Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Contemporary Condiments

It’s not just plain mustard anymore.This condiment has expanded into many gourmet flavor profiles — honey, bourbon, cheese and fruit, to name a few. Photo courtesy of french’s foodservice. Pique diners’ palates and perk up menu standards with tasty sauces, dressings and other unique add-ons

By Rita Negrete

Restaurants have always relied on standard accompaniments like ketchup, mustard, relish, mayonnaise, salsa, barbecue sauce and ranch dressing to enhance menu items, but these condiments now are getting dressed up with new flavors and textures. More than ever before, operators are differentiating their menu offerings through the variety, quality and uniqueness of their condiments.

The new attention to condiments, sauces and dressings aligns perfectly with the trend toward offering diners more choices and customization. Niche restaurants with highly focused menus are differentiating themselves within their competitive set by touting their vast variety of condiments, dips and toppings. Sandwich chain Spicy Pickle offers 16 spreads and 21 toppings; Roly Poly offers 18 spreads and 18 toppings.

Burger King’s Whopper Bar brand extension features variations of the parent chain’s signature burger with potential add-ons on display behind the counter in a “toppings theater.” Customers can choose from two kinds of bacon, five cheeses, pickles, guacamole, sautéed mushrooms, jalapeños and four kinds of onion. Similarly, Big Boy’s @burger concept differentiates itself with its condiment table, which features malt vinegar, hot sauce and numerous flavors of salt (from cheddar cheese to onion to lime).

Self-service condiment bars also are sprouting up in many other types of restaurants. Boston Market’s new condiment bar allows guests to help themselves to six different sauces and salsas as well as flour tortillas. Corner Fish Grill in Mission Viejo, Calif., offers a self-serve condiment bar stocked with everything from vinegars, hot sauces and tartar sauce to salsa, lemons and limes. Among Mexican eateries, Lime Fresh Mexican Grill is known for its 50 types of hot sauce and signature house-made salsa bar. At FreshBerry Frozen Yogurt Café’s new self-serve stores, customers can build their dessert from some 20 fro-yo flavors as well as 30-plus toppings.

Another hotbed of sauces is chicken and chicken-wing restaurants. Most of these niche concepts promote a wide variety of sauces, with the most-popular versions featuring a combination of sweetness, spice and heat. Wingstop offers its wings sauced with original hot, Cajun, Atomic, mild, lemon-pepper, garlic-Parmesan, hickory-smoked barbecue, Hawaiian or teriyaki sauce, or unsauced with dipping sauce — creamy ranch, chunky blue cheese or honey mustard. Wing Zone offers mild, medium, hot, Nuclear, spicy barbecue, hot honey-teriyaki, Ragin’ Cajun, Thai chile, garlic-Parmesan, Buffalo-blue, Kickin’ Ranch, honey-barbecue, sweet teriyaki, honey-mustard and lemon sauces. R.J. Gator’s choices include mild, medium, hot, “Clear the Sinuses,” coconut-rum barbecue glaze, honey-teriyaki, sesame-orange, honey-mustard and barbecue.

The sauce mania exemplified by these concepts has stimulated a wider interest in a variety of sauces for other menu items and at other types of restaurants. Take a look, for instance, at the rib tips meal at Famous Sam’s, served with the customer’s choice of honey-mustard, barbecue sauce, cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, blue cheese or ranch dressing.

Fries are so much more tasty when diners can dunk them in creamy, veggie-based dips and kicked-up ketchup. Photo courtesy of idaho potato commission. WHY THE CONDIMENT CRAZE?
What’s behind this love affair with condiments? For starters, they turn a familiar dish into something new and allow patrons to experiment with edgy flavors at little risk. Diners have come to expect upscale, less-familiar condiments on sandwiches; Technomic research shows that six out of 10 consumers believe condiments and sauces are very important to the quality of a sandwich.

And when it comes to appetizers, consumers’ expectations are even higher. An appetizer plate meant for sharing, served with a range of dips, spreads and condiments, can actually promote socialization and conversation among a dining party as everyone samples the flavors and compares opinions.

An analysis of Technomic’s MenuMonitor, an online menu-trend-tracking resource, shows that the number of menu items specifically mentioning condiments rose 10 percent between the second half of 2009 and the second half of 2010. Mentions of pickles were up 22 percent; ketchup and mustard mentions were both up 10 percent; dips, up 9 percent; relish and salsa, up 6 percent each; dressing, up 5 percent; and mayonnaise, up 3 percent.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the flavor families that are making news.

Ketchup is the quintessential American condiment. This blend of tomato sauce, vinegar, sugar, salt and spices has been standardized for more than two centuries, but nowadays diners are likely to be presented with unusual twists, such as smoky, spicy and/or fruity ketchups, often house-made. Examples include:

> Meatloaf Carver with cheddar and hickory ketchup — Boston Market
> Grilled Turkey Burger with cranberry-chipotle ketchup and Brie cheese on a potato bun — Park Grill, Chicago
> Scandalous Lobster Wraps: Iceberg lettuce cups overflowing with chunks of succulent lobster and garnished with homemade mango ketchup — Ketchup Restaurant, Washington, D.C.

