With the introduction of fiery sriracha, it’s been all about spicing up the menu in foodservice. The trend isn’t going anywhere, but consumer tastes are evolving and shifting to more complex flavor combinations and a wider variety of peppers, according to Technomic’s “2015 Flavor Consumer Trend Report.”

Adding a mix of mild and spicy peppers and sweet-heat mashups can stir customer intrigue and cravings for dishes that aren’t easily replicated at home. This can help drive both traffic and sales.

The spicy trend has staying power, as more than three-quarters (78%) of consumers say they enjoy at least moderately spicy foods, and more than half (55%) typically crave spicy food flavors, according to the report. But consumers are beginning to look beyond “spicy” for more specific indicators of heat on menus.

Quick-service operators have led the push behind pepper innovation and are even using “spicy” less; instead, more menus are identifying specific pepper types, from jalapeño to chipotle in sauces and dishes. Multiple peppers—including habanero, serrano and poblano—are even being used in the same dish to elevate the spicy trend to the next level, a move that particularly appeals to Millennials’ sense of adventure and interest in novelty.

One of the world’s hottest chile peppers—the ghost pepper, or bhut jolokia—is appearing more on menus. For example, Wendy’s featured two menu items with ghost-pepper flavors: the Jalapeño Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich featuring ghost-pepper sauce and jalapeños on a toasted red-jalapeño bun; and Ghost Pepper Fries with ghost-pepper sauce and jalapeños. Sbarro’s 3 Pepper Chicken Pizza uses three different kinds of peppers with poblano pesto, roasted red peppers, and jalapeños.

Looking ahead, operators will continue vying for the hottest menu item by experimenting with the spiciest peppers; the current hottest pepper in the world, the Carolina Reaper, is likely to make an appearance on menus. [The Carolina Reaper, originally named the HP22BNH7, is a cultivar of chili pepper of the Capsicum chinense species. —Eds.]

Despite the popularity of spicy foods, sweet flavors remain consumers’ most preferred, according to the report. And, although men and younger consumers still seek intensely spicy food, preferences are shifting to more moderately spicy flavors. This could be influenced by a greater interest in flavor combinations, which may feature more complex spicy notes, as opposed to simple heat.

The country’s top 500 restaurant chains (ranked by sales) are complementing spicy flavors with the sweetness of fruit, brown sugar, and honey. Barbecue and wing sauces, especially, are getting the sweet-heat treatment, as seen at Zaxby’s with its Spicy Honey BBQ sauce, and the popular Mango Habanero combo found at Tilted Kilt and Buffalo Wild Wings.

These complementary flavors contribute to innovation and variety on the menu and are of particular interest to Millennials. According to the report, 39% of consumers (and 45% of 18-to-34-year-olds) want more restaurants to offer foods with a combination of flavors. And, two-fifths of consumers (half of 18-to 34-year-olds) want more sauces featuring flavor combinations.

Calling out specific peppers, whether spicy or mild, appeals to consumers’ changing tastes when it comes to spicy foods. Menus that offer marriages of complementary flavors, like sweet spicy offerings, will succeed in offering variety and uniqueness for consumers.


Originally appeared in the February, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Bringing the Heat.