Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Modern Flavor Migration

Chipotle can convey both familiarity and innovation, such as with Applebee’s new sirloin and chipotle-lime shrimp with fried red potatoes, black bean-corn salsa, mushrooms, red peppers, red onion and a zesty chipotle cream sauce. Photo courtesy of applebee’s. Tracking the trail of iconic flavor systems as they go from edgy to comfort

By Katie Ayoub

One of the things that makes foodservice so dynamic is the constant evolution of flavor trends. But that steady forward motion also makes it challenging for high-volume restaurants to key into what their customers crave. Familiar, friendly flavors or bold, unexpected flavors? The answer seems to be both, and the balance can seem somewhat precarious.

As a barometer, we staked out teriyaki and chipotle — two iconic flavors that resonate for different reasons. Teriyaki represents the old guard of flavor innovation. And although many diners have graduated from that familiar profile, it still performs very well for a number of concepts. And then there’s chipotle. It’s become a familiar flavor in recent years, holding up a pillar of bold, authentic values beautifully. Both teriyaki and chipotle represent significant flavor trends, but, more importantly, innovation within those two — and others of their ilk — is worth a deeper look.

“Multi-units have a good sense of the threshold of experimentation for their diners,” says Eric Stangarone, executive chef and creative lead at The Culinary Edge, a San Francisco-based consultancy. “They also know they need to establish credibility, then they can introduce one or two degrees out from there.” He uses ranch as an example of a familiar, well-loved flavor base. “Your customers will go with you if you introduce cilantro ranch or jalapeño ranch because, at the end of the day, it’s still ranch,” he says. That credibility grows if the flavor experience is successful. For today’s diner, a leap from jalapeño on that menu to, say, Thai chile, is less daunting. “The restaurant concept has gained credibility in the chile world, so it has more latitude with its core customer,” adds Stangarone.

Another tremendous strength for flavor innovation at the multi-unit level is culinary pedigree. “Chains can maintain a competitive advantage because they have access to the best and brightest in culinary,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. “The question is: Can they roll out flavor exploration and innovation in a way that’s successful?” Indeed, chains do a deep dive into trend research, then adapt the ones that fit their demographics. Adaptation is key here. “They have the smarts to take advantage of flavor profiles and layer them into their products, giving them broader appeal,” says Tristano.

Consumers understand teriyaki. This mainstream flavor delivers salty, sweet and safe. It’s not sexy, but it’s not going away either — Technomic’s MenuMonitor clocks its growth rate over the last two years at 22.9 percent. Although its menu penetration is somewhat impressive, it doesn’t thrill like sriracha, for instance. “We see teriyaki where they’re building menus off of consumer familiarity,” says Tristano. “It earns less credibility with foodies.” And that search for credibility among foodies and other adventurous diners is where we leap from teriyaki to hoisin, chipotle to chimichurri, Cajun to sriracha.

But before we look at the progression of flavor trends, let’s take a look at where teriyaki is successful and at innovations within teriyaki. At 53-unit Islands Fine Burgers, classic teriyaki has held a top-selling place on the menu for nearly 25 years. Last year, sales rang in 200,000 orders of its Yaki Taco, flour tortillas filled with grilled chicken breast tossed in teriyaki, jack cheese, caramelized pineapple, lettuce, tomato and scallion. “Although we’re innovating in the taco category, we will update but not eliminate this core favorite,” says Tim Perreira, vice president of food and beverage at this Carlsbad, Calif.-based chain. “We’re ever mindful of alienating our long-term guests.” There’s the challenge for multi units — serving loyal guests while reaching for new ones.

Teriyaki is now considered a comfort flavor, giving items like Genghis Grill’s Chicken Teriyaki Bowl modern comfort appeal. Photo courtesy of genghis grill. TAKING SAFE RISKS
“Whatever flavors we do, we make it so they are not too complex,” says Richard Keys, principal at Food and Drink Resources in Lone Tree, Colo. Food and Drink developed and executed the menu for Cedars Woodfire Grill, a micro-chain with two units in Texas that opened in early 2012. Keys’ focus groups pinned teriyaki to comfort food. “They think of it as retro comfort food, so we built ours pretty traditionally, but made sure it was a sound teriyaki,” says Keys. The innovation here comes from where they house their teriyaki — under their concept’s better-for-you branding and tucked into its line of bowls. Cedars’ Asian Teriyaki Bowl starts with a wild-rice blend then adds broccoli, grilled red pepper and crispy wonton. Guests can choose from salmon, steak, chicken or cremini mushroom, bringing in a nice element of customization that diners have grown to expect.

Applebee’s uses flavor systems like chipotle and teriyaki to invigorate its brand of classic American regional food. “Those are relatable, where our diners can take a calculated risk with some bigger, bolder flavors,” says Michael Slavin, corporate executive chef of this chain, which boasts almost 2,000 units across North America. “We can take old-fashioned regional food and make it new again with flavors like teriyaki and chipotle,” he says.

Teriyaki has appeared on Applebee’s menu in dishes like its Teriyaki Shrimp Pasta: grilled shrimp, broccoli, red peppers, carrots, sugar snap peas, bok choy, water chestnuts and mushrooms over whole-wheat Asian noodles. “The appeal is that it’s safe and approachable Asian fare for our guests,” says Slavin.

