Ethnic cuisines are integrated into countless restaurant menus--even traditional “American” menus. Jack in the Box serves a Chicken Teriyaki Bowl. Atlanta Bread Company offers Penne Bolognese. Even Tastee Freez serves tamales. Ethnic offerings are exploding on menus, and the trend is not restricted to any one segment or menu classification. It is visible at national quick-serves, small fine-dining brands and everything in between. Yet, these menu examples only showcase the “big three” ethnic cuisines--Mexican, Italian and Chinese. These cuisines remain extremely popular and will always have a place in our foodservice industry.
But, the tide is turning, as other ethnic cuisines are gaining a footing and a following with restaurant-goers. Chefs are moving beyond expected ethnic influences and exploring the ingredients, flavors and cooking techniques of far less familiar and far more exotic cuisines. Technomic has identified Mediterranean, Indian and Caribbean as three of the hottest cuisines in the restaurant industry today. What follows is an overview of each cuisine and a discussion of why each is poised to break out of (relative) obscurity and impact the industry in a big way.
Mad for Mediterranean
Until recently, Mediterranean’s influence on U.S. restaurant menus was subtle. Consumers may not have noticed items like hummus and pita on menus. They may not have paid attention to traditional Mediterranean spices and sauces, like sumac and tahini, in their dishes. And, words like falafel and shawarma probably were not in their vocabulary.
That is all starting to change, now that Mediterranean is moving out of the shadows of the big three ethnic cuisines and taking center stage at restaurants. Between 2009-2010, Mediterranean items increased their representation on the menus of the leading chains and independents by 7.7%. In addition, the offerings themselves have moved beyond “safe” options, like hummus, and now incorporate bolder flavors and more unfamiliar (to most Americans) ingredients. And, consumers appear to be up to the challenge.
So, what is behind the category’s growth? A lot of it has to do with more widespread consumer acceptance of Mediterranean cuisine and restaurant operators’ recognition of that acceptance. Today, a sizeable percentage of consumers are open to trying Mediterranean food. Technomic’s most recent data on the subject finds well over half of consumers (62%) report they would probably or definitely order a menu item made with Mediterranean flavors and ingredients.
Another key reason is that Mediterranean benefits from a health halo perception. The Mediterranean diet places a heavy emphasis on olive oil, legumes, fruit, fish, vegetables, whole grains and nuts; a moderate emphasis on dairy products; and minimal emphasis on meat. Many Mediterranean dishes are vegetarian. Health-conscious consumers are sitting up and taking note, right along with the operators who serve them.
In fact, some of the most recognizable restaurant operators in the country are hopping on the Mediterranean bandwagon, contributing to Mediterranean’s popularity boom. A few menu examples from Top 500 operators:
* Subway--In early 2011, the largest chain in the world, by unit count, began testing a vegetarian-friendly Falafel Sandwich in the Chicago area.
* IHOP--The iconic, mid-scale chain now offers a Mediterranean Lemon Chicken entrée.
* Red Robin Gourmet Burgers--The casual-dining chain rolled out two limited-time menu items with Mediterranean influences: a Mediterranean Chicken Salad and the Mt. Olympus Burger, the latter featuring an oregano-seasoned beef patty topped with spinach-artichoke dip and feta, among other toppings.
Infatuated with Indian
Like Mediterranean, Indian cuisine has, until now, largely flown under the radar. In the U.S., there is no national Indian chain representation--not yet at least--with Indian restaurants comprised largely of mom-and-pop establishments. That will likely change soon enough, though.
Certain Indian concepts are already in the early stages of expansion. Sodexo Inc., for instance, signed a master retail license agreement in late March for its fast-casual Indian concept, Café Spice. The Café Spice menu showcases Indian favorites, such as chicken tikka masala, curry bowls and naan sandwiches, all prepared using natural ingredients and halal meats.
Another Indian concept with growth potential is Chicago-based Chutney Joe’s. The fast-casual concept prides itself on using authentic Indian flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques. Its mantra, “Fresh quality ingredients. Home-style cooking. Served fast,” reinforces that commitment. Two Chutney Joe’s units operate in downtown Chicago, with a third on the way. A franchising program is already in place, which will likely spur continued growth.
International brands may also play a role in the future. Across the pond, Indian food has ensconced itself in the UK foodservice industry, producing some notable brands. Chains that have achieved success in the U.S. often open international outposts in the UK, and vice versa. It is entirely possible that some international Indian chains will ultimately make their way stateside, which would grow the category even more.
