November 2011/Prepared Foods -- For much of the past three years, restaurant operators have been faced with soft consumer demand and weak guest traffic. And, just as conditions started to improve late last year and early this year, restaurants had to take on a new challenge: rising commodity prices. Prices for beef, pork and eggs have increased throughout the year, leading to a few developments in foodservice. First of all, restaurants are introducing more low-cost, margin-friendly chicken options to the menu. And, instead of introducing entirely new items, operators are using sauces, marinades and seasonings to bring new flavor profiles to traditional dishes and to entice customers.

Sauce Staples

Staple or classic sauces have become everyday flavors. Sauces that top the list year-after-year, such as tomato and barbecue, illustrate the versatility and consumer acceptability of popular sauces and their flavors. According to Mintel Menu Insights, since Q1 2007, the top sauces on restaurant menus have been free of major shifts. Given that approximately 50% of menu item dishes contain sauce, and popular sauces are so ingrained in the menu, it is expected that changes in sauce happen gradually. However, the familiarity of well-known sauces has made them menu staples and go-to ingredients, when restaurants create new menu items.

Traditional sauces, such as mayonnaise, tomato and barbecue, continue to thrive through renewed interest in traditional applications and flavor profiles--such as barbecued pulled pork sandwiches and flatbread pizza. Other classic sauces, like pesto and Alfredo, have shown notable growth, illustrating a restaurant and consumer affinity for comforting and recognizable foods, such as creamy pasta.
While traditional sauces still have appeal for both restaurant operators and their customers, there is still room for creativity. For many restaurants, just adding an extra flavor moves a sauce from traditional to contemporary and can even add a signature flavor profile to the menu, as T.G.I. Friday’s does with its Jack Daniel’s-infused barbecue sauce. A sauce flavor can also add a burst of newness to a popular existing dish, while maintaining the core product’s integrity. McDonald’s has listed Chicken McNuggets on its menu since the early 1980s, but four new sauces--in this case, Creamy Ranch, Sweet Chili, Spicy Buffalo and Honey Mustard--have added new flavor profiles to the iconic nugget.

Also, the addition of traditional ethnic ingredients brings new life to traditional sauces. With chipotle, for example, ranch dressing goes from all-American to Mexican-inspired, and a dash of pesto added to traditional tomato marinara infuses the sauce with a unique basil flavor. The challenge for restaurants is to exploit the many possibilities sauces offer their menus.

The Top 10 Sauces

Not surprisingly, Mintel Menu Insights shows mayonnaise leads the list of the 10 most popular sauces, appearing in 3,715 dishes in Q2 2011--a 9% increase over Q2 2008. Next was tomato sauce, showing up in 2,081 menu items in Q2 2011 vs. 1,899 in Q2 2008 (+10%). Mustard was third, with 1,258 in Q2 2011, growing 13% from the 1,114 appearances in Q2 2008. Salsa also was also popular, in fourth place, with 1,270 appearances in Q2 2011, up from 1,132 in Q2 2008 (+12%). Marinara held fifth place, listed in 1,193 dishes in Q2 2011, higher than the 1,141 citations in Q2 2008 (+5%).
The second half of the top 10 sauces were: barbecue sauce in sixth place, with 1,322 mentions in Q2 2011 vs. 964 in Q2 2008 (+37%); cream sauce in the seventh spot, with 646 mentions in Q2 2011 vs. 497 in Q2 2008 (+30%); marinade in eighth place, with 604 appearances in Q2 2011 compared to 566 in Q2 2008 (+7%); and Alfredo sauce held ninth place in Q2 2011, with 598 mentions vs. 454 in Q2 2008 (+32%). Last, in tenth place, was pesto sauce, totaling 567 mentions in Q2 2011 compared to 541 in Q2 2008 (+5%).

Restaurateurs Look Upstream for Inspiration

Keeping up with direct competitors is tough enough in foodservice. Restaurant operators are constantly looking to see what their competitors are doing, not only with their menus, but also other aspects of operation, including price and marketing promotions. However, it is useful for restaurant operators to look upstream for inspiration.

