Restaurants will look to interesting new foods and high-tech devices to attract customers this year.
Snacks, late-night menus and iPad-type tablets that allow customers to pay the bill at their tables are among the innovations being introduced into Orlando.
With competition intense and customers still spending cautiously, restaurants have "to become more innovative and creative and address consumers' wants and needs," said Bonnie Riggs, an analyst for market research company NPD Group.
Creative food will be on the menu in April when Orlando gets its first Yard House at I-Drive Live on International Drive. Orlando-based Darden Restaurants purchased the chain in 2012, hoping to attract younger diners.
Yard House is a far cry from Darden's more mainstream Olive Garden and Red Lobster. Its menu has a separate section devoted to snacks, which Americans are eating more frequently, and a late-night menu served after 10 p.m. The restaurants' fare includes street tacos, burgers with béarnaise sauce and mini-monte cristo sandwiches served on skewers.
Orlando-based Darden's struggling bigger brands are also trying to offer more interesting menu items. Olive Garden recently launched tapas-style small plates and an "Italiano burger" with prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, arugula and marinated tomatoes with a garlic aioli spread. Olive Garden is working on even more changes to the food, Darden's Chief Operating Officer Gene Lee told analysts recently.
At the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, chefs are creating savory sorbets, including a popcorn-flavored one and another flavored with dashi, a stock often used in Japanese cooking. The sorbets will likely be introduced in bluezoo, a seafood restaurant.
The Swan and Dolphin also is experimenting with its own version of pop-up restaurants – a big city phenomenon that has only recently come to Orlando. Anything from a seafood processing plant to an ad agency can be turned into a restaurant for a night.
The Swan and Dolphin will transform one restaurant into another one night a week starting this spring. Every Saturday night from April 5 to September 6, the hotel's poolside Cabana Bar and Beach Club will become Cib's Smoke House. The menu will feature typical barbecue items such as pulled pork.
Experts also expect restaurants to rely more heavily on technology in the upcoming year.
Some chains are expected to start using computer tablets, following the lead of eateries such as Carmel Café and Wine Bar in Winter Park. Carmel added MenuPads with iPad technology to tables when it opened last year. Customers can use them to view pictures of entrees, summon their servers, place their orders and pay the bills.
"I think it will become much more mainstream in the future. This year could be the year," said Brian Waggoner, a partner in Carmel.
Darden has also been looking into tablets as it invests $200 million over the next few years in technology. Darden also hopes to better target customers with online coupons and offers tailored specifically to their eating habits. It is also considering allowing customers to pay their bills from their smartphones.
An increasing number of people, especially younger consumers, want a high-tech dining experience. More than half of adults surveyed said they would opt for an electronic pay-at-the-table option, according to the National Restaurant Association.
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Bright spots: Restaurant visits are predicted to rise 1 percent to 61 billion and sales 3 percent to $430 billion, according to NPD Group, with most of that coming from fast-casual restaurants. NPD also says fine dining appears to have recovered well from the economic downturn — good news for Winter Park-based Ruth's Hospitality Group and Darden's Capital Grille.
Storm clouds: Darden Restaurants plans to spin off Red Lobster, but that has not been enough to satisfy activist investors who want more change at the company.
Trends to watch: Because of high beef prices, NPD Group expects less emphasis on red meat in dishes.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun