Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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The Bridge That Flavor Built

Span target consumer groups by building a “flavor bridge” — a dish like Alaska Dukkah Dusted Rockfish builds on familiar ingredients consumers recognize and trust while introducing bold spice blends they’re craving. Photo courtesy of alaska seafood marketing institute. Flavor profiling helps span the gaps between multiple consumer groups

By Mindy Armstrong

The last few years have seen a return to flavor — not just in the “taste” sense, but a desire to experience the essence of flavor. Although the industry and creative-minded culinary teams have generated ideas that have been flavor-focused for as long as the industry has been in place, this particular shift has been driven by consumers. In fact, this move is primarily being pushed by younger consumers, who are vocal in their love for food. Seventy-two percent of Millennials, for example, share the sentiment “I like to try new foods and dishes when I go out to eat,” according to a report by The Futures Company. As a result, we are finding ourselves in an exciting time to be in the flavor business.

An indicator of the current perception of food and beverages can be found in rising buzzwords across the menu. Words like “authentic,” “fresh” and “classic” have become key descriptors and have quickly trickled down to the drive-thru of limited-service restaurants. Even here, there has been a dramatic jump in menu incidence of descriptors that reflect an interest in the provenance and essence of food.

While this shift indicates exciting flavor opportunities, it also brings a unique set of challenges, especially when you consider the number of consumer needs and the multiple consumer groups that present these needs. The time may be here to refresh the process and take a flavor-forward approach to the next round of innovative menu solutions. Success at staying relevant from one generation to the next can be found simply in the ability to bridge the gap with flavor.

To get there, let’s shift the conversation and remember that the desire for unique flavor experiences is emotionally driven. As a result, the way in which we consume and interact with flavor constantly evolves. If this is true, what forces drive one flavor choice over another? And how can we accurately predict the next wave of flavor?

First, let’s look at the building blocks: the consumer, the food and the function.

The Consumer
As we all know, the consumer target holds the veto vote. As such, keep in mind who your audience is and what drives them into your restaurant over another. In fact, 67 percent of Millennials agree that “food is one of the most important sources of pleasure in my life,” which reinforces that our love affair with great food is a significant commitment (The Futures Company). This is especially important with this group since they are expected to make up 40 percent of the national population within the next 10 years.

Although the industry buzz continues to be around Boomers and Millennials, due simply to their size and spending potential, there are more groups to consider. The “Next Generation” following Millennials will be one to watch, especially as their interest in flavor is defined. In fact, 70 percent of 12 to 15 year-olds already agree that “it’s important for me to eat and live healthy right now.” If this statement holds true in their future buying habits, it will affect menu development needs and decisions.

Regardless, whether focusing on one group more than another, all of the groups have the probability of being your customer at one point or another. Considering this along with the macro desire to attract new traffic, translating core values of each group to flavor will strengthen your ability to maintain relevance moving forward.
The first question is: Who is your consumer target today, and who will it need to be in five years?

Ice cream goes from ho-hum to of-the-moment: sugar cones filled with Meyer lemon custard before being topped with a scoop of Meyer lemon ice cream and a sprinkle of lemon-pepper brittle. Photo courtesy of Sunkist.
The Food
According to Mintel Menu Insights, flavor identifiers are up 15 percent overall, indicating a move to more descriptive menus. In addition, flavors showing the most growth are more descriptive and bold, such as “chipotle pepper” (up 41 percent) and “applewood smoked” (up 58 percent). This reminds us that consumers are no longer interested in the ho-hum options. Although at a mainstream level consumers flock to familiar flavors and descriptors like “garlic,” “seasoned” and “spicy,” this also indicates an opportunity to continue to educate consumers through flavor. In fact, starting with the flavor and trickling down to the application could offer opportunities that expand beyond an open menu spot.

So the second question becomes this: Where is your flavor sweet spot today, and where do you need it to be in five years to attract your target consumer group?

The Function
Once the consumer target is identified and the flavor parameters are set, the rest comes together naturally. In most cases, the menu focus will drive the application, but this also poses an opportunity to expose your customers to new flavors. Often, exposure and awareness are all it takes to create a new flavor “believer.”

