Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Bowled Away Modern bowl builds are carving out their own space on the menu

Brand new at On The Border, the Border Bowl layers flavor-forward ingredients like cilantro-lime rice and pico de gallo. A skewer of shrimp is brushed with a cilantro-chimichurri glaze.
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When defining what a modern bowl is, it’s important to say what it’s not. A bowl is not stew and it’s not soup. It’s utterly modern in its conception and execution, putting flavor first in each of its layers. And diners are eating it up. Chipotle’s Burrito Bowl now surpasses its famous burritos in sales. Jamba Juice added five Energy Bowls to its lineup in September. Panera rolled out Broth Bowls in January, KFC launched two new Chicken & Rice Bowls and On The Border introduced Border Bowls in April.

What’s the appeal? Bowls offer a unique platform for innovation, solving many of today’s foodservice challenges. They encourage trial because of their familiar, comfort-food posture, allowing global flavor exploration. Usually packed with produce and smaller portions of protein, bowls also deliver freshness and wellness cues flawlessly.

And perhaps the strongest voodoo behind their success is how they carry heft while balancing a halo of health. Unlike lighter-style salads and soups, bowls promise satiety and satisfaction. They deliver gratification and flavor payoff while allowing diners to feel good about their menu choice—that’s a winning formula today.

“For restaurants, the bowl space is a way to introduce healthy ingredients, like quinoa and green blends and seeds,” says Rachel Kalt, senior strategist with The Culinary Edge consultancy in San Francisco. “You can also construct a braised beef bowl that’s pretty indulgent but feels lighter than a braised beef sandwich. You get that association with health in a bowl build.”

Bowls—when constructed thoughtfully— serve up a handful of major menu trends. Themes are important here, and the ones gaining the most traction are Asian, Latin, health/wellness and a growing category of eclectic builds. That eclecticism is expressed through global mash-ups, street-food edginess or other creative blends of flavors and textures.

Asian Flair
With a cuisine known for its exploration of sweet, salty, sour and savory, bowls find a natural home—from the Banh Mi Bowl at Chaco Canyon Organic Café in Seattle to the Miso-Quinoa Bowl at the Egg Shop in New York City, sporting ribbons of pickled carrot, a fried egg and a soy reduction.

The four new Broth Bowls from Panera all spring from an umami-laden Asian soy-miso broth—and two out of the four are vegetarian options. “With the umami broth, we’re after a certain customer—maybe a bit adventurous, not afraid to try something,” says Dan Kish, Panera’s senior vice president of food.  “This was not a safe place for us. There’s a world that loves broccoli-cheddar soup.” But initial feedback points to a customer who also loves a bit of adventure.

Interestingly, Panera sees these bowls as an extension of its soup platform, which explains the brothiness inherent to all four. “We’re one of the largest purveyors of soup in the United States,” says Kish. “As we explore what Panera will become in the future, we look at how we want to be forward-thinking with soups.” Adding these four profiles—which include a Soba Noodle Bowl with Chicken and a Lentil-Quinoa Bowl with a Cage-Free Egg—speaks to what Kish calls “craveable wellness.” That message hits home with ingredients like fresh spinach, napa cabbage, roasted mushrooms and fresh cilantro. Panera may eventually extend the line beyond Asian profiles. “There are lots of trials and testing of new broth bowls from other cultures around the world. We’re casting a wide net, but we’re not in a hurry to add more,” he says.

Boloco, a 21-unit modern burrito concept based in Boston, serves a Bangkok Thai Bowl with Thai-style peanut sauce, Asian slaw, cucumber and brown rice. “Although we’re a burrito place, we’re only 18 percent Mexican,” jokes Eric Kinniburgh, Boloco’s director of culinary and procurement. “We like to offer the Asian bowl because the ingredients are familiar but exotic, and they just pack a lot of fresh flavors.”

Although Indian flavors aren’t as pervasive in this country yet, bowls are a great place for flavor discovery here. “Think of curry bowls, or maybe updated dals, which are braised and spiced lentils,” says Kalt. “Fresh slaws and pickled ingredients are great in Indian bowls.” At Tava, a growing fast-casual concept in the Bay Area specializing in Indian fare, diners can customize a brown or white basmati rice bowl with toppings like grass-fed lamb, paneer and tikka sauce.

Latin Layers
Latin bowls are probably the most common right now, perhaps thanks to the wild success of Chipotle’s Burrito Bowl. Flavor layering in this category is a natural—with beans, rice, salsa and fresh herbs all familiar components in Latin cuisine. On The Border is offering the Border Bowl in test markets now, with a national rollout planned for July. “Usually we re-evaluate after a test period, look at feedback, and roll it onto a feature card,” says Jamie Carawan, senior director of culinary and innovation at On The Border. “But it’s doing so well in test that we’ve moved it directly onto the feature card, which helps new items get exposure.”

