Using flavor to upgrade menus

June 7, 2013

By Cari Price, director of Culinary, Food IQ

Flavor is no longer considered a secret weapon in restaurants. In fact, consider the secret out. More and more restaurant chains now hire menu innovation and development teams that are trend savvy and familiar with consumer readiness to help with menu development. Chain restaurants often incorporate limited-time offers and even evolve the core menu with new items in order to keep up with the competition and grow their business. The foodservice landscape is crowded and full of healthy competition. Flavor is a great way to differentiate your offerings from the crowded field and keep your menu relevant and top-of-mind with consumers.

According to Mintel Menu Insight's August 2012 Flavor Forecast, 84 percent of restaurant consumers ages 18 and over are open to trying new flavors, and 69 percent say they want more new flavors at restaurants. Flavor is a top driver for regular restaurant LTO development and seasonal offerings; these approaches to menu development are great opportunities to introduce and evolve flavors. But there is still a range of consumer preference when it comes to flavor, from shy about flavor to flavor seekers. Some are simply not willing to take a risk when dining out. They choose to play it safe and order their favorite menu items time and time again as opposed to others who enjoy expanding their horizons and seek out flavorful adventures often. These customers are looking to try new and exciting flavor combinations.

In fact, the latter is growing quickly due to several generations of restaurant savvy consumers, such as Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials, who have been exposed to unique ingredients and authentic ethnic cuisines from an early age.

These restaurant consumers are eager to find flavors beyond ranch, bacon and chipotle. My advice is to keep your most popular menu items unchanged to maintain your loyal consumer base, but continuously evolve and push the envelope with flavor on other menu items to energize young consumers.

On-trend flavors have the ability to attract customers to come back time and time again. Deliver a unique food experience that's worth talking about around the water cooler or on social media apps and your restaurant becomes a destination. How exactly do you create a buzz with flavor? Flavorful condiments can quickly make a burrito mouthwatering, transform a Panini from ordinary to amazing, or turn a salad into a memorable meal. Get started by giving sauces, meat marinades, dressings or spreads a new flavor twist. Mayo, for example, is a relatively low-cost ingredient that takes on flavors easily. Add harissa paste to mayo to wake up a turkey Panini. Or drizzle a lively chimichurri dressing over a grilled steak salad. In order to evolve your menu even further with flavor, feature bold ethnic meats layered along sauces or spreads to make these menu items even more craveable. Go several steps further and layer flavor-packed components, such as spiced and marinated meats, pickled vegetables, fresh herbs, ethnic cheeses, or flavor infused breads.

As customization is still the key, many times the customer controls the flavor. But layering flavor can be somewhat tricky for consumers, especially when experimenting with new ingredients. Be sure your staff is knowledgeable and able to describe flavors, print descriptions right on the menu for emerging ingredients (an on-trend flavor call out on the menu is an attention-grabbing advertisement that's free!), or even offer signature builds to eliminate complication and risk. For example, Asian Box is a simple build-your-own concept that helps consumers understand flavors by featuring the following descriptor for their tamarind vinaigrette: "tangy, sweet, delicious."

Flavor development on your menu can be a slam dunk that drives business, but be sure to consult the experts when selecting flavors that are right for your consumer base. These groups often map out flavors relevant to your brand on a curve. Flavors that are recently emerging and might need further experimentation are kept at the far left column, flavors that are ready for trial and are currently experiencing momentum in the marketplace are placed in the middle column (at the up-tick of the curve), and finally those flavors that are expected rather than exciting are listed on the far right column. This helps track flavors and show the evolution of consumer acceptance.

Keeping up with flavor on your menu is key to success today, tomorrow and far into the future.

Read more about food and beverage trends.

Topics: Food & Beverage , Trends / Statistics

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