Innovation at Applebee’s takes shape in cooking technique. “We’re obsessing about techniques — basting, marinating, finishing,” he says. “So our teriyaki is refined and we’re building layers into the dishes. We’re cooking in the style of teriyaki, caramelizing and perfuming the plate, and finishing with a less forward, less sweet flavor.”

Applebee’s has also introduced a few new dishes that showcase the brand’s strategy with chipotle and other bold flavors. “As a trend, we see that there’s still more movement within chipotle,” says Slavin. Applebee’s is using it as a final finish flavor. After the chiles are dried and smoked, they’re reconstituted and pulverized into a paste. “We don’t have to rehydrate or dilute them,” he says. “The chipotle paste gives punch and works really well in glazes.” As evidence, look to the new Chipotle Cream Steak & Shrimp, which sports sirloin and chipotle-lime shrimp with fried red potatoes, black bean-corn salsa, mushrooms, roasted red peppers, red onions and a finish of chipotle-cream sauce.

Chefs are also building on chipotle, using it as a familiar launching pad for more adventurous dishes. In beta testing at Islands Fine Burgers is a less-than-700-calories dish with a working title of Orange Chipotle Barbecue Bowl: brown rice with black beans, roasted corn, bell pepper, mushroom, onion and grilled chicken. The barbecue sauce, embellished with chipotle, orange marmalade, lime juice and brown sugar, is drizzled over the top. The finish is fresh orange, avocado and green onion. “We’re going after the adventurous diner and the veto vote with this one, and we’re looking to introduce a new flavor system,” says Perreira.

Pollo Campero sees chipotle as a familiar flavor for its customer base. This concept, born in Latin America 40 years ago, staked its claim here in 2002. It has 50 quick-serve units in the United States and is expanding into a fast-casual model with an extended menu, chinaware and table service.

“Our customer wants a bit of adventure and authentic food with a story behind it,” says Lisken Kastalanych, Pollo Campero’s vice president of marketing. But it doesn’t want to alienate folks, so it bridges the exotic to the familiar. For instance, its top-selling Tamarindo Chicken Empanada combines pulled Peruvian-style chicken (marinated in lime, orange and lemon juices with Peruvian seasoning), pepper jack cheese, cilantro and a chipotle-tamarind salsa (roasted chipotle, tamarind, roasted onion, cilantro). “The tamarindo is tangy, sweet and brings in a nice balance for the spicier elements,” says Fernando Palarea, the chain’s director of culinary research and development. It’s also less familiar than chipotle, but helps with planting the concept in the field of authenticity and adventure. “Our customers want us to bring the exploration and adventure to their backyard,” says Kastalanych.

Take mainstream flavor systems to the next level with creative combos, like these Shredded Duck Sliders with Chipotle Barbecue Sauce, created by chef Ron Hall of Iowa City’s Mercy Hospital. Photo courtesy of maple leaf farms. THE EVOLUTION OF BOLD & SPICY
Use of the term “bold” on menus has increased by 18 percent in the last two years. Terms like “spicy,” “wild,” “tangy” and “fire” have penetration rates of up to 65.8 percent, according to Datassential’s MenuTrends Direct.  As consumers seek out bold and spicy flavors, multi-units wave them in with their brands’ interpretations — from Cajun spice to Tabasco powder to Thai chile.

“I think Cajun cuisine has been a great catalyst to allow for exploration of flavors and ingredients for consumers and guests,” says The Culinary Edge’s Stangarone. “It’s the biggest, closest and most accessible region for exploration.”

Applebee’s has had great success with Cajun and features it in such dishes as its Bourbon Street Steak, which has Cajun spices rubbed into the meat.

“Cajun is familiar in the spice world to Americans,” says Technomic’s Tristano. “We’re seeing an explosion of bold flavors. Millennials are looking for spice because they grew up on wasabi and chipotle. Boomers are looking for it because their palates might need that extra flavor boost now.”

Back at Islands Fine Burgers, a newer burger, the Kilauea, features a jalapeño and black pepper-crusted burger and a chipotle aïoli as the spread. “We developed this as an answer to the call for spicy foods,” says Perreira. This beach-inspired concept uses jarred jalapeños for a consistent spiciness. “The heat level doesn’t give you palate fatigue, but it is definitely bold and spicy.”

Genghis Grill, the Asian stir-fry concept with 97 units in 23 states, has added a custom-blend Tabasco seasoning to its spice rack on its build-your-own station. The blend takes the mash from Tabasco, dries it out, then grinds it. Proprietary chile powders and peppers get thrown into the mix.

“Bold and spicy is important to us here,” says Jax Sperling, Genghis Grill’s director of culinary research and development. “With this spice blend, we’re enticing our male customers, who skew toward that profile.” The spiciest sauce on the line is the Khanzu. “It’s got dark soy and roasted Thai bird chile,” she says. “You get lots of fruity notes from the pepper up front and then the heat sneaks up on you.”

But even somewhat adventurous diners need to understand flavor combinations. Sperling developed a Cherry Chile Sauce as a limited-time-only offering, featuring sour cherry purée, pasilla chile, garlic and soy. “People were terrified to try it. It was not familiar enough, which bums me out because I loved it. The chiles made the cherry pop,” she says. “The challenge is introducing flavors that aren’t too foreign, but still get them excited.”

Following the migration of proven flavor systems gives menu developers a true reading of the flavor pulse of American consumers — helping them navigate that precarious balance of comforting yet adventurous flavors.


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.