Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Generational Flavors Overall, different age groups respond to different trends in foodservice

Non-Boomers are more apt to try new global flavors. Millennials and Gen Xers in particular seek out such dishes as these Vietnamese-style wagyu meatballs in a bo kho (spicy stew) broth, served at Underbelly in Houston.
PHOTO CREDIT: Julie Soefer Photography

Consumers are shaped not only by their unique experiences but also by common life stages they share with most of their generation, from getting an education to establishing a career to getting married and having a family. Beyond these commonalities, members of every generation are set apart from other generations by the particular social, economic, political and technological environment of their youth.

Generational differences in lifestyles and attitudes translate into distinct needs, preferences and expectations when it comes to food and foodservice. In the 1980s—the heyday of the postwar Baby Boomers—exciting flavor trends included ranch and Caesar dressing, hot sauce and Buffalo sauce. Since then, many food, flavor and concept trends have come and gone (or stayed but evolved) as new generations discovered them, appropriated them and moved on. Meanwhile, even as home cooking has waned over the last few decades, the public’s sophistication about foods and flavors has increased; for instance, what was once “hot sauce” is now far more likely to be a cuisine-specific, ingredient-specific condiment like Sriracha.

Technomic’s MenuMonitor database can track the evolution of successful flavor trends—from introduction (typically in independent fine-dining restaurants and emerging chains) to growth (when the nascent trend penetrates higher-end casual-dining chains) to mainstreaming (in casual-dining and fast-casual chains) to maturity (when the now-ubiquitous flavor makes its way to family-dining and QSR chains). The flavor lifecycle is usually a process of four to five years, a period long enough for each generation of consumers to make noticeable progress through its own lifecycle. Thus, emerging flavors are linked to a particular moment in life for each cohort.

Today’s mature trends include familiar global cuisines (Italian, Mexican and Asian) as well as flavors like jalapeño and chipotle (descended from the “hot sauce” of the 1980s). These are typically favorites of Baby Boomers.

Securely ensconced in today’s mainstream and thus appealing to the middle generation—Generation X—are flavors like lime, ginger, pesto and mesquite.

Growth flavors being embraced by Millennials and others include Cajun, miso, wasabi and saffron.

Flavors now being introduced to American diners include yuzu, tamarind, lemongrass and vinegar; Generation Z youth may grow comfortable with these as they enter adulthood.

Here’s a closer look at these four generations and what we know about their food and restaurant preferences.

Boomers: Casual-Dining Mainstays
For better or worse, nobody can ignore the huge postwar Baby Boom generation and its pig-in-a-python progress through life. Still representing one quarter of the population (and more than a third of the adult population), the 49- to 68-year-old Boomers have been trendsetters throughout their long and eventful lives. This generation was largely responsible for the growth and proliferation of casual-dining chain restaurants. Now, shifts in flavor preferences and health needs—as well as, in some cases, diminished buying power—point to new opportunities for restaurants to enhance their appeal to this long-familiar customer base.

Of all generations, Boomers are most likely to visit restaurants for dine-in service; they’re also more likely to be frequent patrons of full-service restaurants (FSRs)—although eight out of 10 visit a fast-food restaurant at least monthly. Boomers place more emphasis on menu items at FSRs than at limited-service restaurants (LSRs), and they put more value on freshness than any other generation—although they’re less willing to pay extra for such items. “Premium” and “homemade” are other callouts that resonate. Traditional protein dishes such as seafood, beef and pork are more appealing to Boomers than to younger generations, but food preferences are broadening as members of this generation seek out wholesome yet flavorful fare. New health concerns lead many to look for items that are low in fat, cholesterol, sodium and/or carbohydrates.

Today, Boomers’ favorite limited-service restaurants include Papa Murphy’s Take ’n’ Bake Pizza, which helps them turn one of their favorite QSR foods into a convenient home-cooked meal. But they’re more likely to be partial to family-style eateries like Cracker Barrel, Shoney’s or Bob Evans, as well as specialty restaurants in the traditional casual-dining space such as Olive Garden, Red Lobster or Texas Roadhouse. Among polished-casual concepts, one with outsized Boomer clientele is Bonefish Grill, which capitalizes on the niche between high-end and value-priced seafood houses and thus answers Boomers’ strong demand for value. The menu offers high-quality seafood, including market-fresh fish cooked to order on an oak-burning grill. Signature entrées are creatively prepared with ingredients like hearts of palm, pine nuts, artichokes, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, and the beverage list includes specialty martinis.

Restaurants that want to appeal to Boomers today should offer bigger, more robust taste sensations as a twist on the tried-and-true; Boomers may want more pronounced flavors, but they’re not necessarily adventurous diners.

