Flavors to Watch
Instagram, food festivals and TV chefs are accelerating the speed at which unique flavors and ingredients hit the mainstream. Consumers now expect operators to update menus more frequently with on-trend ideas. To keep ahead of the curve, operators have to stay on top of new flavor trends without abandoning the old.
Underutilized and foraged ingredients
With strong consumer demand for plant-forward bowls and burgers, chefs are looking beyond quinoa and couscous for grains that can be used as a base. Lesser-known, sustainable crops such as fonio and buckwheat are on the rise. And healthful plants found in the wild, such as dandelion greens and gooseberries, are now being cultivated and distributed.
Trend forecasters have been predicting Indian to be the next “hot” ethnic cuisine to take off stateside. While Indian-centric fast-casual concepts are beginning to expand and Indian stations are common in college dining, 2020 may be the year that Indian flavors catch on in both authentic and nontraditional applications. Technomic’s Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report reveals that 34% of consumers have tried Indian food and like it, plus they find the cuisine to be unique and exciting.
Flavor innovation is not only happening on the food side of the menu—there’s a lot of activity around beverages, too. Mixologists are freshening up cocktails with vibrant flavors and ingredients, some of which are borrowed from the kitchen. There’s a concurrent trend toward lower-proof and zero-alcohol drinks, including hard seltzers in a range of flavors, fruity spritzers and housemade lemonades and other refreshers. In fact, 47% of 24- to 34-year-olds are ordering low-alcohol cocktails more often than they were three years ago, according to Technomic’s 2019 On-Premise Intelligence Report. And it’s the huge flavor boom powering the explosion of beverage options.
In general, bolder coffee formats are trending, with strong espressos, cold brews and Americanos on the upswing. But mocha—a blend of chocolate and coffee— is also growing as a flavor in hot and iced coffee. Technomic finds that younger consumers seem to prefer sweeter, dessert-like flavors in their coffee drinks: 43% of 18- to 34-year-olds find mocha appealing, and 49% favor caramel.
In 2019, Korean gochujang was widely touted as the hot sauce that would be the next Sriracha. Well, Sriracha isn’t going away so fast: It’s now getting blended with other flavors. And sauces from Thailand, China and other countries are joining the Asian lineup. Hot sauces are especially appealing to consumers ages 18-34; 28% use them frequently on a variety of foods, according to Technomic’s Flavor Consumer Trend Report.
The quest for different and more complex sources of heat is leading chefs to varieties of chile peppers from around the world. They’re moving beyond jalapenos, chipotles and serranos—Mexican chiles now well-known to consumers—to peppers from Africa, Spain, the Middle East, South America, Korea and other locales. And they are using techniques such as pickling and roasting to layer on flavor.
Plant-based and plant-forward items have surged on menus in 2019, and there’s no sign of this trend slowing down in 2020. The term plant-based has grown 81% over the past year at leading chain restaurants, according to Technomic Ignite menu data, with much of the buzz radiating from the Impossible and Beyond brands of burgers and other meat substitutes. Impossible has grown 300% in menu mentions over the past year, while Beyond mentions have increased by 70%.
Trendy diets such as Whole30 and paleo have turned consumers away from carbs and popularized lookalike substitutions for pasta, rice and other starchy sides. Nondairy milk alternatives, which appeal to vegans and many health-conscious consumers, also are more prevalent. Oat milk is joining almond, cashew and other nut milks on menus.
Introducing a global ingredient in a familiar platform is a low-risk way to get buy-in from customers. Sandwiches are a natural platform for ethnic breads. Operators are turning to breads from India, the Middle East, the Balkans and Southeast Asia to differentiate the sandwich menu with unique twists. But these breads are also accompanying appetizers and sides and serving as a base for pizza on mainstream menus.