In the comfort food revival that swept the menu over the past few years, no single menu item encapsulates this trend better than Mac and Cheese. Consumers nationwide have left their troubles and global economic woes behind for forkful after forkful of the creamy, indulgent and nostalgic allure of this classically American pasta dish.
According to a proprietary study for Barilla by Mintel, Mac and Cheese menuing is up 78% since 2008. It’s happening in casual dining most of all, but every segment is getting in on the action, from QSRs to fast-casual and family dining.
With all of this ooey-gooey goodness already on the menu, it’s increasingly difficult to have a signature Mac and Cheese that can stand out from the crowd. Here we look at some of the most innovative and successful approaches on the menu, and some tips from the experts for developing or improving your own.
STRATEGY #1: MAKE MINE LOCAL
Regional variations take full advantage of Mac and Cheese versatility, while bringing local flavor to the plate.
Boston’s Tremont 647 combines the higher-end, regional appeal of lobster with the nostalgia of Ritz® cracker topping in their famous Lobster Mac. It’s lobster mornay with swiss and cheddar, fresh lobster and Ritz cracker topping.
Pennsylvania-based Quaker Steak and Lube honors the classic Philly Cheesesteak with their Philly Cheese Mac. The pasta is Barilla Radiatore (radiators), in keeping with the chain’s automotive theme.
STRATEGY #2: GO ALL-IN WITH INDULGENCE
If a customer is ordering the Mac and Cheese, they probably aren’t looking for the healthy option. Take it over the top with high-flavor, umami ingredients like bacon, blue cheese, truffles, lobster or crab, pulled pork, mushrooms and caramelized onions.
Houston’s Jus’ Mac does homage to their hometown Tex Mex with a “Taco Mexi” – ground beef, avocado, tomatoes and tortilla chips – and to Texas BBQ with a Mac and Cheese paired with smoked brisket and BBQ sauce.
MacDaddy’s Macaroni and Cheese Bar, four locations in Connecticut and Texas, features Mac Mushroom, comprised of Crimini and shitake mushrooms, porcini emulsion, asiago, melted mozzarella and drizzles of truffle oil.
S’Mac, three Manhattan locations, presents “Parisienne” Mac and Cheese for the “upper crust” with creamy Brie, roasted figs, roasted shiitake mushrooms and fresh rosemary.
St. Elmo’s Steakhouse, Indianapolis, indulges diners with “Fried Bacon Infused Mac n Cheese”. According to the menu, “everything’s better with bacon…and fried.”
Noodles & Company, 311 locations nationwide, offers “Truffle Mac,” consisting of a signature Mac and Cheese sauce spiked with white truffle oil, sautéed baby portabella mushrooms and topped with parmesan cheese and house-made toasted breadcrumbs.
ADVICE FROM THE MAC MAESTROS:
Kimberly Alvarez, Jus Mac, Houston
“Focus on the creaminess of the sauce, fresh ingredients, good taste, and always use a high-quality pasta. Barilla elbows are the foundation of all of our Macs, and we know we can count on them to hold their shape and texture in every dish.”
Andy Husbands, Tremont 647 & Sister Sorrell, Boston
“It’s the sauce. It’s so important to blend the cheese to get a silky, velvety, wonderful richness. The Barilla pasta is the vessel for the sauce, and there’s nostalgia in the classic elbow shape.”
Katy Malaniak, Quaker Steak & Lube, Sharon PA
“Get creative with the pasta shapes. We were unsure if kids would warm up to anything other than an elbow, but the Barilla Radiatore has been a success since the start.”