Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Flavor Behavior

Scallop and jalapeño ceviche gets a kick from a fire-roasted jalapeño flavor concentrate, giving it the hot and spicy profile that all demographic groups are craving now. photo courtesy of nestle professional/MINOR’S. Who likes what flavors? Attract your operation’s sweet spot demographic by keying into flavor insights

By Cindy Han

From birth onwards, we have certain flavor preferences that shift with age: Kids love sweets, teens want their salty snacks, college kids live on spicy wings, and adults gravitate to sour or bitter accents as they get older. But these categories don’t account for how much our tastes are influenced by our surroundings. Whether it’s the Food Network, travel to new places, our friends, Twitter or local food trucks, a combination of influences shapes each demographic group’s flavor preferences—none more than the Millennials, those younger folks who are the most tapped into media and most willing to be adventurous when it comes to food.

“Millennials are taking all the risks and are the ones who say, ‘I want something different every day,’” says Melissa Abbott, senior director of culinary insights for The Hartman Group in Bellevue, Wash. “The idea of novelty is so important to these consumers. And sometimes the Boomers are following their kids.”

According to Technomic’s latest Flavor Consumer Trends Report, Millennials (born between the early 1980s and about 2000) are the most shaped by television shows, ads, social media and online reviews. “They’re very heavily influenced by the media in terms of what they use to make decisions,” says Technomic executive vice president Darren Tristano. “They are actively seeking out new flavors on a regular basis, and they’re looking for bold, spicy, adventurous flavors. Boomers are less influenced by their surrounding and a bit more stuck in their ways.”

The consumer trends research at GfK Roper leads to similar conclusions about foods that different consumer groups prefer, according to Jon Berry, vice president of consumer trends. “In general, cuisines that have grown increasingly popular over the past two decades have stronger following among people who are middle-aged or younger, tapering off among older consumers.”

But beware typecasting Millennials as the only cutting-edge diners. Food industry research firm Datassential analyzed different demographic attitudes toward dining and found plenty of reason to pay attention to other age groups as well. GenXers, in particular, showed the greatest interest in ethnic foods, and both GenXers and Boomers actually had greater interest in “trending flavors” than Millennials. Then there’s the fact that those in the 45-to-64 age group had the greatest population increase from 2000 to 2010 and the highest average income, too. “GenXers are the ones who have the finances to experiment,” says Abbott.

Clearly, it’s wise to make menu-development choices with multiple demographic segments in mind. Across all age groups, a spirit of adventure shows up in a preference for more assertive and innovative flavors—whether spicy or tangy or bitter, the flavors of the moment are anything but timid.

How Hot Can You Handle?
Nothing exemplifies the emboldened tastes of diners like hot and spicy foods. Here, Millennials lead the way, showing the strongest preference for “spicy” among all age groups, according to Technomic’s report. Menus across the country have been turning up the heat as diners clamor for hotter and lesser-known chiles and sauces.

Border Grill in Las Vegas incorporates chiles in multiple ways on its brunch menu, from the Peruvian Shrimp and Grits (aji panca chile-marinated shrimp, roasted poblano chiles and creamy Parmesan grits) to the Bacon Jalapeño PBJ (peanut butter, homemade grape jelly, crispy bacon, jalapeño and biscuit). Even the drinks present an extra level of heat, such as the zingy Border Bloody Mary (chile-infused vodka, horseradish, red pepper-spiced tomato).

At Central Market, in Austin, Texas, the annual Hatch Chile Festival celebrates the use of the New Mexican hatch chile. The chile, which can range from mild to hot, is prized for its meatiness and roasted flavor. Central Market promotes the special chile in recipes such as Hatch Crab Po’Boy and Smoky Hatch Chile Cheesecake with Peach Salsa.

Meanwhile, the ubiquitous sriracha has become the go-to condiment for diners young and old who want to make a step toward spiciness. “At home, people are mixing mayo and sriracha and making something that everyone in the household likes—it makes people feel empowered,” says Abbott, who speaks from experience—her food trends research includes traveling all over the country to people’s homes, where she spends hours watching them cook meals and observing what ingredients they have in their pantries.

Even high-volume operators have found sriracha to be a simple way to update their offerings with a touch of heat. Bruegger’s Bagels rolled out a Sriracha Egg Bagel Sandwich last spring that has earned a spot on the permanent menu.

Sauces are key to introducing spiciness to a menu without alienating diners—especially those on the younger and older ends. “Sauces and condiments are a safe way for consumers to participate in the spicy trend without feeling too much risk,” says Abbott. “They can put sriracha sauce on a hamburger or dip their fries in peri peri sauce, and it’s not going to ruin their evening if it’s too spicy or has too much flavor.”

For years, wing joints have known this, offering diners flexibility and choice through a list of sauces. Buffalo Wild Wings lists its sauces on a scale of spiciness, ranging from the milder Chipotle BBQ up to Mango Habanero and Blazin’ (“keep away from eyes, pets, children”). It’s a technique that takes into account age-related preferences, which Technomic found to be distinct when it comes to chicken wing sauces: Millennials like spicy, GenXers prefer blue cheese and Matures choose barbecue.

Technomic also found that Millennials rated the highest on wanting to have the ability to add their own spices when eating out, so it makes all the more sense to present a selection of condiments at the table. “This group wants the ability to control their spice input,” says Tristano. “It’s smart for operators to be engaged with the consumer in this way.”