Operators could appeal to Boomer demand for mindful snacking with fresh, nutritionally balanced appetizers and small plates. Bonefish Grill’s appetizer menu offers steamed edamame, ahi tuna sashimi and Mussels Josephine—PEI mussels sautéed with tomatoes, garlic, basil and lemon-wine sauce—along with the expected fried seafood.

Restaurants should pay particular attention to breakfast, on which Boomers lavish more away-from-home dollars than any other generation. Bonefish Grill unveiled a new Sunday brunch menu earlier this year, adding upscale, global and healthful dishes like a Kobe beef and egg burger, Surf and Turf Eggs Benedict, Huevos Benedictos with crispy corn tortillas and chorizo, a Cajun shrimp omelette, and organic whole-grain oatmeal.

Generation X: Money to Spend
Comprising only one-seventh of the U.S. population and one-fifth of adults, middle-aged Generation Xers (now aged 38 to 48) share some characteristics with Boomers and some with Millennials, so they’re easy to dismiss as a distinct group. That would be a mistake, however. These consumers have household incomes equal to those of Boomers, and they’re far more likely to be employed. Of all generations, they’re least likely to be concerned about finances when dining out, and they tend to visit a variety of restaurants—particularly those with a fun, upbeat atmosphere conducive to group occasions.

Even more than other generations, members of this cohort love pizza, burgers, Mexican fare and Mediterranean cuisine. Gen Xers place value on “better-for-you” choices at LSRs, while menu variety and customization are more important to them at FSRs. They are drawn to items billed as “authentic,” “homemade” and “premium.” With their middle-of-the-road tastes, Gen Xers are stalwarts of McDonald’s and Burger King (both of which offer craveable core-menu items, healthier alternatives, breakfast fare, a wide range of beverages, and kids’ menus) and Subway (which adds the appeal of fast, fresh and healthy sandwiches and salads built to order on freshly baked breads). One FSR favorite of Gen Xers is Brio Tuscan Grille, which caters to their hunger for healthful Mediterranean fare by preparing items with authentic Tuscan cooking methods—employing wood-burning grills and rotisseries as well as wood-fired ovens. Appetizers include beef carpaccio; popular entrées are Tuscan-grilled pork chops and veal Marsala; the dessert lineup features crème brûlée; and kids’ meals range from grilled salmon to build-your-own pizza. There’s also a lengthy list of wines by the glass or bottle. Catering to this generation’s preoccupation with restaurant atmosphere, units are designed to resemble Tuscan chophouses with antique paneling, white tablecloths and marble countertops.

Operators may want to offer and promote upscale menu items tailored to the preferences of Generation Xers, who are susceptible to marketing messages that position meals as a treat and are willing to pay for them. One example is last fall’s “Weeknights in Tuscany” promotion at Brio Tuscan Grille, offering for $24 per person a three-course menu that included such options as lobster bisque, a beef filet served with a Romano cheese-crusted tomato and roasted vegetables, and a dessert of butterscotch pecan bread pudding.

Millennials: All Grown Up
Second only to the Baby Boom generation in size, Millennials represent 29 percent of the adult population and 22 percent of the entire U.S. population. They’re diverse (four out of 10 are members of a minority group). And they are quite metropolitan   (one third  live in urban areas). The oldest Millennials are age 37 (approaching middle age and usually in the midst of their child-rearing years) and the youngest are 22 (above the legal drinking age). Most Millennials have completed their education; almost seven out of 10 are in the workforce, close to the proportion we see in Generation X. As their incomes and families grow, Millennials look toward a bright future.

Millennials are also a seize-the-moment group, and restaurants are an area in which they’re willing to spend. These consumers are most likely to order delivery, and their heavy reliance on foodservice also extends to prepared meals from retailers. Yet Millennials also value a wide variety of dine-in restaurant experiences conducive to social occasions. They’re looking for menu items they crave and that they can make all their own. Cues that resonate include “unprocessed,” “natural,” “fresh,” “local” and “grass-fed.” A larger proportion of Millennials would also be likely to purchase antibiotic-free, free-range and organic items; attributes that relate to social responsibility and sustainability matter to a substantial proportion of them. Millennials enjoy trying different foods and visit restaurants that feature new or innovative flavors and ingredients. Brands that drive their loyalty offer something different—a unique take on the menu, ambiance or concept positioning. Millennial-friendly chains put a modern spin on established comfort foods, align with their snacking lifestyle, and mimic the feel of an independent restaurant.

