Looking for the latest in new product innovation? Forget the recession and head to the nearest restaurant. That’s right – a restaurant.

That was the focus of a standing-room only presentation on “Innovative Ways to Add Value” by Nancy Kruse. Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta, analyzes foodservice menu trends involving the nation’s top 250 fast-food, fast-casual and full-service restaurants. Kruse spoke in October at the Worldwide Food Expo in Chicago.

“This is the worst state of affairs in the history of our industry in terms of sales and unit declines,” she said. “Operators are focused on new products that not only offer a value proposition but also help them achieve competitive differentiation and maintain traffic.”

How are they doing that? Kruse said operators are emphasizing the “four P’s” of “protein,” “portion control,” “premium offerings” and “preparation.”

Protein: Operators are emphasizing protein as a condiment – topping burgers with additional thinly sliced meats (bacon, ham, roast beef) and adding more cheese to deliver more “comfort” in comfort foods (mac & cheese, mac & cheese bites and grilled cheese sandwiches).

Kruse also noted several smart and economical uses of lower-cost meats (braised beef and citrus-marinated dark meat chicken).

Portion strategies: Pardon the play on words but mini is the biggest thing. Kruse shared numerous examples of “slider” offerings (involving burgers, barbeque and even lamb). Meanwhile, she noted that the big three menu dayparts – breakfast, lunch and dinner – are all losing money while consumers are stopping by in between meals for lower-priced snacks and small plates. Other popular snack options are frozen yogurt and hand-made milk shakes.

Premium: Better burgers and super sandwiches are hot trends here. Kruse highlighted several premium burger chains that are expanding from their local, regional beginnings to wider distribution. Meanwhile, Quiznos, Subway and even Dunkin Donuts are competing fiercely with premium sandwiches that showcase distinctive meats, condiments, breads and cheeses.

Prep: The grill is the thrill. Of the most popular food prep techniques, “grilling” is far and away the most popular in restaurant menu mentions. Others on the rise are “toasted,” “smoked” and “barbecued” while broiling and char-broiling are on the decline. Kruse noted that grilling connotes added freshness and flavor – not bad attributes for operators looking to tempt patrons.