Foodservice operators are continuously grappling with the same challenges: How far is too far when introducing unique or new flavors to the menu? How can chefs stay on-trend without alienating more middle-of-the-road customers?
To help answer these questions, FSD mined Technomic’s 2017 Flavor Consumer Trend Report, and its Flavor Adoption Lifecycle, to pinpoint the tastes that are emerging, proliferating and firmly entrenched in the mainstream, and how some operators are using them. But the types of customers FSDs serve also play a part in how edgy or conservative they can be with flavor innovation. So we dug deeper into the report to discover what consumers in various demographic groups are looking for on the flavor front.
While it’s exciting to explore breakout flavors by introducing them in a couple of new menu items at a time, customers also find comfort in old favorites. Balance is the key to successful flavor innovation on the menu. Read on to see how.
Flavor Adoption Lifecycle Methodology
Technomic describes the categories in the Flavor Adoption Lifecycle as follows:
Emerging: These flavors haven’t been tested for each given menu item, but many consumers are familiar with the flavor profiles and express interest in trying them. These are the most unique sauces and may be far from mainstream application.
Proliferating: These flavors are more exciting than everyday familiar sauce flavors. They have been tested by consumers with positive results, but aren’t yet completely accepted as mainstream flavors.
Mainstream: These are flavors that consumers enjoy and are familiar with. Consumers know what to expect when ordering these sauces and, although they’re popular, they aren’t as unique or on-trend as most other sauces.
As a lighter protein that’s perceived as a healthier choice, seafood marries well with less-intense flavorings. Citrus-based Asian sauces—the next level of classic lemon and lime—are showing some traction in seafood dishes, particularly ponzu (a soy-citrus blend), sesame-pineapple and wasabi. But operators are also menuing seafood with more approachable buttery sauces, such as beurre blanc, basil butter and meuniere, as well as comforting cream sauces flavored with tomato and ginger.
Ponzu salmon: California State University at Northridge, Geronimo’s
P: Tomato cream
Shrimp and artichoke penne (garlic shrimp, roasted artichokes, fire-roasted tomato cream sauce, penne, basil oil and Parmesan): San Diego Zoo, Albert’s Restaurant
M: Asian, garlic sauces
Indian spice shrimp: University of Michigan, Bursley Dining Hall
While pork is featured prominently in cost-effective regional American and ethnic dishes such as pulled pork with barbecue sauce, Mexican-spiced carnitas tacos and Japanese ramen, diners are also interested in pairing it with more indulgent sauces. These include mushroom- and cheese-based sauces, as well as sweeter preparations flavored with honey, mango, plum and citrus. Cuts of pork such as shoulder, ribs and cheeks adapt well to braising, smoking and other techniques that infuse a lot of flavor during cooking. Using these techniques, along with the addition of savory and hot spices and sauces, will produce dishes with the complex flavors younger consumers are seeking.
E: Beer-based sauces, chutney
Beer-marinated pork chop: University of California at Davis, Segundo Dining Hall
Guinness beer brats with peppers and onions: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Pennsylvania Avenue Dining Hall
Cinnamon pork chops with peach chutney: Cornell University, Becker House Dining Room
P: Black bean
Brazilian black bean roasted pork: New York University, Lipton Dining Hall
M: Honey mustard
Honey mustard and pretzel pork chop: University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Cambridge Hall
Sandwiches are a particularly good vehicle for flavor trial, as popular fillings such as turkey, chicken, ham and cheese adapt well to bold sauces and condiments. Plus, introducing a new flavor in a familiar platform like a sandwich is a low-risk way to get consumers on board. Sandwiches are wide open for customization, allowing consumers to opt out, swap a sauce or request it on the side. According to the Flavor Consumer Trend Report, the appeal of ethnic sauces and toppings on sandwiches is growing among Americans.
E: Caribbean jerk, tahini
Lamb koefte burrito with fried eggplant slices, tomato cucumber salad, green hot sauce and tahini wrapped in a tortilla: PNC Park, Pittsburgh (and five other Aramark-run MLB stadiums)
P: Roasted red pepper, flavored mayo
Chipotle rizer with turkey, applewood-smoked bacon, chipotle aioli and roasted red pepper: Boston University, Rize Cafe
Turkey and provolone panini with turkey, garlic and roasted red pepper: University of Utah, Heritage Dining Hall
M: Honey, pesto
Fried chicken sandwich with cayenne honey, house slather, lettuce and marinated tomato on an organic bun: University of Washington, Cultivate
Since chicken is a lighter protein, sauces based on fruit and herbs are beginning to emerge. But assertive flavors also marry well, including ginger, jalapeno and garlicky black bean sauce. When introducing a riskier flavor, chicken is a safe choice—not only does it have broad acceptance among noncommercial customers, but it’s adaptable to different flavor profiles as well. Also trending on the flavor spectrum are regional barbecue chicken variations, with flavors ranging from Carolina vinegar-based sauce to Alabama white sauce or a chili-infused Texas-style sauce.
P: Pico de gallo
Pico de gallo chicken: University of Southern California, EVK Restaurant & Grill
Chicken wings: University of Wisconsin at Madison, Gordon Avenue Market
Mango jerk chicken with mango habanero sauce: Texas A&M University, Sbisa Dining Hall
M: Barbecue sauce
Hot wings with honey barbecue sauce: Barnes-Jewish Hospital
Chicken wings with Buffalo, Thai Buffalo or Kansas City barbecue sauce: Lambeau Field’s 1919 Kitchen & Tap
Ketchup, mustard and mayo are so last century when it comes to burger condiments. Even Sriracha is past its heyday, as consumers seek new spicy sauces and more intense flavors to pair with burgers—which now go beyond beef and turkey to venison, lamb, seafood, mushroom-meat blends and all types of plant-based patties. As with sandwiches, global flavors are gaining ground, such as Caribbean jerk, Korean barbecue and Indian curry. Additionally, ingredients usually found on taco bars or Mexican stations are showing up as burger toppings, including pico de gallo and jalapeno salsa.
E: Korean barbecue, tzatziki
Lamb burger with tzatziki: CU Boulder, Village Center Dining Hall
P: Mushroom sauce, chipotle
Mushroom Swiss burger: Lilydale Senior Living
M: Buffalo sauce, teriyaki
Buffalo sliders: One MetLife Plaza
Because steak is a pricier protein choice, it tends to appear most often in the senior living and B&I segments, where chefs treat a simple grilled steak or prime cuts as a blank canvas to showcase flavorful sauces. Trending on menus now are spirit-based preps such as bourbon sauce, bordelaise and Marsala, as well as classics such as mustard and horseradish. In hospitals and college dining, chefs are stretching smaller amounts of beef in stir-fries, curries, grain bowls and salads, rounding out the dishes with vegetables and starches.
E: Thai, Red curry
Thai red curry beef: New York University, Lipton Dining Hall
Indonesian red curry beef: North Carolina State University, Case Dining Hall
P: Citrus, wine sauce
Roast tenderloin with bordelaise sauce or shallot demiglace: Lutheran Community at Telford/Cura Hospitality
M: Horseradish, bourbon/whiskey
Prime rib with horseradish cream: Saint Luke’s East Hospital
Horseradish-crusted cube steak: Sodexo