One quick-service brand with huge Millennial appeal is Taco Bell, with its moderately priced tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos and specialty items served in a casual, festive atmosphere. Patrons can choose value deals, under-350-calorie healthy items or slightly more upscale chef-inspired fare such as citrus-herb-marinated chicken. Items are available in a variety of portion sizes and combos appropriate for snacking, sharing and filling meals alike. Whimsical LTOs, like the wildly successful series of branded Doritos Locos Tacos or the new Dr Pepper Vanilla Float Freeze, keep Millennials coming back for something new. This spring, Taco Bell extended its daypart reach with a new breakfast menu featuring items such as a Waffle Taco, branded Cinnabon Delights and premium Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee.

Millennials value opportunities for menu customization, so it’s no surprise that one of their favorite fast-casual restaurants is better-burger concept Fuddruckers. Decor and exterior appearance vary, giving units the feel of independent restaurants. Burger customization begins with the meat (healthy choices include salmon, chicken and turkey, and exotic options include buffalo, elk and wild boar) and size (a 1/3-, 1/2- or 2/3-lb. patty). The burger is then cooked to order on a black-iron grill and served with the customer’s choice of toppings on a freshly baked bun. Restaurants feature a self-service burger bar and an exhibition-style prep area with a bakery and butcher shop. The menu, unusually broad for a fast-casual burger concept, extends to sandwiches, chicken items, salads, soups, chili and a variety of sides. Units that offer bottled beer and wine may also feature a separate bar.

When they’re looking for a casual-dining experience, Millennials may gravitate to a high-energy, party-friendly concept like Yard House. The brewpub’s units boast a glass-walled 600-barrel keg room and a gleaming stainless-steel island bar with 100 to 250 beer taps running across the ceiling through exposed stainless-steel pipes. Sports and news play on flat-screen TVs as a custom audio system blasts classic rock music. The large selection of draft beers is complemented by a varied menu that features appetizers like lettuce wraps, seared ahi sashimi and truffle fries; signature entrées like jambalaya, jerk chicken with shrimp and Southern-style fried chicken; and mini-desserts like chocolate soufflé cake and peach-apple cobbler.

The Millennial generation is about much more than age—it’s a mindset. As both older and younger consumer groups are now being influenced by Millennials, speaking to this shifting sensibility across generations will be crucial.

Generation Z: Watch This Space
Generation Z, aged 21 and under, currently makes up 12 percent of the total population and 16 percent of the adult population. Members of this generation are largely students (65 percent) rather than workers (23 percent). They are the most ethnically diverse of all American generations. Members of Gen Z differ from older generations in being “digital natives.” Other cohorts may have adapted to technology, but the inherent fluency belongs only to Gen Z.

Gen Zers value low prices, overall value, convenience and fast service along with flavor, freshness and variety. Callouts for “natural,” “organic” and “sustainable” items are more likely to resonate with Generation Z than with older generations. Different, new and innovative dishes—like last year’s Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger at Wendy’s—are important in driving their traffic.

Though Gen Zers enjoy visiting high-energy FSRs like BJ’s and Buffalo Wild Wings, as well as family-dining concepts like IHOP and Denny’s, they patronize fast-food restaurants most often and are most likely to return to the same spot each time they eat out. This generation is especially drawn to Starbucks; almost half are at least occasional patrons, compared to one-third of the general population. Gen Zers likely enjoy Starbucks’ sophisticated, inviting atmosphere and digital integration (including free Wi-Fi, mobile payment options and the proprietary Starbucks Digital Network) as much as they do the menu of gourmet coffees, Frappuccinos, teas and smoothies accompanied by pastries, sandwiches and grab-and-go snacks. And because they can’t yet snack and socialize at bars and nightclubs, older members of Gen Z who happen to live in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle or Portland, Ore., may particularly appreciate the Starbucks Evenings line of grown-up, after-4 p.m. bar snacks—like chicken sausage and mushroom flatbread, blue Brie and apricot preserves plate, Parmesan-crusted chicken skewers, truffle mac and cheese, and double-chocolate brownie bites.

Opportunities to capture the attention of the Gen Z consumer will be found in marketing messages, promotional activities and an overall positioning that is real, unique and impactful; funny and fast; interactive and focused on crowdsourcing; value-oriented; and fully integrated with technology.

Concerns That Cross Generations
Although each generation responds differently to restaurant menus and concept positionings, two issues show up consistently among the preoccupations of all generations:

  • Healthy positioning: Today’s foodservice consumer, regardless of age, perceives that functional, sustainable, “super” and fresh foods impart health. Restaurant patrons in all generations are looking for foods that are functional, made with sustainable ingredients, and, above all, fresh.
  • Customizability: Millennials are often identified as expecting to get what they want, when they want, and how they want it. Now this sensibility extends to Boomers and Gen Xers, as well as the up-and-coming Gen Z. These consumers are looking to access information instantly, and they are seeking to tailor their food, drink and overall experience to their wishes. Operators hoping to speak to and leverage this mindset will make customizability—in terms of both products and experiences—a core facet of their service format and positioning.

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