Restaurants that highlight cuisines with bolder flavors and ethnic influences--and adapt them to their menus effectively--can find a way to marry their concept to a mainstream consumer’s newfound ethnic food cravings.

It is a familiar feeling--that undeniable longing for a burger, burrito, pizza or a favorite dessert. One might drive for miles to find that one food most craved and will return again and again to a certain restaurant that offers the thing one must have. Flavors, textures, menu positioning--and even science--are all factors that drive food cravings. But, what are the foods and flavors that appeal to consumers who dine out regularly? How are restaurants developing menus with “craveable” cuisine in mind?

The Science Behind the Craving

It is no accident that human beings desire certain foods; they are simply wired that way. Even before birth, flavor preferences are being constructed. As infants, human palates are influenced by sweeter tastes and milder, softer textures. But, eventually, each individual gains the ability to seek out his or her own food and make their own dining choices, based upon what they desire.

For millennia, humans have desired calorie-dense fat, sugar and salt. Before the arrival of agriculture as a means of sourcing food, humans relied on hunting and gathering techniques to survive, and a high-fat meal was both satisfying to the palate and absolutely essential for survival. Salt prompts a salivation response that stimulates appetite and enhances eating. Sugar induces the expectation of food enjoyment. In fact, sugar-fat emulsions and salt-fat emulsions represent perhaps the strongest food cravings triggered in the brain. Humans have had millions of years to develop these internal mechanisms that respond to the pleasure derived from food.

Today’s lifestyle has eliminated the hunter-gatherer from the demographic equation, but the hard-wired biological craving for fatty, sugary foods has remained. People instinctively equate these types of foods with appetite satisfaction, and, thus, seek them out. The proliferation of the restaurant and foodservice industry--from packaged snacks to quick-service restaurant formats to grab-and-go options--means that people have the ability to easily consume whatever food item they are currently craving.

All About Flavors and Textures

Menu trends and consumer purchases at the grocery store indicate the growing preference for bolder flavors with ethnic influences. In addition to the more familiar Mexican and Chinese cuisines, there is a burgeoning acceptance of and craving for Spanish, Mediterranean and Caribbean flavor profiles, as well as those that fully encompass Asian cuisine, including Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Indian fare. Restaurants that highlight these cuisines and adapt them to their menus effectively can find a way to marry their concept to a mainstream consumer’s newfound ethnic food cravings.

One avenue operators are using to infuse menus with bolder flavors is in the development of appetizer menus (this also helps drive customer traffic). Technomic’s recent “Appetizer Report” revealed “craveability” as key to appetizer sales. Appetizer samplers with ethnic-fusion preparations (mixtures of Asian and Latin foods, for example) answer the craving for spicier fare, while allowing guests to share with one another, try new flavors and enjoy hot or tangy dipping sauces.

For restaurant consumers, few factors carry more significance than the appeal of freshness. Customers will gravitate toward an item they perceive as fresh, whether it truly is or not. One of the strongest associations with freshness is “crispy.” Crisp food textures indicate that a food is fresh, interesting to the palate and desirable to eat. A wide assortment of foods preferred by consumers is described as crispy, including apples, lettuce, cucumbers, bacon, tortillas, chicken strips, French fries, breaded vegetables and an array of salty, prepackaged snacks—and the list goes on. MenuMonitor, Technomic’s proprietary menu database, listed more than 2,900 mentions of “crisp” or “crispy” ingredients on U.S. restaurant menus.

In a recent interview on the topic of craveable foods with chef Skip Julius, product development leader for Gordon Food Service, one example of an ingredient that had a real knack for inspiring cravings was a bit surprising: Oreo cookies. Chef Julius explained that the Oreo cookie was an excellent illustration of exactly the type of food that consumers crave. Consisting of three layers--two crisp, dark chocolate wafers with a sweet, smooth filling in the center--the Oreo signals freshness (with its crisp indicators), as well as sweetness and fat. The texture, color and flavor of the outer layers are generally desirable, and the filling is a sugar-fat emulsion that the brain automatically craves.

