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Easing into ethnic eating

Here's how some operators are getting customers on board with emerging cuisines.
Photograph courtesy of Schlafly

For Instagram influencers, world travelers and even celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, eating bizarre foods is a badge of honor. Weird eaters can attract a lot of followers on social media and high ratings on TV. But these same fans may hesitate to order a far-out ingredient or totally unfamiliar ethnic cuisine when paying for meals with their own dime.

That’s not to say that Americans aren’t into experimenting with new foods and flavors. In fact, 37% of consumers say they are more adventurous about eating than they were two years ago, according to Technomic's Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report. But truly adventurous eaters are in the minority: Only 13% would order unique or emerging ethnic dishes, with that number rising slightly, to 18%, for 18- to 34-year-olds. Many more consumers—about a third—gravitate toward more mainstream global cuisines, including Italian, Chinese and Mexican. And 56% prefer to stick to familiar American foods, including burgers and sandwiches, when eating out.

So how can a restaurant with a Croatian, Lebanese or Laotian menu build buzz and traffic—especially if it isn’t a bargain-priced mom and pop in an ethnic neighborhood? Is there a way for concepts with more well-known menus to get customers on board with lesser-known LTOs? And how can operators expose customers to unique global flavors and ingredients without alienating the majority? These innovators share some ideas.

Make it visually appealing

In 2016, Edo and Loryn Nalic launched Balkan Treat Box as a food truck in the St. Louis area to test the waters. “The city has a lot of traditional mom-and-pop Balkan restaurants, but I wanted to give the food a contemporary spin—make it inviting while keeping the integrity of the dishes,” Loryn Nalic says.

To get customers on board, chef Nalic takes a visual-first approach. She plates everything with colorful, fresh salads, herbs and housemade sauces and incorporates wood-fired cooking—part of the Balkan street food experience. Balkan Treat Box also is very active on Instagram, showcasing its eye-catching menu items, and provides lots of education at the register, she says, all of which has turned cautious customers into converts.

Her eye-catching approach worked, and two years later, the duo opened Balkan Treat Box as a brick-and-mortar fast casual.

But it’s not all about the look of the food. Nalic works to take the intimidation out of Balkan cuisine by focusing on presentation and familiar platforms. Some of the ingredient names are hard to pronounce, such as cevapi, pide and pljeskavica, she says. But she doesn’t dumb down the language on the menu. Instead, the authentic terms are listed along with relatable applications: cevapi is grilled beef sausages, pide is a wood-fired flatbread similar to pizza and pljeskavica is a stuffed burger.

Make it testable

When Ivan Iricanin opened Ambar in Washington, D.C., in 2013, his goal was to introduce Americans to Serbian food. “It wasn’t very successful at first,” he says, so “I expanded the concept from Serbian to Balkan, which covers a broader area, from Macedonia to Croatia.” Then he borrowed an idea from his native Serbia, where meals are served “little train” style. “Small plates keep coming to the table, like a little train, with guests getting a dish every five minutes,” he explains. His Unlimited Ambar Experience is similar, “a shotgun approach” which gives customers the freedom to order as many small plates as they want for $35, exposing them to a range of ingredients and flavors.

“Customers get to try a lot of different dishes, and [they] usually like 80% of what they order,” says Iricanin. “About 40% of the menu is traditional and the rest is ‘inspired by tradition’—a bit more cutting edge.” In the former category are zlatibor (a skim milk cheese spread) and stuffed sour cabbage with pork belly, while the latter includes tuna tartare with squid ink butter and pear salsa, and almond crusted chicken with walnuts, green apples and wasabi mayo.

The Unlimited Ambar Experience has been big a hit with guests. Plus, its high volume and low margins make it profitable for the restaurant. In mid-2018, Iricanin started an Express Lunch Experience for $19.99, offering a similar wide selection of items coupled with fast service. 

Make it educational/easy to follow

Tyler Minnis, executive chef of The Market at Italian Village in Columbus, Ohio, calls his menu “Mediterranean with Midwestern roots,” with cuisines from Sardinia, Greece, Lebanon, Morocco and other countries represented. The menu focuses on familiar items with a twist, such as biscuits and gravy featuring za’atar in the biscuits, and lamb gravy and Caesar salad tossed with bottarga instead of anchovies and flavored with preserved lemons.

Minnis provides servers a glossary of any new or unfamiliar ingredients so servers can help guide guests. In addition, “Every week, we take servers through the menu so they know what an ingredient is and how it’s prepared. They taste it, get the glossary and then take a quiz,” he says.

But the chef really lets loose on No Menu Mondays—the night on which he creates a menu on the spot. This gives him a chance to introduce esoteric ingredients such as sweetbreads, which he prepares with a Buffalo-style sauce, and duck confit arancini, tweaking the traditional Italian stuffed fried rice balls with a chef-inspired ingredient. Through server education, customers learn to trust the chef, and No Menu Mondays now have a cult following, with a lot of regulars coming in to try something new, says Minnis.

Make it customizable—to a degree

At Sodexo’s dining operations at Fannie Mae’s offices in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia, Director of Culinary Gervais Achstetter says that “customization is the key to success when introducing guests to new flavors. But I try not to overwhelm them with too many choices or they’ll walk away.”

For an Asian noodle station Achstetter debuted recently, she offered three to four housemade sauces to give guests a chance to experiment. In tandem with the launch, she gave out free samples of the new sauces and promoted the new station though social media. “Word spread, and once people tasted the sauces, the station caught on,” Achstetter says. “You have to give new ethnic ingredients a chance to fly.”

Achstetter’s strategy for new ethnic menu concepts: educate, sample, launch. And if there’s a large population of international customers at an operation, offer foods that evoke authenticity and nostalgia, such as Indian breads and Chinese dumplings.

Make it experiential

Venezuelan-born Enrique Limardo, the chef at Washington, D.C.’s award-winning fine-dining restaurant, Seven Reasons, has moved into the fast-casual segment with Immigrant Food, a new concept one block from the White House. Bowls—a popular platform—are the vehicle for bringing lesser-known ingredients to the mainstream, with combinations such as the Filipino Rice and Grains bowl, inspired by immigrants from the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa, and the Viet Vibes bowl, which is a hybrid of Vietnamese and Caribbean influences. The menu description of each bowl tells the story of its culinary roots and explains the ingredients in great detail.

“Bowls provide an opportunity to try a lot of different flavors and cuisines,” says Peter Schechter, co-founder of Immigrant Food. But Limardo and Schechter are taking their mission beyond the menu by creating what they call a “cause casual” concept that celebrates diversity through an immersive experience. The restaurant plays immigrant music, displays immigrants’ artwork and provides meeting space for immigrant advocacy groups. Plus, an “engagement menu” positioned next to the digital food menu encourages volunteering and donations to five local nonprofits. Social media supports the mission, and within weeks of opening, the restaurant had thousands of Instagram followers. Immigrant Food gets customers on board by relating to a cause as well as its food.

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