Looking back at the history of new trends, only a small share of “emerging” flavor concepts make it to the mainstream. To help determine “what’s hot” and “what’s not,” in the world of fine dining, consider a few strategies that can be used to accelerate the transfer of flavors and ingredients that originate in gourmet kitchens, but are also highly extendible to the mass market.
The question explored here is really this: What can be learned from the world of fine dining -- and related trends -- that might be the next big thing in the mainstream market? Here are some ideas on where to look:
Regional MashupsThe fusion cuisine trend of the 1990s created some interesting taste combinations, and some that were not so successful. In contrast, today’s trends favor authenticity in ethnic cuisine. More and more, restaurant diners are seeking “authentic” ethnic fare rather than random, multicultural flavor additions; fully 82% of consumers polled in a recent Technomic survey said they were interested in authentic ethnic flavors. The idea behind Regional Mashups is to give consumers choice within restaurants, not between them.
One example of how a wide range of ethnic and regional menu options is gaining popularity is a Georgia-based restaurant named Soho. The concept is named after the artsy neighborhood of the same name in New York’s lower Manhattan. The restaurant is known for its ability to fuse the exotic, international flavors one would expect from its Northern namesake with the down-home style of its Southern surroundings.
The outcome of this culinary crossfire is an eclectic menu of contemporary fare:
Soho’s originality brings an entire neighborhood in New York to one Georgian restaurant with innovative dishes that highlight the best from both regions -- a bit of local fusion. The philosophy extends to Soho’s wine bar, which offers over 100 wines by the glass, as well as weekly “Flight Nights” for wine enthusiasts to learn about and sample three or four wines from a variety of regions around the world. The idea behind Regional Mashups is simple -- restaurants are the culinary crossroads.
Another approach is a more focused version of the Regional Mashup. In this scenario, innovative chefs are incorporating menu items and flavor profiles from different cuisines that are close in geographic proximity, but diverse in terms of the characteristics of ingredients and dishes.
Mediterranean fare is a useful example, due to the diverse assortment of local influences on cuisines in the region. The trend has traction too, as 68% of chefs polled by the National Restaurant Association rated Mediterranean as “hot,” while 32% of consumers polled by Technomic said they are eating more Mediterranean fare than they used to.
Bridging continents, one focused Regional Mashup menu offers diverse ethnic flavor profiles from countries surrounding the Mediterranean. Blue Restaurant and Bar, a Mediterranean fine dining institution in Charlotte, N.C., honors Southern European, Middle Eastern and North African foods by identifying dishes according to country of origin. This is in contrast to other Mediterranean restaurants that focus on basic ingredients and preparation techniques common to the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. A look at some of the appetizers it menus provides a clear illustration:
The frequency with which consumers experience new ethnic flavor profiles is on the rise and will continue to grow. This flavor infusion is being driven in a new way, as well. The restaurant industry will likely see more internationally based chains entering into the U.S. market.
The growth of Pollo Campero -- a Guatemalan-based chain concept -- shows that, while U.S. chains look abroad for menu ideas, the presence of international chains in the U.S. market is expected to grow in every operator segment, as well as the foodservice supply chain. Because of this growth, consumer demand for ethnic dishes will continue to grow.
The point is simple -- ethnic-inspired dishes are here to stay and will be an important force driving development of innovative ingredients, flavors and textures. Going forward into 2008, it will be critical to watch both authentically ethnic cuisines and the blending of cuisines.
Today, new textures and flavors are being incorporated from a wide variety of Latin and Asian traditions. However, the characteristics and regional sourcing of these concepts will certainly expand over time, becoming more precise to the ethnic cuisines of specific regions. Industry professionals should get acquainted with Cuban, Brazilian and Peruvian ingredients. Similarly, Asian flavor profiles from countries such as India, Korea and Vietnam will certainly provide useful building blocks for future application development.
Redesigning Mainstream FavoritesThere is nothing new in mayo? Top chefs at fine dining restaurants are experimenting with international condiments by putting a new spin on traditional sauces. Familiar favorites like barbecue and mayonnaise are infused with tropical flavor profiles and traditional herbs to create a new flavor that is still familiar to everyday consumers.