Traditionally, food trends in the restaurant industry start in one of two restaurant types: fine dining or the ethnic, independent restaurant. From there, trends trickle down to the rest of the foodservice industry and on to retail, stopping at casual dining and specialty grocery stores--before landing in fast food and mainstream supermarkets. The iconic Caesar salad is a prime example. It started in a single restaurant in Mexico, before making its way to just about every restaurant that serves a salad of any kind. This general trend direction also applies to sauces.

A look at the fastest-growing sauces in fine dining may provide a peek at what is coming next in foodservice. While eel sauce is going to have small appeal, due to its limited uses, it does speak to a growing trend in fine dining--ethnic cuisine. Sauces like mojo, Thai chile, yuzu, miso, sweet chili and even Creole mustard allow fine dining chefs to bring authentic flavors to dishes. Of course, not every restaurant operator lists a menu with Cuban, Thai or even Cajun food, but the addition of these sauces to traditional American fare, like burgers, adds immediate appeal to the menu. Understanding when to add these types of ethnic sauces to a non-ethnic menu can be challenging and sometimes requires manufacturers and operators to move beyond their seller-buyer relationship to one of partnership. (See chart “Top 10 Fastest-growing Sauces in Fine Dining.”)

Signature Flavors

Understanding what is going on at other restaurants, whether a competitor or a source of inspiration, is one step in the right direction. However, just copying what is popular is not going to work. Consumers are increasingly looking for that authentic (or at least unique) dining experience. Through signature sauces, operators can differentiate their menu and gain instant recognition from consumers.

Restaurants with menus based around sauces have an advantage here, but others can also build around their own sauces. Famous Dave’s has made its barbecue sauces integral to its menu, as has McAlister’s Deli, with its honey-mustard dressing. Creating a signature sauce requires going one step beyond just accepting what is being purchased from a manufacturer. It requires working with a manufacturer to help assist in developing a sauce that best reflects the qualities of the restaurant, while also complementing and adding to the menu.

Outside of sauces, seasonings--whether through new ingredients or flavorings--can bring life to a listless menu and provide depth to dishes. Among the top ingredients that consumers are most interested in seeing on restaurant menus are those ingredients that add one of two things to the menu: 1) quality and 2) authenticity. The high interest in fresh ingredients--like basil and oregano, and a more premium ingredient like sea salt--shows consumers are looking for better, fresher ingredients when they dine out. And, when considering a menu item, consumers are looking at the ingredients that go into that dish to determine its quality level.

Diners also indicate they are interested in seeing authentic ingredients added to the menu. Ingredients like chipotle and ancho peppers, as well as lemongrass, are positioned as authentic ingredients in many cases, true to an ethnic cuisine’s origins. If executed properly on restaurant menus, the addition of these ingredients conveys the restaurant is following traditional methods of preparation and composition.
Consumers want restaurants to take the lead on showing them new ingredients and flavors. On one level, they trust restaurants can incorporate these ingredients in a successful and flavorful manner. On another level, they just want to experience these ingredients. Certainly, interest does not mean items that make use of these ingredients are going to be successful. But, the high interest level should convey a consumer interest in trying menu items with these ingredients. Ultimately, it is up to the restaurant or manufacturer to ensure the item follows through on flavor, satiety and price, with permission by consumers to experiment with the flavor profiles on the menu. (See chart “New Ingredients and Flavors of Interest.”)

Sauce It Up

For good reason, when discussion turns to restaurant menus, the focus of the conversation turns to core menu items, occasionally touching upon appetizers, desserts and even the alcohol beverage menu. Rarely are sauces and seasonings a hot topic, though they should be. Used appropriately, sauces and seasonings allow restaurants to bring new life to their menu and take advantage of foodservice trends more quickly and relatively inexpensively. Successfully adding sauces and seasonings requires going beyond the traditional and expected. Just as operators are expected to be inventive and unique on their core menu, they also should do the same with their sauces; operators need to work with their manufacturers to develop those sauces that stand out and bring customers in. pf