Cruciferous vegetables—such as the charred cauliflower at Sitka & Spruce in Chicago—lend the bitter edge that has become a trendy flavor among a range of diners. photo courtesy of sitka & spruce.

Sweet Somethings
While you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who don’t like sweet flavors, the trend here is moving away from standard, sugary sweets. Only GenZ youngsters, whose palates are still developing, show a strong preference for “sweet” in Technomic’s survey—in fact, it was the only flavor category for which GenZ scored the highest positive reaction among different age groups. But, overall, adults have moved away from straight sweets. “We’re seeing more flavors we didn’t grow up with—less of sweet,” says Abbott.

Instead, sweet is updated. Oftentimes, sugar is replaced by honey (in hundreds of varieties, from buckwheat to sage), agave nectar or maple syrup. Maple seems to be the most prevalent, especially in the sweet-salty combo of maple bacon. In fact, the melding of these two flavors is one of the most easily embraced by all age groups—it’s yummy enough for GenZ, brash enough for Millennials, yet still familiar enough for the older set. That explains why it’s showing up on mainstream menus. Datassential’s food trends research cites examples such as Denny’s Maple Bacon Donut, Maple Bacon Milkshake and Maple Bacon Sundae—but similar flavors also appear on higher-end menus, such as the Caramelized Bacon Bread Pudding at Crème Caramel in Los Angeles.

Salted caramel—another savory-sweet combo that’s a current menu star—makes a good menu update that caters to all consumer groups. “Salted caramel ice cream would have been considered weird 10 years go. Now you can find it in anyone’s freezer,” says Abbott.

There is one category where it seems that sweetness is not only acceptable, it’s amplified. Hot beverages—coffee in particular—are showing up with intense, dessert-like flavors. Starbucks has increased its sweet, seasonal offerings, such as Peppermint Mocha and Eggnog Latte. Peet’s has added a Maple Latte to its menu, and Tully’s Coffee has an Intense Dark Éclair Mocha with Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips combined with vanilla custard and espresso.

Sour Power
Many of today’s food trends have one flavor element in common: sour. Whether it’s fermented or pickled or citrus, the power of sour appeals to diners seeking something strong and different.

At Seattle’s Sitka & Spruce, chef Matthew Dillon adds sour accents frequently. “I use more vinegar and have more types of vinegar than anyone I know,” he says.
On his menu, diners can find dishes such as: melon, shishito pepper, aged vinegar and dried coppa; farmstead cheese, pickled wild plum and crackers; and a variety of fermented vegetable pickles.

Along the same lines, pucker-inducing citrus accents are attractive to adventurous diners—in the same way that super-sour candies pose an appealing challenge to kids. The sour but refreshing kumquat is making inroads on menus, according to Datassential’s research, which cites examples like Rouge Tomate in New York City, where one sour-laden item combines kumquat marmalade, Sicilian pistachio, foie gras, pickles and sourdough toast. Other offerings at Rouge Tomate also make good use of sour: the guinea hen is served with red cabbage sauerkraut; the Atlantic Fluke Crudo includes kaffir lime; and even the cocktails have sour accents, such as the Grapefruit Amargo (Braulio Amaro, housemade violet-infused gin, grapefruit and lemon).

Also part of the sour trend is the concept of drinking vinegars. Pok Pok in Portland, Ore., is a pioneer in this practice, serving natural vinegars at full strength as a mixer in house cocktails, or diluted with soda water as a soft drink.

The related flavor categories of tart and tangy are trending along with sour. Ingredients like rhubarb, green apple, yogurt and apple cider are being used in innovative ways to update menus.

Today’s consumers want bold and diverse flavors, such as the tacos at Oxbow Public Market in Napa, Calif.: grilled mahi mahi; spiced lamb with goat cheese; chicken with cotija cheese—each served with garlic aïoli, zingy herbs and spicy sauces. photo courtesy of c casa.

Bitter Gets Better
Bitter is the least naturally lovable flavor. However, a recent study found that aversion to bitterness goes away with age, so it’s a flavor that might appeal more to Boomers and Mature diners. At the same time, because bitter is not a flavor that we’re accustomed to, it actually gains an edgier, “cool” factor—which attracts Millennials.

Vegetables are some of the most bitter-leaning foods, and the cruciferous ones are trending on menus now, particularly arugula, kale, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Chefs can readily wake up a salad or entrée with a touch of their sharp, almost peppery bitterness.

According to Datassential, arugula is making regular appearances on menus, even in casual chains catering to less adventurous eaters. The bitter veggie shows up at places like Carrabba’s Italian Grill, with offerings like the Short Rib Flatbread, a braised beef short rib with caramelized onions and fresh arugula on flatbread fired in a wood-burning oven.

Chicago’s Purple Pig gets playful with the use of bitter alongside its signature pork dishes. For antipasti, there are Shaved Brussels Sprouts, Pecorino Noce and Parmigiano Reggiano as well as Charred Cauliflower with toasted breadcrumbs, cornichons and parsley. One of the most popular items is the Pig’s Ear with crispy kale, pickled cherry peppers and fried egg. It’s this type of bold and daring flavor combo that piques the palate of diners in any age group.

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.