Of the three big global menu influences in America—Asian, Mexican and Italian—Asian concepts continue to evolve on Technomic’s Top 500 list. Chains offering Chinese cuisine, such as Panda Express and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro (Nos. 21 and 52, respectively) have long occupied leading spots. But now Japanese, Thai, Korean and Vietnamese flavors and foods are infusing chain menus, and chefs are digging deeper, exploring Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian offerings.
And customers are receptive. According to Technomic’s Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report, 36% of consumers like to try regional variations of global cuisines so they can discover new foods and flavors.
As a result, chains offering less-mainstream Asian cuisines are moving further up the Top 500 list. These include Sarku Japan (No. 140), WaBa Grill (No. 243), Gyu-Kaku (No. 256) and HuHot Mongolian Grill (No. 281), all of which boasted sales growth of 6% to 8% in 2018. Sarku’s menu focuses on sushi and teriyaki, while Gyu-Kaku specializes in Japanese barbecue. Both WaBa and HuHot are build-your-own concepts distinguished by signature Asian sauces.
Health as a differentiator
These limited-service chains also bring the healthy aspects of Asian cuisine to the forefront. They highlight lean proteins and preparations such as grilling, stir-frying and steaming. Panda Express, the largest Asian chain in America, is also going in a better-for-you direction. Its Wok Smart dishes, coming in at 300 calories or less with at least 8 grams of protein, now make up half the menu. This line includes the new Wok-Fired Shrimp, a Hunan-style mix of shrimp, sugar snap peas, red bell peppers and onions wok-tossed in a sauce flavored with Chiu Chow-style chiles. And last fall, Panda introduced a plant-based side called Super Greens. The steamed veggie dish includes broccoli, kale and cabbage—all categorized as superfoods—wok-tossed with garlic.
Pei Wei Asian Diner, a pan-Asian fast-casual chain and No. 128 on the Top 500, is going in a healthier direction, too. It recently added a lower-carb cauliflower rice as an alternative to white or brown rice for guests to choose as an add-on or the base for an entree.
In keeping with the low-carb trend, Pei Wei also debutedthe Cauliflower Power Bowl, composed ofcauliflower rice with steamed white meat chicken, carrots, red bell peppers, snap peas, onions, scallions and ginger. It’s topped with a tamarind and chile soy glaze—an example of digging a little deeper into unexplored Asian cuisines. Along with adobo and sambal, Technomic cites tamarind as one of those emerging Asian ingredients to watch.
Asian chains are experimenting more often with these ingredients, especially after seeing the widespread acceptance of spicy condiments, such as Sriracha and gochujang. At Panda Express, chef Jimmy Wang, director of culinary innovation, cites the Chiu Chow-style chilis as one of his favorite ingredients, as well as Sichuan peppercorns, which are slated for an upcoming LTO. “We strive to bring our guests new and exciting flavors as often as we are able and stay on top of trends,” he says. “The brand’s Panda + Tea restaurants were created to serve as a living laboratory for exploring new menu items, allowing the innovation team to get guest feedback in real time.” Right now, Chinese street foods are a focus, and Wang is testing bing—thin, filled pancakes served from street carts in China.
Street food is also trending in full-service. P.F. Chang’s offers a Street Fare section on its menu, listing items such as Cauliflower Tempura with a spicy gochujang sauce and Dynamite Shrimp with Sriracha aioli.
Wang attributes the growth of Asian concepts to the fact that today’s guests are more adventurous and continuously looking to experience new, bold and exciting flavors. “Asian cuisine is so diverse and offers so many of these attributes,” he says.
Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report
Hawkers Asian Street Fare ranks in the top 50 food and beverage companies on this year’s Inc. 5000 list with sales growth of 310% from 2012 to 2015, during which the independent opened its second unit. With average checks of $14 and $20 at lunch and dinner, respectively, the Florida casual-dining brand reported revenue of $6.9 million in 2015 with two locations and is on track to reach $10 million in revenue this year. Since four friends launched Hawkers as a “passion project” in Orlando in 2011, the concept has entered Jacksonville and St. Petersburg and aims to continue expanding in the Southeast. Here’s a look at how Hawkers has managed growth.
Although the fast-casual industry is booming, co-founder Kaleb Harrell says he and Hawkers’ other partners—Allen Lo, Danny Ho and Wayne Yung—decided not to go the fast-casual route for two reasons: one, because they believed consumers will never stop wanting a full-service experience at dinner, and two, because they thought casual dining needed a revamp. Hawkers “is not casual dining in the sense of what our parents knew as casual dining,” Harrell says.
The concept serves a menu of Asian street food-style small plates in convivial settings complete with open kitchens, Asian newspaper-covered tables and shelves lined with Asian ingredients. At Hawkers, customers don’t “just sit down, order one entree, have the same flavor for an hour and leave. Instead, they have 10 different dishes with 10 different flavor profiles, the palate is continuously being excited, and they’re continuously being influenced by the food, the interior and all these different things to create a whole experience.”
Over half of the menu is made with recipes provided by Lo, Ho and Yung, whose families hail from Hong Kong, Malaysia, China and Vietnam. The menu also includes Asian-style American options—such as Hawker’s Tacos and curry mashed potatoes—to increase approachability, although Harrell says consumers are more adventurous than they thought. For example, for Valentine’s Day two years ago, Hawkers offered chicken heart skewers, a common street food that’s not so prevalent in the U.S., so Harrell was surprised when the special sold out.
The St. Petersburg restaurant debuted in March with a new feature for the concept: a full-service bar. While the previous two units served beer and wine, they weren’t large enough to meet liquor license requirements, so the group found a bigger space for its third location. The bar serves Asian-inspired cocktails such as a Malaysian Mule and a Salted Plum Collins. In addition to giving customers more beverage options, Harrell says the bar eases waits for consumers by giving them a spot to hang out before their table is ready.
Harrell says urbanization has allowed Hawkers to grow in smaller Florida markets where the food scene is thriving and consumers are looking for more local concepts. There’s a consumer mindset of, “‘I’m going to invest in my neighborhood … and redefine what’s happening here,’” Harrell says. “And that whole societal shift has helped us.”
Hawkers plans to reach 10 units by the second quarter of 2018. A fourth location is set to open by the end of this year in Neptune Beach, Fla., and the company is continuing to seek sites in revitalized urban areas and smaller markets, such as Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville, Fla. Harrell also says the company is in talks to open its first unit outside of Florida in Atlanta. Other initiatives on the horizon include delivery—which the brand has already launched at select units via UberEats and Amazon Restaurants—along with catering and online ordering.