Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Creating Crave Craveability is the “it” factor in today’s menu development. What is it that makes foods craveable?

The aromas of Cinnabon’s baked goods trigger homey memories and flavor cravings. The Minibon is sized right for a lighter dose of the classic roll’s craveability.

When you type the word “craveability,” the spell-check function condemns it with a red underline. But while the term may not be acceptable in the word-processing world, it’s a widely used and much-discussed buzzword in the foodservice world. Why? Because it goes straight to the heart of what people want—and what operators want to achieve in their recipe development. Craveability is what makes diners actively seek out certain dishes and become repeat customers. It’s the brass ring in recipe formulation.

“Craveability” as a term applied to food has been around for more than a decade. In 2001, McCormick & Co. did a study on what foods ranked highest in craveability (cheesecake, fresh fruit, barbecue ribs), and how consumer’s cravings differed (men crave protein-based foods, women want carbohydrate- or fat-based foods). At Flavor & The Menu, we’ve also used the term frequently over the past decade, whether describing uniquely desirable flavors or quoting chefs talking about their goals in creating a dish.

The term “craveability” can also have negative associations. “Craving” conjures up the idea of addiction, and using the word to describe food can lead to finger-pointing that the food industry is trying to get diners hooked on their foods through use of unhealthful ingredients. Salt Sugar Fat is the title of The New York Times reporter Michael Moss’s 2013 book on the subject, a critical look at the processed food industry’s role in tapping into consumer cravings.

But the idea of craveability as a desirable goal continues to permeate the food industry because it’s not about addiction—it’s simply about creating dishes that please the senses, satisfy consumer tastes and create a food memory that longs for a repeat experience. “Craveability is any attribute that you put in a dish that makes people come back for it,” says Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef at Gordon Food Service. Creating craveability is really a matter of understanding the elements that set certain dishes apart, making them into signature, must-have menu items.

Food scientists could go into great detail about the chemistry of what makes the body crave certain ingredients. But without delving too much into the science, it’s safe to say that a fundamental element of craveable flavor is umami. “Umami provides the unctuousness we crave in the food experience,” says Pam Smith, RDN, culinary nutritionist and restaurant consultant. “Parmesan, tomatoes, mushrooms, kombu, green tea, soy and fish sauce are all loaded with the nucleotides that define umami.” She says these ingredients can be leveraged to reduce fat, sodium or size of the portion without sacrificing flavor.

“The roots of craveability go back to adding umami to a dish in some sort of form,” agrees Ludwig. He describes a memorable dish at Dimes in New York, where chef Alissa Wagner created a simple pulled chicken sandwich but made it extra craveable with layers of umami. “She griddles the sandwich to caramelize it, and layers it with Taleggio cheese—it’s very boldly flavored and really kicks up the umami. Then she adds roasted mushroom for even more umami, then adds fresh shreds of chervil. The flavor elements combine to create a highly craveable dish.”

At California Pizza Kitchen, Senior Vice President of Culinary Innovation Brian Sullivan knows how a little umami goes a long way. “Our Chicken Tequila Fettuccine is one of our most popular dishes. It’s spinach fettuccine, creamy jalapeño-lime sauce, seared red onions, tri-colored bell peppers and cilantro,” says Sullivan. “It’s all of the elements—salty, sweet, spicy—and there’s umami in there, too. All the vegetables are glazed in soy sauce and lime juice.”

The Nose Knows
In a 2012 report, foodservice research firm Technomic looked into what triggers consumers’ cravings. They found that, most often (for 73 percent of consumers), simply thinking about an item could prompt a craving to eat it again. But the second most common reply (43 percent) was that the yearning for a food begins with its aroma.

The Cinnabon menu-development team understands the power of aroma. “Nothing beats the craveability of our classic Cinnabon roll,” says Jennifer Holwill, Cinnabon’s director of R&D. “Whether you step off a plane or walk through a mall, you smell it and follow your nose. It’s lightning in bottle.”