Now the last question is: What is my menu focus today, and how can I use flavor to create a bridge across my customer targets?

MaintainING Relevance
An introduction is the first step, but perhaps the introduction is eased in. For instance, keeping your most popular menu items unchanged to maintain your loyal consumer base is logical. However, continuously evolving and pushing the envelope with flavor on other menu items to energize young consumers will become more important.
An application of this approach can be found in the use of hot and spicy items. According to Mintel, the less descriptive “hot and spicy” and “hot” profiles are in decline on the menu, while the use of specific pepper types is growing. Adapting while educating might be an option.

For instance, look at the aji amarillo chile, an emerging flavor profile found on Peruvian menus. Native to South America, aji amarillo is a bright-orange, thick-fleshed chile with a medium to hot heat level. It’s common in Peruvian cuisine and is worth seeking out for its unique flavor profile — fruity, full-bodied, and a lot more subtle than other chiles. 

To adapt this flavor profile to your menu, think of it as steps you might take across a bridge. Since you can find it fresh, canned, in paste form or dried, you can adapt to your various consumer groups. While menu developers may not find Peruvian chiles to be intimidating, consumers’ level of familiarity is limited. A hint of the pepper used to season a familiar entrée is far less threatening than using the fresh pepper as the star. As a result, introduction can be guided in by the manner and form with which it is used.

A fire-braised barbecued pork sandwich holds familiar appeal to one generation, while reaching younger diners as well with its authenticity and unique flavor touches. Photo courtesy of HORMEL foods.
Connecting Flavor gaps
Looking at flavor as steps across a bridge offers the chance to connect to multiple consumer groups while making the task less daunting. For instance, identifying the “flavor gap” from one consumer group to the next could be an opportunity. All you have to do is identify the connection points.

To put it into practice, let’s consider a favorite beverage: coffee. Coffee as a culinary platform is used by all consumer groups, although each group has unique preferences. According to the Coffee Review, the degree or darkness of roast dramatically affects the flavor profile, and when describing the beverage, its aroma, acidity, body, flavor and aftertaste are the standard categories taken into consideration. From there, any additions made to the beverage will also affect the profile.

With coffee, when considering the appropriate flavor profiles for demographic groups, start with the bean. The connection points, or the bridge, from one group to the next can be built from there, but flavor is the differentiator (see Figure 1).

Another example of this approach could be used to introduce hot and spicy flavor profiles to your audience. Figure 2 illustrates how to bridge the gap using hot and spicy flavors. As mentioned, getting more descriptive with on-trend flavor profiles could be the introduction point to your customers and on your menu.

By studying a consumer group’s core values, menu developers can determine the value that flavor can bring to the menu. Once that is understood, flavor profiling can begin. The end result is relevant flavor profiles that are capable of attracting new consumers, increasing your overall traffic, and broadening your customer base.

Building a Bridge via Flavor
As menu developers know, menu innovation and product development are becoming more complicated and the list of check points keeps getting longer. As a tool for simplifying the discussion, consider looking to the concept of a bridge.

First, define your consumer targets. Second, find the flavor “value” by consumer group. And last, fill the flavor “gaps” with on-trend menu solutions that can step from one group to the next through a natural evolutionary path.

Keep in mind that being constantly aware of interest in emerging flavor profiles is necessary in connecting with consumers. One way to do this is by implementing the use of a flavor curve, an excellent model for identifying and tracking flavor trends to keep your menu fresh and relevant to today’s consumer groups (see Flavor Curve sidebar).

As we know from our own lives, we do not define ourselves by the demographic in which we are born, but instead by the communities we have built. Peer groups and family units are most often made up of members across generations and compromise is often necessary in restaurant selection. Your ability to not only maintain relevance, but to gradually evolve will be essential in keeping your brand competitive in this multi-generational market environment. This shouldn’t stifle menu creativity, but instead offer a platform for creating more exciting flavor experiences. Adapting flavor profiles bridges the gap between consumer preferences, generational values and applications across the menu.

About The Author


Mindy Armstrong, co-founder of Harvest Collaborative, spends her days studying the intersection of food and culture to identify opportunities, possibilities and the “what if?” for operators and menus.