Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Fast Casual’s Evolution This category, known for innovation, is changing. What’s working in this space, and what’s next?

Piada’s LTO of a Summer Avocado Piada was so successful, it moved the handheld into a fall offering by switching out fresh corn for roasted sweet potato.
PHOTO CREDIT: Piada Italian Street Food

Authenticity. Again.

The importance of authenticity for all segments today cannot be overstated, propelled by a consumer who values transparency, honesty and narrative. As the fast-casual space evolves, authenticity becomes an even bigger player, helping separate the wheat from the chaff.

“Brands are leveraging the demand for big flavors, tapping into a driving desire for authentic, adventurous experiences,” says The Culinary Edge’s Kalt.

For The Halal Guys, authenticity is inherently linked to its brand promise. Its first customer base was Muslim cab drivers in New York, looking for halal meals while on the road. The brand developed a rabidly loyal fan base because of its authentic Middle Eastern menu: grilled chicken thighs marinated overnight in Middle Eastern spices, beef gyro, spiced jasmine rice, pita and a famous white sauce that customers have been trying to decipher for years. A quick search on YouTube reveals earnest fans trying to replicate it.

“What has allowed us to flourish in a flatline business is authenticity and origin of our brand,” says Eck. “We’re an overnight sensation 20 years in the making.” The Halal Guys’ success is an indicator of how important authenticity, craveability and word-of-mouth marketing is. As this brand flourishes in markets outside of New York, its narrative may soften, but if it can protect its authenticity, the future looks bright.

Piada’s Harding shares an important perspective on authenticity: “If you roll out a harissa, you need to know what the traditional one tastes like. Once you understand that flavor, then think how your guests can consume it,” he says. “We could never get away with ’nduja as a spread, but we could put it in a mayo or a hummus, where our guests couldn’t quite place it, but would find it intriguing. That’s almost better than the original for us—while still being an authentic experience.”

He uses chorizo as another example. “If you’re doing chorizo, it has to be kick-ass chorizo. Authentic flavors don’t need to be presented authentically. You can do chorizo in a taco or a piada—the flavor has to be authentic, but it can be presented in a way that fits your brand,” he says.

Better-for-you Mediterranean fast casual Cava innovates with new flavors through salad dressings like Turmeric Tahini and Green Harissa. Cava

Better-for-you Mediterranean fast casual Cava innovates with new flavors through salad dressings like Turmeric Tahini and Green Harissa.

Consumer Reach

“Knowing your customer” is baked into everyday marketing, but stretching for new customers takes savvy, insight and a touch of bravery. “We attract older Millennials,” says Harding. “Our guest is a young professional with a young family and a higher disposable income. They’re mobile and they’re looking for great food—that’s our sweet spot.”

But Piada wants to bring in younger consumers, too. “They’re the holy grail,” he says. “The key is flavor and authenticity.” A few menu additions are designed to lure in younger diners, with authentic, interesting flavor combinations leading the charge. In October, Piada is rolling out a porchetta sandwich that’s been in the works for 18 months. “Ours is both typical and atypical, with fennel, garlic, rosemary—and we added lemon peel and dried mushroom, which makes the pork ‘porkier,’” he says.

He serves it on a bianca roll with sliced fennel and pickled red onion. “The fennel provides the crunch and sweetness, while the onion cleans up the unctuousness of the pork. It might be challenging for the guest, but we want an authentic handheld that has big flavors in it.”

Piada is also expanding into bowls, adding a Mediterranean Power Bowl with red quinoa, green harissa, roasted sweet potato, broccoli and cauliflower, pickled red onions, za’atar chickpeas and cilantro. “It’s a departure for us, but we had a hole in our menu,” says Harding. “Pasta carbonara is great, but you don’t always want to eat that way. This gives them yet another choice.”

Vitality Bowls is also going after the younger demographic, and it’s aiming efforts at the brunch daypart with two new rollouts: superfood waffles and an “eggnini.”

“Our superfood waffles are great for the brunch crowds,” says Gilad. “And they’ll give our customers more breakfast options throughout the day.” The waffles, boasting quinoa, chia seeds, flaxseed and pitaya, are currently in test at all locations. The eggnini is a breakfast panini with pesto, mozzarella, scrambled egg and spinach.

The Halal Guys has noted a shift in demographic as the fast casual moves across the country. “What we’ve seen in our first two corporate-owned brick-and-mortar concepts was a cost-conscious, young adult consumer,” says Eck. “Our consumer base has shifted to more established 28 to 35 year olds. Our initial assumption was in the 18 to 25 range.”

What’s clear across these brands is that a growth strategy leans heavily on understanding the flavor preferences of different demographics, then perhaps stretching to reach new ones.

“We all have to keep innovating to keep our guests coming in,” says Harding. “When you give them something special, something different, something with really good developed flavors, that’s what’s craveable, and that’s what they’ll come back for.”

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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.