Everyone loves to eat out. The restaurant experience means no one has to do the dishes, everyone can have what they want and quality time is spent with family and friends. In addition, it provides an easy way for consumers to “experiment” with new foods and exotic taste experiences.

Restaurant menus often forecast the next trend of packaged prepared foods into the grocery market. Restaurant goers became interested in interactive, exhibition cooking five years ago and, today, they still crave participating in their meals. “Many appetizers requiring assembly, such as fajitas and wraps, continue to gain popularity and you can now find them in mainstream America,” says Jackie Dulen, a consultant for Chicago-based Technomic Inc., a foodservice research and consulting firm. This trend is not limited to foodservice. For example, Oscar Mayer's Lunchables line falls into this category in that consumers assemble their own food.

Dulen also has observed many restaurant desserts that require items to be dipped or customized. For example, the basic ingredients of a s'more: graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate squares, are brought out on a tray with skewers and a warmer, allowing patrons to prepare their own treat. Also, miniature donuts may be presented in a bag, to be opened and then dipped into chocolate or fruit glazes.

Ethnic Foods Hold High Interest

Joseph E. Brady, managing director of the Foodservice Research Institute, Oak Park, Ill., a foodservice information company, has observed growth in seafood, including salmon, tuna steaks, sea bass, trout, snapper and Mahi-Mahi. “The fish and seafood categories associated with Cajun flavors are especially popular right now. The demand for hot, spicy foods seems to be insatiable,” states Brady. This category is led by chicken wings, buffalo wings and buffalo sauce-flavored sandwiches. His company compiles information through its FlavorTrak™ database, which categorizes menu information from 500 restaurants in 40 different U.S. market areas.

Brady also comments that interest in traditional American fare seems to be eroding, as Americans' curiosity about ethnic foods is piqued. “Both American and Italian foods seem to be losing ground. We find that Mexican foods have remained steady. In the appetizer area, Indian flavors are fitting into stir-fry dishes such as this, mainstream chains need to grow the category, in order for people to become familiar with the foods.

An example of this is the successful Le Colonial chain, which specializes in preparing Vietnamese food ingredients with French cooking techniques. The upscale, successful chain is a great example of not just Asian cuisine, but Vietnamese cuisine.

Broader, more mainstream categories of foods—such as Chinese and Italian—continue to have a strong presence, but diners are very interested in ethnic foods on a micro level; Dulen points to significant growth in subcategories of cuisines, such as Vietnamese (Asian) and Cuban (Latino). The trend first started in Asian Mongolian barbecues, in which patrons create their own entrees by choosing a protein, vegetables and sauces, continues to flourish. Again, diners enjoy foods which they can customize, and Thai and Indian flavors, popular in “bowl” meals, are still gaining momentum.

Spicy, Intense Flavors Attract

The interest in ethnic foods has spilled into non-commercial settings such as universities, health care dining and business and industry, where there is an increasing need to satisfy consumer demand for different kinds of foods. Jay Berglind, vice-president of segment sales at Kronos Food Products, a Chicago food manufacturer specializing in Greek cuisine, finds that a high-quality food is not enough: “It must also be interesting and exciting, reflecting the experience diners have in restaurants. Consumers are more sophisticated than ever about ethnic cuisines and expect their institutional food experiences to be authentic.” For example, Greek food has a distinctive flavor profile with garlic, oregano, lemon and other spices. This falls in line with another trend: the demand for very strong, very pronounced flavors.

“For instance, garlic mashed potatoes have a bold flavor; the potatoes may not be tremendously infused with garlic, but they certainly have that distinct flavor,” Dulen explains. Other examples of intensely flavored foods are Cheetos (extra cheese), Extreme Cheese Doritos, foods flavored with mushrooms or cilantro, and items such as buffalo chicken sandwiches, stuffed jalapeno peppers, sashimi, and a variety of Caesar salads—all leading items in the FlavorTrak™ database. Other top-ranked, strong flavors include barbecue, garlic, blackened, jalapeno, spicy, peppercorn, lemon and curry.

The goal of developers interested in bringing foods to the retail market should be to mimic the restaurant experience as closely as possible. Presenting foods that have a universal appeal and then tweaking them to make them as exciting as possible are important concepts.