Race for Adventurous Consumers Tightens Between Flavor-Forward LSRs, FSRs

There is a real return on investment for any restaurant putting forth the effort to identify the next big ingredient or flavor—and it’s more than just street cred in food magazines and TV segments. Two in five consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers new or innovative flavors.

For a long time, that dynamic played out in the kitchens and dining rooms of higher-end full-service restaurants and local independents. For one thing, those were the places that employed chefs and culinary school grads in the back of the house. For another, discerning diners expected to find something new in a full-service restaurant rather than somewhere with counter service or a drive-thru.

Consumers are most likely try new flavors at full-service restaurants in general to this day, according to the Flavor Consumer Trend Report. However, limited-service restaurants are closing the gap with full-service peers in their pursuit of more adventurous customers. As guests indicate a greater willingness to try something new at a quick-service or fast-casual restaurant, those brands have intensified their menu innovation and marketing around emerging tastes.

In 2015, more consumers than in 2013 indicated they were likely to try a menu item or condiment with a new or intriguing flavor across every menu category in the limited-service segment. The increases in adventurous tastes were only slight for the more mature segments of sandwich, chicken and burgers. But in the more dynamic menu categories, interest in new flavors is growing more rapidly:

Interesting flavor chart

  • Asian and Mexican LSRs—which improved their share of consumers expressing interest in new flavors 7 and 8 percentage points, respectively, from 2013 to 2015—appear to benefit from their positioning as mainstream ethnic cuisines. Their core audiences seem to be receptive to new, ethnic flavors on the menu, whether it’s the Bangkok Curry Buff Bowl at Noodles & Company or the Dare Devil Loaded Griller at Taco Bell, which featured a superhot ghost pepper sauce.
  • A growing interest and availability of unique or specialty ethnic beverages contributed to more diners being likely to order new flavors at bakery-cafes and coffee-cafes
  • In 2015, 63% of consumers say they likely would try a menu item or condiment with an unfamiliar flavor at a limited-service pizza restaurant, up from 58% two years earlier. The emergence of fast-casual pizza and the category’s wide selection of new toppings is undoubtedly driving that growth.

In the same time period, only family-style restaurants experienced growth in the percentage of consumers likely to try innovative flavors at full-service brands. However, despite that dynamic being relative stagnant for FSR chains, those brands still have ample room for experimentation with new tastes. Nearly seven in 10 consumers would try an unfamiliar flavor at a varied-menu casual-dining restaurant, as would two-thirds of guests at Italian and steak FSRs.

Full-service restaurants should be as forward-looking with culinary trends as ever. They just might want to peer over their shoulder a little bit more to see which limited-service competitor might be gaining on them.

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Mark Brandau

Mark Brandau is Content Manager for Technomic. He joined Technomic in 2014 from No Limit Agency, and prior to that he worked as an editor for Nation’s Restaurant News for nearly 10 years.

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