Flavor Report: Four Takeaways for Fast Casual Restaurants

Could honey-ginger be a breakout flavor profile in 2014? (Absolutely.) Will whiskey and bourbon maintain their momentum on food menus as an on-trend flavoring for sauces and glazes? (Likely.) Are consumers over mango and other tropical flavors yet? (Hardly.)

Technomic’s new 2013 Flavor Consumer Trend Report offers an incredibly interesting look at American consumers’ evolving palates and the menu trends that are both shaping and reflecting these changes. Many fast-casual concepts, across menu segments, strive to be at the leading edge of the flavor curve within the limited-service restaurant space. This week, we highlight four key findings from the report and consider how emerging flavor trends are being expressed on fast-casual menus.

1.  Flavor blends are gaining favor. Technomic asked 1,500 consumers in 2009 and in 2013 how appealing they found 12 different flavor combinations, from tomato-basil to wasabi-ginger. Eleven of the 12 flavor blends saw their popularity rise in 2013 (sorry, lemon-horseradish). Tomato-basil received the strongest reception, with 53% of consumers this year saying they find the combination appealing or very appealing. The biggest gainer was honey-ginger: 28% deemed it appealing in 2009; 40% did the same today. Other blends that saw notable upticks in interest were chipotle-lime, rosemary-orange and mango-habanero. On the operator side, it’s worth noting that flavor blends that combine sweet fruits with herbs or spices hold strong potential for application not just in sauces, salsas and other toppings but also in original nonalcohol beverages.

Trend in action
Mango Habanero Mahi Mahi Tacos, Rubio’s: with grilled or house-blackened fish, served on a flour tortilla with pinto beans and chips
Blueberry Mint Lemonade, Lemonade (Venice, CA): other lemonade flavors include cucumber mint, watermelon rosemary and guava limeade

2.  Look for “regional American” to be a rising menu star. Items inspired by a particular U.S. region have long been a mainstay at some concepts—fast-casual sandwich specialist Jason’s Deli, for example, takes pride in its New Orleans-style muffulettas—but we see a wider embrace across restaurant segments of region-specific foods, ingredients and flavors in 2014. Authenticity can be a key selling point: Sourcing sauces, sausages or other ingredients from the area that inspired the menu item and hewing as closely as possible to traditional preparations likely will resonate with consumers, many of whom connect authenticity with taste and quality. Barbecue is an obvious application for the regional American trend; because the proteins and sauces favored for barbecue vary across the country, operators have the opportunity to showcase different styles and let consumers choose their favorites.

Trend in action
North Carolina Pulled Pork Sandwich, City Barbecue (Dublin, OH): half-pound sandwich topped with vinegar and slaw
Hatch Green Chile and Chicken Panini, Celebrity Café & Bakery (Colleyville, TX): oven-roasted chicken topped with New Mexico green chiles and provolone cheese, grilled on a ciabatta bun

3.  Global flavor mashups are gaining traction. Five years ago, the Kogi BBQ truck introduced hordes of hungry Southern Californians to Korean barbecued-beef tacos. Since then, a host of independent and regional chain fast-casual concepts devoted to such global flavor fusions has popped up. One such concept profiled in the Flavor Consumer Trend Report is Saucy Porka, a single-unit Chicago restaurant that blends flavors of Puerto Rico and East and Southeast Asia in homage to the two chef-operators’ roots. As consumers especially in urban areas become better acquainted with different global cuisines’ complementary flavor profiles and formats, watch for fusions of ethnic influences to move further into the mainstream. Sandwiches/wraps and other handheld, street-food-style items offer an approachable way to introduce these on menus.

Trend in action
Pork Carnitas “Baco,” Saucy Porka (Chicago): carnitas topped with pineapple salsa, served on a steamed bao bun
Banh Mi, Macrina Bakery Café (Seattle): barbecued pork loin, pickled daikon and carrots, cucumbers, organic field greens, cilantro, ginger aioli and sriracha on panini bread.

4.  Bring the heat: More consumers are savoring spice. For the first time in four years, a majority (54%) of consumers polled said they find hot or spicy foods appealing. That compares with 48% who said the same in 2011 and 46% who did in 2009. Unsurprisingly, consumers ages 18–34 expressed the greatest preference for spicy flavors, but interest in spice rose among almost all age groups.  Specialists in customization, fast-casual concepts are ideally positioned to take advantage of consumers’ growing appetite for spicy foods. Menu items that tame the heat of chiles and hot sauces with sweet fruit flavors (mango, pineapple) or smooth, creamy tastes (peanut butter, cream cheese) can serve as an entry point for consumers looking to try spicier profiles.

Trend in action
Thai Spicy Peanut Bacon Burger, Armadillo Willy’s:
certified Angus beef burger with sriracha peanut sauce, bacon, fresh jalapeno, cilantro, red and green onions, and hot-pepper jelly
Spicy Salmon Egg Sandwich, Wildflower Bread Company: scrambled eggs, wild Alaskan salmon, red onion, tomato, super greens, herbed goat cheese and fiery pepper sauce on a grilled brioche roll

Fast casual is always a fascinating category to watch when it comes to menu innovation. And as consumers express a growing interest in flavors both exotic and homegrown, we’ll look to fast casual to be a leader in bringing leading-edge tastes to the masses.


Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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