Couple this flavor/texture combination with consumers’ strong brand awareness of Oreo cookies, and restaurants have a winner. In fact, Technomic’s MenuMonitor database revealed more than 220 menu mentions of the Oreo brand across all segments and mealparts. Aside from the expected cookie crust for cheesecakes and pies, Oreos also appeared blended in milkshakes; crumbled as a topping for sundaes; and, most notably, as a featured ingredient in alcoholic beverages. Several operators, including Bennigan’s (which also menued two desserts with Oreos) and Lone Star Steak House, listed specialty cocktails that paired vanilla vodka and liqueurs with Oreo cookies.

The Umami Factor

Umami, a Japanese word meaning “savory” or “deliciousness,” is considered a relatively new addition to the tongue’s four basic tastes of salty, bitter, sour and sweet. Umami is heightened with the addition of ingredients that exhibit a savory flavor profile to a dish, including foods containing high levels of glutamates, an amino acid. Foods that are naturally high in glutamates include MSG, soy sauce, fish sauce, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, tomatoes and potatoes. These umami foods, and others like them, transmit pleasure signals to the brain, increasing the desire for them.

Without a doubt, umami certainly contributes to Chinese food and sushi cravings. It also seems that the growing buzz around the umami factor and the far-reaching demand for certain savory ingredients are even leading non-Asian restaurants to develop menus that incorporate these types of components. For example, Mitchell’s Fish Market offers a number of fresh fish selections featuring both mushrooms and soy sauce. Noodles & Co. menus several dishes containing shiitake mushrooms and ginger-soy sauces. The synergy of two umami-rich ingredients (in this case, mushrooms and soy sauce) intensifies the savory aspect of these dishes and makes them craveable. In all, MenuMonitor revealed more than 300 menu items at both full- and limited-service restaurants that touted soy sauce as the primary flavor in dipping sauces for appetizers, salad dressings for entrée salads and in glazes for fire-grilled meats and seafood.

Additionally, umami flavor is spiked by pairing it with aromatics such as garlic. It is unsurprising, then, that traditional Italian fare is highly craveable when dining out. MenuMonitor detailed thousands of Italian menu items at national chains, emerging concepts and independent restaurants that paired Parmesan cheese, tomatoes and/or mushrooms with garlic in the description of the offering. This gives operators, both inside and outside the Italian menu category, a clear opportunity to create new pizza and pasta items that will keep customers coming back to satisfy a craving.

Do Not Try This at Home

Craveability is also created by limited access to a particular food at home. There are some foods that consumers may believe are all but impossible to duplicate in their own kitchen. It is these “niche” foods that influence a visit to a favorite restaurant, when a craving for them strikes.

Arguably one of the hottest trends in the restaurant industry today is the popularity of snack-occasion menu items, illustrated by McDonald’s Snack Wraps--two small, crispy or grilled chicken strips, wrapped in a soft flour tortilla and topped with shredded cheese and a drizzle of sauce. Although it is not very complicated to construct at home, it is also not the sort of item the average person would attempt to cook themselves for a snack, particularly when the item is so readily available at any McDonald’s restaurant for a moderate price. Thus, the craving is satisfied quickly at a low price for the customer.

Other popular, craveable menu items are portable dessert treats, such as frozen yogurt and cupcakes. Again, cupcakes are not a difficult item to prepare at home, but how many home cooks would calm a cupcake craving with homemade mocha, chai latte or lemon-coconut cupcakes? Instead, they make a run to Sprinkles Cupcakes, an emerging chain that lists these three flavors (along with 17 others) on a rotating menu that also includes buttercream frosting “shots.” The chain’s handheld cakes are a hit in the major markets it serves; the California-based chain is targeting a total of 30 U.S. cities for expansion.

