The competition heats up: Spice takes over menus

Hot and spicy flavors are differentiating menus.

Bold is so five years ago. Today’s consumers have an endless appetite for heat, researchers say. “I can’t overstate the importance of spicy and hot as a menu trend for 2015,” says Maeve Webster, senior director at Chicago research firm Datassential.

Sriracha, the Thai garlic-and-chili sauce, made a big splash at QSRs last year, heating up Subway’s footlongs, Wendy’s cod sandwich and Bruegger’s breakfast sandwich. Now, consumers are looking for the next hotter and spicier thing, and chefs are obliging—playing with chilies and peppers to ramp up flavor and heat, says Webster.

Exploring new flavor frontiers

“Last summer we featured a ghost -pepper sauce [option for our chicken wings] as a limited-time offer,” says Amy Smith, director of culinary innovation for Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings. “We ordered six weeks worth from our supplier but ran out in a week.” Fiery ghost peppers are rated the hottest in the world, racking up over 1 million Scoville units, the  scale used to measure spicy heat.

This month, B-Dubs Sauce Lab, a.k.a. the chain’s R&D kitchen, is launching its latest limited edition sauce—Smoldering Santa Fe—a blend of guajillo, chipotle and jalapeño peppers. “Intense heat is not our major goal,” says Smith. “We’re also combining chilies to create hot sauces with more complex flavor.” Each debut of a limited-edition sauce is a traffic builder for the 840-unit chain, she says.

Smith works with suppliers to develop BWW’s sauces, reviewing a minimum of 50 a month to determine the limited editions, she says. Inspiration strikes from every corner of the globe. Following last summer’s success of Korean BBQ sauce, a blend of soy sauce, garlic, ginger and chili pepper, she is looking at other spicy Asian flavor profiles. Thai and Indian hot sauces also are in the works for 2015.

Sauces drive the menu

“Our sauces are the backbone of our menu,” says Kate Malaniak, senior director of purchasing and beverage management for 60-unit Quaker Steak & Lube based in Sharon, Pa. She partners with three suppliers to source the 26 proprietary sauces and five dry spices. “We make suggestions to guests as to which work best on certain menu items, but we also incorporate them into everything from appetizers to drinks, sometimes mixing two sauces for a unique flavor.”

Several dishes on the new Street Food menu tap into Asia. The Truck Tacos include Asian BBQ Steak, flavored with a sweet brown chili sauce, and Spicy Chicken, featuring Sriracha-Asian sauce. Also in the lineup are blazing Demo Derby Fries. “Our medium-hot Fiery BBQ sauce goes on the fries, but we layer on more heat with fresh sliced jalapeños and pico de gallo, tempered a bit by queso sauce and lime,” says Malaniak.

The Lube’s sauces and seasonings are listed on the menu according to Scoville heat units. They range from mild Smoky Gold BBQ at 90 units to Triple Atomic at 500,000; all are free of charge and available to customize any item. “We heard that our Atomic sauce [150,000 units] was not hot enough for some customers, so we came up with Triple Atomic,” says Malaniak. It gets its heat from cayenne and tabasco peppers.

To bring more attention to its fiery sauces, Quaker Steak & Lube is inviting its fans to choose the sauce or spice that will debut on Super Bowl Sunday through a Sauce Showdown contest on Facebook. Raspberry Habañero, Kentucky Bourbon and Maple Bacon sauces are in the running, as is a Cheddar Jalapeño dry spice.

The African spice route

A tiny African chili pepper is fueling the growth of Nando’s Peri-Peri, the flame-grilled chicken concept that originated in South Africa and is expanding in the U.S. The fast casual now counts 20 locations in the Washington, D.C., area and is opening a unit in Chicago early in 2015. Their specialty is spicy, marinated chicken, flame-grilled to order in the style of Africa’s Portuguese settlers.

The hot peri-peri chili pepper is the differentiator, says Sepanta Bagherpour, director of marketing for Nando’s in the U.S. “It gets its unique ‘terroir’ from the African soil and atmosphere, and that authenticity sets us apart,” he says. The pepper is a component of both the chicken marinade and its basting sauce, plus Nando’s has developed peri-peri sauces of varying heat levels it makes available to guests as condiments. The marinades, bastes and sauces are made in centralized facilities in both the U.S. and South Africa.

At each restaurant location, a “periometer” on the sauce bar graphically ranks the sauces in intensity from “plain-ish” to “extra hot.” Currently, the core flavors are available in U.S. outposts—lemon and herb, garlic peri-peri, medium, hot, extra-hot and XXX hot—but more will be introduced as Nando’s establishes itself. “Education by fire,” is how Bagherpour describes Nando’s expansion in the U.S. and its strategy of familiarizing Americans with the spiciness of peri-peri. 

The hot list

Following in Sriracha’s footsteps, these are some of the spices, sauces and peppers that are emerging or already heating up menus, according to Datassential.

Gochujang: Tangy, sweet and spicy characterize this sauce, made from fermented soybean powder, salt, red pepper and rice; it's typically used in Korean barbecue.

Ghost peppers: Over 40 percent of consumers are aware of these peppers, but so far, their extreme heat appeals to a smaller group of brave eaters.

Togarashi: The Jamanese spice blend shichimi togarashi (seven spice) combines chili peppers, citrus peel, sesame seeds and nori to add spice and crunch to fish dishes, noodles and soup.

Shishito peppers: These milder Japanese peppers are slowly trending on menus; they're often roasted whole to blister the surface and served as sharable starters.


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