During tight economic times, consumers are less willing to order appetizers, soups and salads. “To justify spending on items from the left side of the menu, they want more value - dishes with unique flavors they can’t make at home, or are large enough to share or eat as an entrée,” says Darren Tristano, an executive vice president with Chicago’s Technomic Inc., a foodservice industry researcher.

“Consumers are trying to cut their dining budgets, in many cases by eliminating starters,” he says. “To drive cravings and create interest in appetizers, salads and soups, operators must innovate with exciting dressings and dips, unusual ingredients and preparation techniques that can’t be easily duplicated at home. These encourage consumers to feel the experience is worth the extra cost.”

In preparing its latestLeft Side of the Menureports, Technomic said it interviewed more than 4,500 consumers and analyzed menus from the Top 250 chain restaurants, emerging chains and independent restaurants. Among its other findings, Technomic said:

- The number of “heavy” consumers of starters has dropped considerably in the last two years. Roughly half (51 percent) of consumers were considered to be heavy purchasers of salads in 2007; in 2009, that number was 33 percent. Heavy consumer numbers have slid from 40 percent to 24 percent for appetizers; and from 25 to 15 percent for soup.

- Fifty-eight percent of consumers overall and 64 percent of consumers ages 18 to 34 are not fully satisfied with the variety of appetizers at full-service restaurants. More than two-thirds said that salad variety also could be improved. Though most consumers (68 percent) expect restaurants to menu just three or four soups, 40 percent would like to see more ethnic soups offered.

- For “shareability” and for making a starter the main course, size is important in appetizer purchases. Four out of five (82 percent) consumers felt that appetizers should be shared; and 61 percent said that portions should be large enough to do so. Three-quarters of consumers would consider ordering a combination platter.

- For soups, global flavor profiles are in vogue - especially those derived from Asian and Mexican cuisines. Mexican flavors tend to dominate at the Top 250 chains, while Asian-inspired soups are widely offered by emerging chains and large independents.- Health drives the decision to order a salad as an entrée for 66 percent of consumers at lunch and 63 percent at dinner.