Gourmet and artisan variations of mustard and mustard sauces have undergone a boom along with the rising fortunes of burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches and charcuterie plates. Some recent items complemented by distinctive mustards and mustard sauces:

> Capon & Foie Gras Terrine with bread-and-butter pickles, hazelnuts and violet mustard, served with marble-rye toast— Gotham Bar & Grill, New York City
> Samba Roll: Spicy lobster, scallion, passion-fruit mustard — SushiSamba
> Chicken Artichoke Panini: Sliced chicken, artichoke hearts, Swiss cheese and tomato with a Parmesan-coarse mustard spread, served grilled on sourdough bread — Paradise Bakery & Café
> Cantina Chicken Flatbread Sammie: Chicken, tomatoes, mushrooms, sautéed onions and honey-bourbon mustard, served on soft and toasty flatbread — Quiznos

Perhaps more than any other sandwich, the Cubano has been responsible for pushing both mustard and pickles into the spotlight. The traditional Cuban sandwich — ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard, all stuffed into a roll, pressed and grilled — has migrated to mainstream chains all across the United States. Recent variations include:

> Cuban Chicken Panini: All-natural, antibiotic-free chicken, smoked lean ham, sweet and spicy pickle chips, Swiss, chipotle mayo and sun-dried tomato-ale mustard on focaccia — Panera Bread
> Ricardo: Swiss cheese, country ham, shredded pork, horseradish dill pickles and Dijon mayonnaise on a soft roll — Ram Restaurant & Brewery

Salsas have made the jump to sandwich condiment, offering a broad range of flavor and heat profiles. Photo courtesy of supherb farms. MEDITERRANEAN MOMENTUM
Ethnic sauces and dips from around the world — particularly those that combine sweetness, spice and heat — have been on-trend for some time and continue to proliferate. Incidence of salsas of various types is up 6 percent; Asian sauces are up 7 percent. But the most-notable movement is in Mediterranean-inspired sauces, whose incidence rose 13 percent on menus between late 2009 and late 2010.

Hummus has spread into practically every corner of the restaurant industry, with mentions up 29 percent in a year’s time. Some versions use other ingredients instead of or in addition to the traditional garbanzo beans; for instance, California Pizza Kitchen substitutes Tuscan white beans for the garbanzos, and the prepared-foods section at Trader Joe’s features a guacamole hummus made with garbanzos and avocados. Recently seen hummus items on restaurant menus include:

> Mezze Platter: Trilogy of edamame hummus, muhammara and baba ganoush, crispy fried feta cheese, marinated artichoke hearts, Peppadew relish and pita chips — Carmel Café & Wine Bar, Clearwater, Fla.
> Hippie Dippy Trio: A platter of hummus, tomato bruschetta drizzled with balsamic glaze and three-olive tapenade with feta cheese, served with baked garlic toast — Mellow Mushroom
> Hummus: Topped with either warm chickpeas, organic mushrooms and organic onions, spicy sun-dried-tomato pesto or red and green peppers — Nanoosh Hummus Bar, New York

A trend with perhaps wider applications is aïoli, the marvelously adaptable Mediterranean-style garlicky mayonnaise that takes on additional flavor notes with ease. Menu mentions were up 13 percent in late 2010 over the same time in 2009, and these were by no means limited to Mediterranean restaurants. Blanc Burgers + Bottles in Kansas City, Mo., for instance, makes its own aïoli onsite daily. Interesting menu items representing different menu niches include:

> Everything New Orleans Mini Muffuletta: Homemade andouille sausage with caramelized onions, brown-butter crouton, grain mustard, Emeril’s homemade Worcestershire sauce and fresh Louisiana crawfish beignets with tomato-herbsaint aïoli — Emeril’s, Orlando
> Wicked Burger: Two grilled burger patties topped with cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato and caramelized-onion aïoli sauce, served on a brioche butter toasted bun — Firebirds Wood Fired Grill
> Crunchy Calamari with charred green tomatoes, cilantro aïoli and pickled-pepper condiment — Reef, Houston

We should also note here that aïoli’s “plain” cousin, mayonnaise, is anything but that on today’s menus. For example:

> Santa Barbara Turkey Sandwich: Roasted turkey, bacon, red peppers, lettuce, provolone cheese and mango mayonnaise on ciabatta bread — Alonti Market Café
> Caesar Burger: Beef or chicken, topped with Parmesan cheese, black pepper, romaine lettuce and proprietary Caesar mayonnaise — Bobby’s Burger Palace
> Grilled Salmon Ciabatta: Alaska salmon topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion and lemon-caper mayonnaise — Buona Beef
> Brunch Dog: Pork loin sausage with Cobb smoked bacon, a fried egg and maple mayonnaise — Franks ’n Dawgs, Chicago

What’s fun and adventurous for diners is also a good business strategy for operators looking to set their menus apart from the competition. With patrons’ price resistance still high, it’s difficult for restaurants to innovate by offering premium proteins and other high-input-cost items. The R&D process to create entirely new menu offerings entails its own significant costs. But new sauces and condiments can instantly turn standard sandwiches, appetizers, entrées and desserts into something novel and exciting to draw customers in and keep them coming back, at essentially no additional cost to the operator.


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