Often described as “addictive,” tart, frozen yogurt is popping up all across the industry landscape, led by Los Angeles-based upstart Pinkberry. The cups of swirled, frozen yogurt are presented in a manner that conveys uniqueness and freshness. Its appeal is enhanced by fruit and cereal toppings that inject color against the creamy plain yogurt and pale green tea yogurt. Customers (who proudly refer to themselves as “groupies”) have been known to stand in lines that wind outside Pinkberry’s doors and down the street, waiting for their frozen-yogurt fix.

Both Sprinkles and Pinkberry are examples of how today’s most innovative restaurant brands are focusing concept development around a single item that people crave. For Sprinkles, it is a high-fat, high-sugar indulgence that has proven so irresistible for guests; for Pinkberry, it is a cool and creamy signature product with colorful, fresh toppings and the perception of healthy snacking--even at a restaurant.

Positioning Entrées to Create Cravings

Eating, like cooking, is a sensory experience. Cooks use all five senses in the creation of a dish, just as consumers let their five senses guide them toward foods they crave. Positioning a menu around ingredients and preparation techniques gets customers more interested in the sights and sounds of the food, and it invigorates the imagination that helps fuel appetite.

In a 2007 survey conducted by Technomic for American Express MarketBrief, 63% of consumers reported that menu item descriptions are “extremely important” when reading a menu. About 55% of people surveyed felt that it was “extremely important” that a menu indicate specific flavors, such as spicy, sweet, smoky or garlicky, while 50% agreed that it was “extremely important” for menus to identify textures by describing items as crispy, flaky, crunchy, creamy, etc.

With data gleaned from MenuMonitor, consider the following two national chains’ menu descriptions of two very similar sandwich items. The first chain is a casual-dining establishment that lists a $7 chicken sandwich item and merely describes it as a “grilled chicken breast sandwich with fries.” The second chain is also a casual-dining concept with a $7 chicken sandwich, but describes it this way: “a fresh, juicy chicken breast, flame-grilled and topped with cheddar, Swiss and Monterey Jack cheese and hickory-smoked bacon; served with fries.” For the same price, the first sandwich is presented in the most generic of terms (with no mention of toppings, if any), while the latter item is being described in detail regarding flavor, preparation technique and toppings. Which selection (and description) would be crave-worthy and more likely to tempt a new customer?

Even the most traditional and familiar menu offering will not immediately sell itself, so it is up to operators to create the initial interest that may lead to return visits. “Fire-grilled,” “fresh,” “crisp” and “ripe” are all buzzwords that point to high-quality components, ingredients and preparation.    

Along with these descriptors comes the opportunity to present items in new ways. In addition to mini-desserts and tapas-style small plates, entrées can also be scaled down. For example, T.G.I. Friday’s menu of smaller-portioned entrées puts the emphasis on flavor, rather than portion. Encouraging guests to “fill up on flavor,” Friday’s promotes flavorful dishes such as its Dragonfire Chicken--a fire-grilled chicken breast glazed with Chinese kung pao sauce, served over stir-fried brown rice with pineapplepico de gallo, Mandarin oranges and steaming broccoli in cilantro-lime dressing. With about a dozen flavorful entrées in this line, Friday’s may have the ability to create the crave without overpowering guests with portion sizes.

Food cravings can be intense, sometimes fashioned from a memory that ties one to childhood or past special occasions. As such, these cravings are essentially a part of people’s lives. Today’s restaurant consumers look for ways to integrate dine-in, take-out and drive-thru restaurant visits into their busy lives, even when the visit is nothing more than the hope to satisfy a craving for something salty, spicy or sweet. Promoting new snacks, putting the spotlight on foods’ most craveable textures and getting creative with bolder flavors are steps operators are taking to meet the needs of their base.

Technomic is a fact-based research and consulting firm and helps restaurants and food suppliers grow profitably with business-building guidance. For over 40 years, the company’s consultants have helped clients anticipate and respond to customers’ needs--and competitive threats. Services range from major research studies to management consulting solutions to simple fact-finding assignments. For more information, go to