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Getting buy-in with ethnic cuisines

Operators share strategies for turning customers on to unfamiliar foods and flavors.
Photograph courtesy of Curry Up Now

Say you run a Filipino or Indian or Moroccan concept that aims to deliver an authentic eating experience. Or maybe you’re trying to expand the ethnic offerings on your menu. How do you get buy-in—and sales—from wary customers who may not be familiar with the ingredients or menu items?

“Get the food in their mouths,” TV food personality Guy Fieri told the audience during his keynote at the Restaurant Directions conference in July, hosted by Restaurant Business parent Winsight. Sample, don’t discount, he advised an operator of a Japanese restaurant in response to his question.

While there’s a lot of buzz about American consumers getting more adventurous about ethnic cuisines, the data doesn’t always back up the buzz—especially in nonurban areas. Gen Zers (ages 13-26) grew up exposed to Asian, Mexican and Middle Eastern food, yet they are the most risk-averse when it comes to trying new flavors. In fact, 35% of Gen Z diners prefer sticking to favorites, while 64% of millennials are into trying new flavors from time to time. 1

But while consumers may be reluctant to try a new cuisine, once they become familiar with it, they tend to buy in. Here’s how three operators got consumers more comfortable.

Sampling sells

When Wow Bao launched a concept based on Chinese bao buns more than 10 years ago, an education piece was a necessity, says Geoff Alexander, founder and president of the 11-unit chain. So in 2011, he and his team staged a bao giveaway at Lollapalooza, the mega Chicago music festival that attracts thousands of fans. “Instead of spending money on ads, we gave away 8,000 mini bao from steam carts,” he says. Most of the crowd had never seen them before and asked questions, says Alexander, but when Wow Bao returned in 2012 with more bao, many attendees knew what they were eating and welcomed the freebies.

As Wow Bao continues its expansion to airports and smaller urban areas, the sampling will continue. “We really get into the community, making donations to charity events, delivering food to hospitals and handing out coupons for free samples,” says Alexander. “It’s all about getting product into customers’ hands.”

Ethiopian food is newer on the American culinary scene, with only 18% of Americans having tried it. But of those consumers who haven’t tasted it, 48% said they would like to.2 To get those potential customers on board, Tigist Reda, chef-owner of Demera in Chicago, uses two tools: sampling and conversation.

Photograph courtesy of Demera

Photograph courtesy of Demera

This is especially effective in Demera’s Ethiopian on the Go location in Chicago’s French Market food hall. “We put out samples of sauces, vegetables and other ingredients four or five times a day, and as people walk by, the staff explains how they’re made and encourages tasting,” says Reda. There are a lot of first-timers, she says, but the concept’s fast casual, build-your-own format is familiar and makes it easier for the less adventurous to get on board.

Conversation starters

Demera’s customers choose a base of injera (spongy Ethiopian flatbread), basmati rice or salad, then add red lentils, chicken, collard greens or several other meat or vegetable options. The menu lists the options by their Ethiopian names, such as misir wot for spicy lentils and doro alicha for stewed chicken, but complete descriptions are given under each for explanation. “The shorter, authentic name helps people order faster,” says Reda. Staff is also trained to be patient and walk newcomers through the menu.

Education also comes from the front line at Wow Bao, says Alexander. The staff tastes everything and is asked to describe it. “We give team members talking points but don’t want them to sound robotic, so we let them use their own words, too,” he adds. “And employees are encouraged to give a free bao or taste of a new item to someone who hasn’t tried it.” To further engage hesitant customers, Wow Bao now offers combo meals, such as two bao buns and a salad “so they’re not disappointed if they don’t like something.” And newer rice and noodle bowls allow guests to enjoy bao fillings, such as barbecue pork and teriyaki chicken, outside the bun.

Familiar platforms for new flavors

At Demera, bowls and injera rolls (much like wraps) are familiar applications for a more exotic cuisine. Curry Up Now, an Indian fast casual with seven locations, employed a similar strategy from the get-go.

“Most people know what a burrito is, so we packaged foods such as chicken tikka masala and Kashmiri lamb in this familiar format,” says founder and CEO Akash Kapoor. “It worked out.” The menu also includes an open-face naan that resembles a pizza, an Indian-inspired poutine and a deconstructed samosa. For the more adventurous, there are authentic Indian street foods and thali plates. The dal, tikka masala, chutneys and other preparations are based on six sauces of varying heat levels.

naughty naan

Photograph courtesy of Curry Up Now

Like Demera, Curry Up Now’s menu uses authentic terminology without elaborate descriptions, “but we do have ‘The What’s What’ glossary on each menu,” says Kapoor. Guests are also seen Googling an unfamiliar item while they wait on line, he adds. Education also happens with the customer-facing staff, who are trained by making each item and eating it to understand the build, so they can offer more detailed descriptions.

Curry Up Now franchise locations are planned for New Jersey, Salt Lake City and Orange County, Calif.—places where Indian food is a little less well-known, Kapoor admits. But he is confident that the flavors and his menu platform will travel well. “When they try it, they like it,” he says, referring to the uninitiated.

1Technomic Generational Consumer Trend Report
2Technomic Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report

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