Knowing that, Cinnabon strategically places its ovens toward the front of its outlets, not the back, says Kristen Hartman, Cinnabon’s vice president of marketing. “We’re baking rolls all day, so every time the oven door opens, that great aroma is released. That starts a sensory cascade—it piques people’s interest, and then they might see an image of our cinnamon roll on a sign, and they anticipate what the taste will be like.”

It’s important to then deliver on that taste, says Holwill, describing how the chain uses an Indonesian cinnamon to achieve the signature flavor of its rolls. And beyond delivering on flavor, Cinnabon knows to offer customers varied options in order to satisfy a range of cravings. “We have menu diversity: We have a little bite-sized cinnamon roll, we have flavor variety through other items like a caramel pecan roll or chocolate-mocha doughnut holes,” says Hartman. “People want different options, but everything is still related to our core product.” In fact, this method of offering portion-size and flavor diversity is another key strategy in delivering craveability; that way, customers have a wider range of ways to satisfy their cravings—no matter what the time of day or meal setting.

Utilizing aroma to build craveability is best achieved when an operation is located in an interior setting such an airport or shopping mall. Not every operator can tap into that advantage. Nevertheless, it pays to remember that diners’ memories of a restaurant may be subliminally affected by the aromas emanating from their entrée or perhaps from a wood-fired oven.

“Within a restaurant setting, you don’t tend to have the aroma creating craveability as much,” says Anne Mills, consumer research manager at Technomic. “It’s more of a general trigger that has a different effect than seeing a picture of a dish or reading a detailed description.”

Feeling the Love
Another of the five senses that feeds into craveability is the sense of touch or feel—which translates into a food’s texture or mouthfeel. Texture can play a significant role in making a diner love and remember a dish—and want to repeat the experience of eating that dish.

Taco Bell sees texture as a key, signature element to winning over customers. “People think about Mexican food as inherently craveable because of the great flavor, but also the great texture,” says Stephanie Perdue, vice president of brand marketing for Taco Bell. “They love the spicy, the cheesy, the cool guacamole and the crunch.”

“We’re known for craveability,” agrees Rob Poetsch, Taco Bell’s director of public affairs and engagement. The chain has sold more than 1 billion Doritos Locos Tacos since the item was introduced in 2012. The item has been a runaway hit thanks to the already beloved, savory Doritos flavor, as well as for the familiar but updated taco format.  “People love it for the bold flavor and for the crunch. You don’t usually get that kind of crunch when you eat in a restaurant,” says Poetsch.

Texture also drives the appeal of items on Taco Bell’s new Dollar Cravings Menu. Rather than shy away from the use of the word “cravings” for any negative connotations it may have, Taco Bell is embracing the idea that a value menu can indeed offer craveable taste and texture. It includes crunch-loaded items like a Beefy Fritos Burrito and a Spicy Tostada; the idea is that customers need not compromise on craveability just because the items cost less. In fact, Taco Bell makes sure to include the chance to customize, since that increases the odds that customers will be able to satisfy their unique cravings. Freshly prepared pico de gallo can sub in for cheese, or consumers can add extra guacamole for that creamy element.

“We talk to consumers and find out what they want. What are they buying at the grocery store? What ignites their curiosity?” says Perdue. “Then we create menu items to deliver what consumers want.” For those customers that want healthier items, the chain offers its Cantina Power Menu, which includes burritos and bowls “that are packed with flavor and have more than 20 grams of protein at less than 500 calories each,” she says.

At McAlister’s Deli, Corporate Executive Chef David Groll sings the praises of texture and its importance in pleasing the palate. Sometimes it’s the crunchiness, other times it’s the creaminess—many times it’s the combination of textures that makes a dish. “The crunch of a baguette or a croissant, with the butter and the soft bread inside—that’s craveable,” says Groll. Many of McAlister’s specialties are elevated through texture, he says: “Our Pecanberry Salad is craveable because it includes honey-roasted pecans for crunch,” he says. “We serve 85 percent of our sandwiches hot; we get much better attributes that way. The sandwich blooms and blossoms—the grilling adds texture, and so does the cheese melting over it. It adds a level of flavor that people crave.”

Tempting with Technique
Chefs like Groll have a toolbox of techniques that draw out flavor. Some of these are particularly effective at enhancing craveability; they bring out a flavor essence that people want to experience again.