Redesigning the familiar offers an effective way to incorporate something new and exotic without alienating consumers who might otherwise shy away from unfamiliar taste profiles and ingredients.
Gourmet toppings and other premium ingredients have taken the spotlight, as more consumers experience new flavors on a familiar favorite -- the burger. There was a time when only Johnny Rockets and a few other chains menued upscale burgers. Today, however, menu items range from snack-sized mini-burgers to luxurious Kobe beef burgers, accompanied by components that you typically would not find in quick-service. A diverse assortment of upscale burgers can be seen on the menus of restaurants such as In-N-Out Burger, Fatburger, Farmer Boys, Burgerville, The Counter, and Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries.
Part of what makes many upscale offerings interesting to consumers is that they allow them to experiment and customize. Cheeburger Cheeburger offers dozens of cheeses and toppings, accompanied by more than 100 varieties of milkshakes, malts, floats and sodas; Cheeseburger in Paradise serves up its signature burgers inspired by traditional Caribbean specialties.
The trick to redesigning the familiar is the replacement of a traditional ingredient, such as a condiment, with something new, exotic or bold -- such as aioli sauce, chutney, salsa or flavored oils.
Engaging Consumers by Venturing Beyond TraditionThe “new to you” development philosophy is driving innovation in very traditional fine dining segments. Menu development and marketing are both at the heart of much of what consumers consider new on menus today. Because of this, fine dining restaurants are expanding beyond the areas that they have traditionally focused in an effort to reach a greater share of the market.
High-end steakhouse chains are using the menu to target new clientele. Evidence of this can be seen on the menus at the leading steakhouse chains. Ruth’s Chris -- which positions itself as “the world’s largest fine dining brand” -- reported this year that 53% of its customers are over 45. Only 16% are under 35.
This is why some restaurants with focused menus -- like steakhouses -- are venturing beyond traditional entrées to offer menu options that have high appeal to under-penetrated consumer groups, such as health-conscious diners. The menu changes are targeting a new demographic and are designed to resonate with women, young professionals and other potential, but untapped, customers.
Traditional restaurant industry segments are also in flux, bringing high-end innovative menus to the mainstream market. New flavors and applications are being driven by restaurants in a segment that Technomic refers to as “polished casual.” This sub-segment of casual dining certainly deserves a closer look in terms of understanding which high-end menu trends resonate with the everyday consumer.
Typified by concepts like Flemings, Bonefish Grill and P.F. Chang’s Taneko Japanese Tavern, polished casual restaurants bridge casual dining and fine dining. A good place to look for rapid innovation includes smaller, emerging operators in this sub-segment such as Blue Coral Seafood & Spirits, Burtons Grill, Devon Seafood Grill and Eddie V’s Edgewater Grille.
These restaurants emulate the style and settings of fine dining establishments at a slightly lower price point. They also represent an opportunity for consumers to gain exposure to the latest innovations on the menu.
The most important aspect of this trend is that consumers are seeking restaurants that cultivate menus and offer dishes that create a unique, niche-focused dining experience -- a perfect source for ideas on what works with premium-minded consumers.
One dish does not fit all. Consumers demand customization, options and the ability to tailor flavor to their tastes.
Final Thoughts as We Enter 2008Prepare to be surprised. Obviously, the most innovative menu trends are still being developed in kitchens around the country -- and around the world -- every day. In terms of emerging trends that are already in bloom for the coming year, some thought starters include: Early chef-owner pioneers of upscale chains, such as Wolfgang Puck or Roy Yamaguchi, have been joined by rising stars such as Michael Mina, David Burke and many others. These celebrity chefs represent an important information source in terms of what consumers might define as “hot” in 2008 and beyond. As some consumers notch up their casual dining habit to the new, upscale “polished casual” category, it is a logical transition for their tastes to become more refined and more in tune with the menus of chef-driven restaurants.
Bottom line -- expect the industry’s culinary masterminds to push the limits of innovation beyond today’s standards. With so many unknowns, Technomic’s more than 40 years monitoring the restaurant industry connects the success of emerging menu concepts to one fundamental aspect of consumer demand -- the need to continuously enhance the eating experience.