In the meantime, Indian cuisine is gaining traction on menus, thanks largely to varied-menu, casual-dining chains and independent operators. Technomic’s exclusive online trend-tracking database, MenuMonitor, found the number of menu items incorporating Indian ingredients increased from 75 in the second half of 2010 to 82 in the same period of 2011. Further, certain ingredients traditionally associated with Indian fare have really taken off and found favor with customers; tamarind sauce and mango chutney are prime examples. A few recent menu rollouts:
* Avocado Egg Rolls, featuring a blend of avocado, cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, red onions, cilantro, pine nuts, chipotle pepper and spices, served with a sweet tamarind sauce (BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse).
* Pan-Fried Australian Barramundi Filet, served with mango chutney and grilled Japanese eggplant (Grand Central Oyster Bar).
* Avocado Tartine, featuring chickpeas, alfalfa sprouts and spicy tahini, served on organic wheat bread; 100% vegan (Le Pain Quotidien).
Crazy about Caribbean
Most Americans are probably more familiar with Caribbean cuisine than Mediterranean or Indian cuisine, given the region’s geographic proximity, not to mention the large Cuban population within the U.S.
It should not come as much of a surprise, then, that Caribbean cuisine has Top 500 chain representation, from brands like Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill, Pollo Tropical and Bahama Breeze. Golden Krust, a quick-service chain based in New York’s Bronx borough, has been serving authentic Caribbean cuisine such as jerk chicken, fried plantains and stuffed turnovers since 1989. Golden Krust and Pollo Tropical have 200-plus units between them, but all are concentrated on the Eastern Seaboard. Bahama Breeze has more geographic representation, but a much smaller reach, at 25 units. This leaves much of the country underserved by Caribbean concepts and ripe for concept growth.
Some smaller brands are banking on those growth opportunities and hoping to take away some of the market share held by these large chains. One brand that is in a good position to do so is Sophie’s Cuban Cuisine, an eight-unit concept that uses secret family recipes (the chain is run by the Luna family) and has an unusual service platform. While maintaining a limited-service focus, with the bulk of business derived from delivery sales and takeout orders at cafeteria-style lines, Sophie’s also gives customers a full-service, dine-in option. The Lunas have begun preparations to enter the Washington, D.C., market, which will take the brand outside of its New York City base.
In addition to its growth at the concept level, Caribbean/Cuban cuisine is also demonstrating impressive growth on menus. Certain Caribbean staples are now commonly offered at the leading restaurant chains, both as permanent menu items and as limited-time offers. Caribbean fare, with its tropical, warm-weather connotations and heavy use of fresh fruits, lends itself naturally to summertime menus.
In May, casual-dining chain Hurricane Grill & Wings launched a Summer of Flavor seasonal menu. The new Caribbean-inspired menu included Coco Loco Wings, Cajun Mahi Wrap, Strawberry Fields Salad, Jamaican Jerk Salad, Island Grilled Shrimp Skewers, Pina Colada Cake and more. A snapshot of Caribbean offerings recently added to other menus:
* Jerk Chicken Pizza, featuring spicy jerk chicken with smoked Gouda and mozzarella, topped with fresh pineapple salsa (Brixx Wood Fired Pizza).
* Sweet Plantains, ripe and sweet plantains cooked to a golden, caramelized finish (Pollo Tropical).
* Roasted Jerk Chicken, choice of breast, drumstick, thigh or wing (Ryan’s Grill, Buffet & Bakery).
Fusion Cuisines: Upping the Flavor Ante
Perhaps even more interesting than examining these three cuisines separately is examining them within the context of fusion cuisine. Adventurous chefs are increasingly fusing elements from one of these cuisines with elements from another cuisine, to create wholly unexpected and altogether new flavor profiles.
For instance, Mediterranean and Mexican are coming together at Doc Chey’s Noodle House, which serves a Falafel Taco, featuring falafel, Napa lettuce, pickled veggies, scallions and tahini sauce. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese are melding seamlessly at Kowloon Restaurant, which serves Thai Inter Duck, or half a boneless Roasted Duck à la Chili with tamarind sauce.
Taking the fusion trend a step further, there are even certain restaurant concepts built entirely around the idea of new forms of fusion cuisines. Asia de Cuba, for example, fuses Asian flavors with Cuban cuisine.
Making Room for New Ethnic Cuisines
The U.S. restaurant industry is exceedingly diverse in its offerings. Yet, the industry still has a lot of room for growth, particularly when it comes to ethnic cuisines beyond the big three.
Mediterranean, Indian and Caribbean cuisines are already stepping up to the plate and making an impact. Their representation on menus is growing, causing consumers--many of whom are on the lookout for exciting and unfamiliar flavors--to become more accustomed to seeing them at their favorite restaurants. It remains to be seen what long-term effects they will have on the restaurant industry, but, for now, these cuisines are certainly worth watching. pf