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.
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
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.
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.
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
Americans are snacking more often and demanding more nontraditional choices. Younger consumers, especially, are seeking unique items with global flavors, according to Technomic’s Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report, with 29% of 18- to 34-year-olds saying they are interested in ordering ethnic snacks at foodservice locations. Snacking is a low-cost, low-risk way for consumers to try new items, and Technomic predicts an uptick in multiethnic snacks such as pierogis, bao buns, arancini and musubi as innovative bar snacks and handhelds. For menu inspiration, take a look at the global items these seven concepts are offering.
Au Bon Pain introduced an updated take on the Czech kolache as an LTO this winter, and it is now part of the permanent menu. The Bacon & Cheddar Kolaches are a savory version of the traditional Czech fruit-topped pastry and are selling well, at two for $5, as midmorning and midafternoon grab-and-go snacks, says a spokesperson for the chain. The kolaches follow on the heels of Au Bon Pain's 2016 launch of Petit Plates, a menu of downsized entrees marketed as snacks.
Bar food is where full-service restaurants can capture more snack business during happy hour and late night. Pie Tap Pizza Workshop & Bar, a two-unit casual-dining concept in Dallas, has a designated snack menu featuring Italian bites to accompany drinks. Spiedini ($10) are skewers of prosciutto-wrapped fontina that are fired in the oven to melt the cheese and crisp the prosciutto.
Vermilion, an upscale Indian-Latin fusion restaurant with locations in Chicago and New York, also is capitalizing on pairing snacks with alcohol—this time, for weekend brunchers. The new Dosa Frankie Brunch Bar menu ($12-$15) offers eight stuffings and eight chutneys to fill the airy rice lentil crepes called dosas and the paratha flatbread wraps known as frankies. The latter, a popular Indian street food that also go by the name kati rolls, are composed of grilled paratha wrapped around such fillings as chicken kebab, tamarind shrimp or potato and layered with egg, pickled onion and chutney.
Hawaiian-Asian concept PokeBao, a new fast casual in Miami, is adapting street foods as snacks as well. A separate Chef’s Bites menu features a broad selection of baos—Asian buns filled with ingredients such as braised short rib, mojo pork shoulder and mushroom tofu ($3.50-$4). Also on this menu are items that transform poke into a snack, including Yellowfin Tuna Tacos ($3 each), and non-poke nibbles like Tempura Fries ($3).
As a favorite American snack, the hot dog makes a familiar canvas for global experimentation. One German iteration that is gaining ground stateside is the Currywurst. At Stammtisch, a beer-centric pub in Portland, Ore., the late-night menu features this popular Berlin street food—a fried pork and veal sausage with housemade curry ketchup—for $6, along with about 10 other bar-food options.
Polish in origin, pierogis are now being tweaked by U.S. chefs to jump on current trends. At Baba’s Pierogies in Brooklyn, N.Y., the menu offers classic pierogis stuffed with sauerkraut, potato and/or cheese (five for $8-$8.50), along with variations such as mac and cheese, jalapeno and spinach and feta. Guests can customize their snack order with toppings like sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions, as well as extra dips, including horseradish and blue cheese.
While empanadas are not new to the snacking scene, some operators are giving them different spins to win over all-day munchers. J28 Sandwich Bar in Hollywood, Fla., offers oven-baked empanadas with scratch-made chicken and beef fillings as well as a vegetarian version stuffed with kale and spinach (all $3.25 each). Half Moon Empanadas’ four Florida locations, including one at the Miami International Airport, menu signature empanadas with on-trend flavors. Examples include the Spicy Chicken Cordon Bleu with chicken, mozzarella, bell peppers, ham and hot sauce, and the Spicy Cubano, filled with pulled pork, Monterey Jack cheese, pinto beans, onion and hot sauce ($6.99 for a snack combo with two empanadas, a drink and chips).