Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Innovating Within Ubiquity Breathe new life into late-stage trends with creative flavors and forms

Tapping into Alfredo’s built-in appeal requires the simplest of touches—perhaps a hint of Gorgonzola or an infusion of spices, like ancho or smoked paprika.

The quest for the next big flavor, the new runaway menu item, is a worthy one. It drives the foodservice industry and crystallizes the staggering creativity among culinarians. Show-stopping innovation typically lasers in on the “inception” and “adoption” parts of the Menu Adoption Cycle, as defined by Datassential years ago. Rounding out that circle of life is “proliferation” and “ubiquity.” Once a flavor trend hits that last stage, it has reached maturity and can be found everywhere, from quick service to convenience stores. Datassential points to a number of ingredients as markers for these stages. Yuzu and togarashi, for instance, still live in the inception stage. Harissa and farro can be found in the adoption part of the cycle, while hummus and Greek yogurt are further down the pike in proliferation. Ubiquity hosts many iconic flavors and forms, including mac and cheese, maple and pesto.

Although it’s tempting to look at those late-stage flavors as lacking inspiration, the built-in recognition and earned-over-time affection can be leveraged while still serving up modern dishes. In fact, it’s well known that you can push further within familiar confines than you can with proliferating flavors. The challenge, then, is maximizing the popularity of ubiquitous flavors while making them signature and flavor-forward.

“We’re in a nuclear arms race of innovation in the casual-dining space,” says Eric Stangarone, founder of Food Thinking, a food innovation consultancy based in San Francisco, and partner at En Su Boca Restaurants in Richmond, Va. “An underused strategy is to put the ubiquitous ingredient on a pedestal, making it the star.” To be sure, that’s an established part of R&D, but he drives home the point that the often untapped potential for reinvention and modernization is huge. It’s all about the approach.

Andrew Hunter, founder of the eponymous culinary development agency based in Los Angeles, looks at flavors in ubiquity and strategizes about how to amp up what makes them iconic, familiar and sought after. “It’s important to identify what you want to bring forward, then add something else to give it a spin so it’s not the same as the restaurant down the street,” he says.

Nick Saba, chef/founder of Terra Culinary Services in Yorba Linda, Calif., agrees. “It’s about adding depth to those ubiquitous flavors. You don’t want to mask them or force them into profiles that don’t work,” he says. The magic is applying deft technique and culinary creativity to these now-classic flavors. Maybe that means using ubiquitous flavors in unexpected ways. Buffalo cauliflower is one of the greatest ambassadors for success in this strategy. “Using a ubiquity-level trend in something more trend-forward can give it new life,” says Brian Darr, managing director of Datassential. “Some of this innovation can also be using these flavors tongue-in-cheek—like taking unique ingredients and pairing them with common sauces or flavors.”

The challenge is posed by Hunter: “As culinary innovators, how do we stay within the confines of cultural expectation while venturing outside the lines to create our own unique signature?”

The Fabulous Four

The list of flavors living in ubiquity is long. And although many warrant modern exploration, we highlight four that hold potential for serious stardom in today’s foodservice landscape: teriyaki, Buffalo, ranch and Alfredo. They are, of course, familiar, but they’re also versatile, and boast an innate craveability worthy of exploitation. “These are time-tested, well-loved flavors,” says Stangarone. “The presentations should be contemporary, the preparation should include modern, inspired techniques, and the dish should always reflect the personality of the brand.”

Crispy hushpuppies studded with jalapeño get a refreshing cool-down with a creamy icebox buttermilk ranch dip.

Crispy hushpuppies studded with jalapeño get a refreshing cool-down with a creamy icebox buttermilk ranch dip.

1. Back To The Ranch

Ranch dressing is one of those ingredients that promises so much to the consumer. It’s an iconic American flavor, and one that chefs are turning to over and over again for creative recipe ideation. The vegetarian concept Superiority Burger in New York expresses its brand perfectly in a tahini-laced ranch dressing. And Nosh & Grog in Medfield, Mass., seasons its shoestring fries with Spanish piment d’Espelette and ranch dressing powder.

Ranch: A Culinary Canvas

By Andrew Hunter

People are passionate about “their” ranch. Similar to cola and ketchup, ranch has a definite standard of identity. If you deviate too far, your guests will rebel. Here are ways to make ranch fresh and unique while staying true to its populist form:

Fresh Dairy: Blend fresh, ice-cold buttermilk into powdered ranch. To make a richer and thicker version, add an equal part of sour cream or Mexican crema. If you’re aiming for a more gourmet version, stir in a spoonful of crème fraîche or mascarpone to finish.

Fresh Herbs: The herbs in ranch are dried parsley, chives and dill, so supplement those with a handful each of chopped fresh. Other fresh herbs such as basil and tarragon can be fair game as well.

Ice Cold And Frothy: Store a pan of ranch in an ice bath and pulse it with an immersion blender before ladling it into a cup for dipping or over fresh greens for dressing.

Stir-In Possibilities: Add ingredients that are already in your pantry to challenge ranch’s status quo flavor profile.

  • Citrus seasoned ponzu and seasoned rice vinegar introduce a hint of umami and elevate the buttermilk and herbs.
  • Frozen blueberry purée, lemon juice and Parmesan make a kid-friendly dip.
  • Peeled cucumbers and tomatoes create “relish” ranch.
  • Crispy crumbled bacon, smoky paprika and tomato paste create a “cowboy” appeal.
  • Wasabi, pickled ginger and avocado move it toward a Japanese ranch.
  • Sriracha or gochujang add a spicy or fermented flavor.

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About The Author


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.