Exploring Menus: Updates from the field

As we continue to wrap up our listening sessions with restaurants, our team has been spending quality time with restaurant menus, learning about food offerings in Latin American restaurants from different angles. We wanted to take note of the kinds of offerings that already exist, including healthier offerings and innovative takes on these delicious cuisines.

Changing Menus in New York City’s Hispanic Caribbean Restaurants

Our team completed a re-assessment of menus from a randomly selected sample of the city’s restaurants serving Cuban, Dominican, and Puerto Rican cuisine. The assessment was a follow up on our 2019 assessment, where the food availability and environments of these restaurants was examined using an adapted version of the Nutrition Environment Measurement Survey for Restaurants. Our earlier assessment included 89 restaurants, while our re-assessment included 76 restaurants, after excluding closed restaurants and those without online menus. Between the summer of 2019 and January 2021, 7 restaurants were permanently closed, and one was closed for the winter – a much lower number than expected, given the many restaurant closures due to COVID-19. Some insights from these efforts include:

  • In comparison to pre-COVID-19 menus, Hispanic Caribbean restaurants appear to have increased their proportion of less healthy, fried options during the pandemic.
  • Menus are in constant flux (perhaps more than before), as restaurants have to adapt continuously, given limited resources and perceived customer demand.
  • In concordance to what we have learned from the listening sessions, some of these changes include limiting the menus, and constantly changing offerings to fit demand.

In the midst of continuously changing circumstances, these restaurants try to uphold the “authenticity” of the cuisine, serving traditional foods and drinks such as fried plantains, mofongo, aguas frescas (i.e. agua de horchata), and more.

A sample of delicious Puerto Rican offerings Que Chevere. Photo: Que Chevere LES Facebook Page.

Innovating Traditional Cuisines: Initial insights from Latin America and the Caribbean

Our research on how restaurants are surviving during COVID-19 is still emerging, as we continue to learn the best way forward to work with Latin restaurants to promote healthier options while also boosting revenue and visibility. A big part of this involves thinking outside the box, learning from innovation. The team is currently taking note of some strategies that can be employed, via virtual observations of high-end Latin American restaurants. These efforts are ongoing, and we are initially focusing on countries with the most representation among Latin American communities in the United States, in hopes to bring lessons learned to positively affect the health and well-being in these communities. These include restaurants in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and El Salvador. Across these restaurants we see that chefs in Latin American are creating highly innovative dishes, coming back to traditional ingredients often to create “plant-forward” dishes, where vegetables become the star of the plate, while meat takes a supporting role. We also see different cooking techniques, where frying takes on a lesser role, as opposed to grilling or baking, and a variety of side dishes, beyond rice or potatoes.

A sample dish: Panceta de cerdo y ensalada de curcubitas (Pork over a Mesoamerican squash salad), from Esperanto in San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo: Esperanto Facebook Page.

We will be wrapping these efforts this month and plan to continue sharing updates and lessons learned – Stay tuned!

One thought on “Exploring Menus: Updates from the field

  1. Reblogged this on Melissa Fuster, PhD and commented:

    Carrying out formative research for my LARiA Project has continued to be a challenging, yet also an amazing learning experience. The formative fieldwork has continued to be delayed, but I have been able to push the project forward thanks to an amazing team and our ongoing virtual research activities! These have included spending a lot of quality time with restaurant menus, both in New York City and more recently, our ongoing observations of menus from innovative restaurants in Latin American and the Caribbean.

    Check out the most recent LARiA Project update post, describing the lessons learned from these activities!


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