American consumers of all ages are craving bolder flavors. But that’s not all. They are also demanding menu transparency. Coast to coast, restaurateurs are responding in kind with more seasonal, fresh or cleaner dishes to entice baby boomers and millennials alike.
“Consumers want to know more about what they are putting in their bodies and have become inherently suspicious of anything they don't immediately recognize as a ‘real’ or natural food,” says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters and trends analyst.
As foodservice operators grapple with varying definitions of “clean” eating, some consensus is emerging.
“Clean for us at this time refers to ingredients you would find in your pantry or in a grocery store,” says Bob Karisny, vice president for menu strategy and innovation for 385-unit Taco John’s, based in Cheyenne, Wyo. “It means simple and easy to understand. Also the fewer the number of ingredients the simpler or 'cleaner’ the label.”
To that end restaurateurs are going out of their way to offer diners more information about the ingredients in the food they serve.
“We list ingredients for each menu item,” says Uriah Blum, vice president of operations at Vitality Bowls, a 40-unit, San Ramon, Calif.-based, fast casual superfoods café. “We train our employees so they are able to educate customers about everything on our menu. For our less common superfood ingredients, we also have posters throughout our restaurants explaining the taste, origin and associated health benefits.”
In an effort to adhere to cleaner, fresher and more seasonal dishes but simultaneously attract diners with spicier flavors, chefs are using herbs, spices, chiles, oils and condiments such as TABASCO® Sauce, to give consumers what they want. TABASCO® Original Red Sauce consists of three natural ingredients — distilled vinegar, fully-aged red tabasco peppers and a small amount salt.
“At 41 Ocean one of our best sellers is our Spicy Ahi Tuna Tartare,” says Patrick Florendo, executive chef of 41 Ocean and Sonoma Wine Garden, both in Santa Monica, Calif. “We use sushi grade ahi tuna and dice it into large cubes. It’s dressed with a little toasted sesame oil and mixed with fresh cilantro, julienned young ginger, crispy caramelized shallot and a touch of garlic/chili sauce.The tuna tartare is accompanied with crispy taro chips for a nice crunchy texture.”
Amy Myrdal Miller, president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, a culinary and nutrition communication firm, agrees chefs are relying on spices and condiments to add zest.
“One example would be a restaurant that makes its own fried chicken using locally sourced whole chicken--marinating it in simple buttermilk with a few spices, and then coating it in flour before frying it in a vegetable oil,” she says.
“The consumer will recognize all ingredients, feel good about the local chicken and appreciate the bold flavor that a few spices like cayenne powder will provide in the marinade and coating.”
Earlier this year Atlanta-based Church’s Chicken released a nationwide study of chicken lovers which reported more than 50 percent of quick service guests eat spicy foods three times a week while 21 percent eat spicy foods every day. “More importantly, consumers are no longer content to just 'get their spice on the side,'” says the study, which showed 61 percent of consumers preferred heat and spice to be integrated into the recipe as opposed to being served as a sauce or add-on item.
Made from scratch dishes is another way to marry bolder flavors with transparency, and independent and chain restaurants alike are trying to spread the word.
“We make all of our recipes from scratch and buy our ingredients from reputable sources,” says Guillermo Medellin, franchisee of Russo’s New York Pizzeria, which is a fast casual concept operating under the Russo’s Restaurants’ banner, a Houston-based franchisor with 47 locations.
“For example, our cheese is coming from a small dairy farm in Wisconsin, and our meat has no preservatives. To get the word out, all of our managers and servers are very well trained to discuss every dish and its ingredients with our guests.”
As many operators are aware, much of the drive for bolder flavors is coming from varying demographics as both millennials and baby boomers seek more flavor in their foods.
“As baby boomers continue to age and become less sensitive to flavors, chefs and foodservice professionals will need to more aggressively season their foods — without relying on excessive sodium — to make the diner happy,” Myrdal Miller says.
For millennials it’s global excursions and adventurous culinary habits that drive the trend.
“Millennials have been exposed to foods from around the world. Better than half of them use some type of chili-based ingredient in or on their food,” Karisny says.
Florendo agrees. “There is a prevalent trend in restaurants these days that explores authentic regional cooking with bolder flavor profiles from all over the world. Young adults have the luxury of experiencing these types of cuisine where as in the past classic French cooking was the pinnacle of modern dining,” he says.
Florendo predicts the trend is only going to gain momentum. “The future of cooking will be the fusion of all these new cuisines.”
Webster agrees restaurant diners will not retreat from their quest for bolder flavors and cleaner dishes.
“Consumers are not willing to compromise on flavor so just because a dish is designed to be clean [simple label, real, etc.], that doesn't mean we should go back to the age of steamed broccoli and call that a solution. Those days are over.”