czizek says. “We watch the magazines and TV shows. That’s where consumers are getting all their learning.”

The chefs also travel, go to culinary shows and do a bit of consumer testing along the way, but when you get right down to it they must rely on their gut.

“We don’t want to be followers,” Czizik says. “We want to keep our finger on the pulse.”

That said, they don’t want to get too far in front of their diners.

Take the Jekyll and Hyde of healthy eating. Healthier menu options have been on trend-watch lists for a while now, but anyone with 29 years in the biz, like Czizek, knows the research and the reality don’t always jibe. For many years diners have been saying they want healthy food — then ordering just the opposite when they eat out.

Czizek, who arrived at Applebee’s Kansas City headquarters a week ago after working with Dave Buster’s corporate office in Dallas, says healthy is finally in vogue (according to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by Applebee’s), with younger customers leading the way.

Also, it certainly doesn’t hurt that First Lady Michelle Obama has taken such a hard-line stance on combating the nation’s obesity epidemic. Or that her arms look so darn good in sleeveless dresses.

“Health is top of mind these days, but it’s more important to provide healthy that tastes great,” Czizek says.

Applebee’s offers both a branded Weight Watcher’s menu and a section devoted to entrees under 550 calories. The success of both menus rests on portion size and flavor, Czizek says.

The under-550 calorie menu was introduced in 2010 but really took off this year. In fact, the Signature Sirloin With Garlic Herb Shrimp Roasted, Applebee’s best-selling menu item for the first two months of 2011, and the first time in the chain’s history that a lower calorie entree was the best-selling overall menu item.

Seriously now, can the mainstreaming of quinoa be very far behind?

Jill Silva is The Star’s James Beard Award-winning food editor and restaurant critic. She has won more than 25 national writing awards and been included in the “Best Food Writing” anthologies of 2008 and 2011. She is the author of The Star’s “Eating for Life” cookbook and the past president of The Association of Food Journalists. She also makes a mean flan.