The Border Bowl features cilantro-lime rice, black beans, iceberg lettuce, sautéed bell pepper, queso fresco, sliced avocado, roasted red chile salsa and pico de gallo. Customers choose grilled fajita beef, chicken, shrimp skewers or portobello, all of which are brushed with an in-house cilantro-chimichurri (roasted Serrano chiles, roasted garlic, red onion, lime juice, olive oil). “We’re looking to capture the guest who is looking for a fresh, quick, all-inclusive meal that delivers on flavor and quality,” says Carawan. “Every ingredient is identifiable. We intentionally use avocado instead of guacamole.”

That attention to each flavor detail is crucial in the modern bowl build; it reflects craftsmanship, which today’s diner finds appealing. “Bowls highlight culinary technique—pickled, roasted, toasted, charred—which gives the restaurant credibility,” says The Culinary Edge’s Kalt. “Drizzles of sauce or scoops of hummus or tahini in the bowl all give premium flavor cues.”

Carawan reports that Border Bowls are gaining an unexpected fan base. “We’ve got businessmen ordering them,” he says. “These are the guys that like the fajitas, but are maybe looking for a less interactive meal. The Border Bowl gives them all of those great flavors in one bowl.” Although the bowl development is proving successful, no line extensions are planned. “We’ve hit the need that we were trying to hit,” says Carawan.

Other Latin-themed chains are finding success in the bowl. Rubio’s recently rolled out the California Bowl, starring citrus rice, black beans, romaine, handmade guacamole, salsa fresca, chipotle sauce and a choice of red tomatillo salsa or salsa verde. Protein choices include pan-seared shrimp and grilled Pacific Mahi Mahi. And Del Taco now has three Fresca Bowls, including a Pollo Asado Grilled Chicken with seasoned black beans, diced onion, fresh cilantro, handmade pico de gallo and lime rice. At the Oregon-based Café Yumm! chain, diners can order the Chilean Zucchini Bowl, a Latin standout among eight offerings that promise an experience that is “soul satisfying, deeply nourishing.”

Eclectic and Edgy
Boloco prides itself on its eclectic menu, straying from the traditional Mexican burrito build and offering ingredients and flavors pulled from a variety of global and regional pantries. “Every burrito we have is available in a bowl, but then we have four menu items that were designed specifically as bowls,” says Kinniburgh. The New England Harvest, launched last year, is Boloco’s most popular one. It features white quinoa, chilled beet salsa, roasted butternut squash with cranberries, baby kale, garlic-roasted mushrooms, goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. “These bowls are how we expanded the salad platform,” he says. “We were going after women aged 20 to 50, but we’re seeing all demographics enjoying the bowls. Not everyone wants a burrito.”

Bowls as a strategy to kill the veto vote makes good sense. Building out the bowls with healthful grains and making them produce-heavy certainly appeals to health-conscious diners always on the lookout for fresh, better-for-you options. In September 2014, Boloco added a Charred Broccoli Salad to its bowl lineup: romaine, farro, charred broccoli, pickled onion, candied sunflower seeds and balsamic dressing. “The farro adds weight to the salad, and it moves it into the bowl category,” says Kinniburgh.

For Derek Sarno, senior global executive chef of R&D and product development at Whole Foods, and partner of Wicked Healthy Food, bowls offer infinite possibilities for craveable flavor combinations. “I think bowls are the most comforting thing to eat. When building a bowl, I look at it as compartmentalized mise en place,” he says. “You have 10 to 12 ingredients, but what makes it so sexy is that they’re all separate but work together. Each ingredient can stand alone. Maybe one component is a carrot-root slaw with coconut vinegar, Thai chile pepper, fresh mint and cilantro.” Alone, that’s delicious. Added to a bowl as part of a symphony of flavors? Unbeatable, he says.

Earlier this year, Sarno’s Wicked Healthy Vermicelli Bowl won The Culinary Institute of America’s Flavor Bowl contest. “This bowl stands out with its vibrant colors and flavors,” he says. “People want food to be craveable. They want it to be visually attractive.” The Vermicelli Bowl consists of spicy shredded carrot nuoc nom (cilantro, ginger, garlic, lime, coconut vinegar, Thai chile peppers, shredded carrots), fresh cilantro, crisped red onion, local popcorn shoots, sesame-cucumber salad, Ninja Squirrel Sriracha-candied almonds, shaved red bell peppers, fresh chile paste and sesame-tamari-carrot juice dressing.

Gracias Madre in Los Angeles offers three bowls that carry healthfulness and flavor innovation without staying within one type of cuisine. Its Bowl Dos stars braised lentils, peanut sauce, spinach, coconut rice, pico de gallo, pineapple-habanero salsa and pumpkin seeds. Breakfast offers a ripe opportunity for eclectic builds with bases like quinoa porridge or oatmeal that are then layered with fresh or dried fruit, toasted seeds and perhaps a drizzle of honey or agave. First Watch manages to bridge the breakfast-lunch gap with its Power Bowls, in part because of their heartiness. Its Cherry Chicken Quinoa Bowl combines quinoa, house-roasted zucchini, dried cherries, all-natural white-meat chicken breast, herbed goat cheese, almonds, fresh herbs and a drizzle of balsamic dressing.

“Bowls offer all the potential in the world,” says Sarno. “They offer super fresh flavors with a focus on each singular component of the bowl. They’re healthy eating in disguise.”

About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.