Groll gives an example of how he achieves that at McAlister’s: “I bake potatoes on a bed of rock salt, which makes the skin have crunch while the inside stays moist and fluffy. If you add garlic butter or sour cream, you have a craveable dish.”

According to Gerry Ludwig, the best chefs use thoughtful, creative layering of flavor to enhance craveability. “At Hot Doug’s in Chicago, Doug Sohn developed a cult-like following because of his profound understanding of how to create layered flavor combos in his sausage sandwiches,” such as his legendary Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aïoli and Foie Gras Mousse. Sohn’s sandwiches attracted long lines of customers eager to eat at Hot Doug’s before its October closing date.

The same thoughtful layering goes into the craveable dishes back at Dimes in New York, says Ludwig. He cites a vegetarian dish in which braised beans in a vegetable broth are combined with pickled carrot, oven-roasted sunchoke and charred broccoli. “Here you have braised, pickled, oven-roasted and charred—all these different techniques make it craveable.”

At California Pizza Kitchen, craveability is what propelled its signature Original BBQ Chicken Pizza to the top, along with its Original BBQ Chicken Chopped Salad. “For us, it’s about creating a dish that people love that they want to try often—and they can’t get the essence of it anywhere else,” says Sullivan. “It’s like a musician creating a hit song—there’s just one or two out of an album that make you say, ‘Wow!’” He describes one dish that achieves craveability through attention to technique: the Cedar Plank Salmon, which comes with white corn and spinach succotash topped with feta. “We roast the salmon in our hearth oven, and as the cedar begins to smoke, it gently kisses the salmon,” says Sullivan. “You get the essence of it—it would not be the same on a grill or sautéed. It’s unique and stands apart because of the technique.”

Make Them Comfortable
In Technomic’s survey, consumers were asked about “craveable items” that they could only get at a certain restaurant. Krispy Kreme ranked at the top for its hot-off-the-machine doughnuts. When asked to name craveable foods in general, consumers listed pizza, burgers and fries the most often.

And in a more recent 2013 Technomic survey, “cravings” were the top reason that consumers cited for purchasing desserts and pizza (rather than other reasons such as “shareability” or “value”). “The foods that consumers crave tend to be comfort foods,” says Technomic’s Mills. “They report cravings for foods like soup, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, pizza and burgers.”

The psychology of comfort-food cravings influences menu development at Cinnabon. “Maybe the smell of cinnamon stirs a memory of the last time you were sitting around the table with your family,” says Holwill. Cinnabon’s Hartman tells the story of a business traveler whose wife and daughter loved to bake together, so whenever he was traveling through an airport, Cinnabon connected him to familiar feelings of home. That sort of comfort is a core trigger for craveability.

Holwill developed a new seasonal beverage, the Pumpkin Chillada, to tap into that sense of hearth and home. “It uses a fresh pumpkin base, all the pumpkin pie spices, a sweet cream dairy base, which is blended to order with a caramel ribbon going through. We pulse in cookie shortbread pieces to emulate pie crust. It tastes just like pumpkin pie, and it delivers that ‘Wow!’ factor,” she says.

Another sweet example is the Butter Cake at California Pizza Kitchen. “I have customers tell me, ‘I had the Butter Cake yesterday, and I had to come back to get it again today,’” says Sullivan. “If you hit it right, certain dishes will drive them to come back to experience the joy and comfort of it again.”

“Cravings are really strong drivers for foodservice purchases,” says Mills. “The best way to leverage craveability is by offering something consumers can only get at your restaurant—and that will taste consistently the same so that they will continue to come back for that item.”

About The Author

Cindy Han

Cindy Han studied journalism and has worked mostly as a magazine writer and editor, covering topics from animal conservation to interactive desserts. She is also a producer for a public radio news program and is working on a documentary film. She has lived in some great food cities—from New York to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh—and now Portland, Maine. She loves simply being with her family, enjoying nature, art, travel and, of course, good eats. Given her Chinese heritage, Cindy’s favorite dishes are anchored in the classic Asian flavor trio of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar.