A Global Future for Prepared Foods
Experimenting with ingredients to uncover emerging food trends
It is the perennial question that every developer seems to struggle with–what’s the next big culinary trend for retail? The truth is, there is no crystal ball with all the answers, but that’s the exciting part about our jobs. We get to play with, watch, document and predict food as it goes through its life cycle. And while there may be no such thing as a magic Zoltan machine to give you the next exciting profile on a printed ticket, it’s quite possible to identify emerging trends early and ride the wave of its popularity when you know what you’re looking for.
HOW RETAIL TRENDS GROW:
In the past, the retail world followed the foodservice (FS) world. Product developers would watch QSR’s, fine dining and independents to see what populated their menus. The trends they saw did well in that segment and then would slowly flow onto the retail world. The profile migration from FS to retail used to take five to seven years, but everything is moving a lot faster now. Today, the internet and the popularity of social media has shortened the timeline to only two or three years from restaurant menus to materialization of new products on grocery shelves. Even as you read this article, the distance between menus and retail continues to shrink. But restaurants are still the frontiers for our trends, they are the guide for the general public on new flavors and dishes. This education process helps them understand what to expect when they see our retail products in the frozen aisle.
GLOBAL INSPIRED IS THE HOTTEST MACRO TREND:
Easily one of the largest category of macro trends in the past decade has been ethnic or global inspired profiles. Over the last 20 years, the world has become a much smaller place. Consumers have an appetite for travel and they want to experience it through food. There are multitude of studies, reports and charts that all point to the American consumer’s excitement over new and authentic global flavors. This makes the addition of an ethnic profile a smart consideration to add creativity to or just round out any product line. But understanding which cuisines to look to for your consumer and which ones they are ready for is really the trick to getting the crystal ball answer.
UNDERSTANDING THE MENU ADAPTATION PHASES OF A CUISINE:
As chefs and developers, we have a deeper understanding of international profiles available than the average consumer. Beyond reading that global is the hottest trend, we have to understand the education phase of the retail consumer. Case in point, you may love the flavor of Berber; an African seasoning blend, but do you know if the general public is ready for a retail Berber dish? Before you dive in and start developing a new international profile for your next line extension, you need to have a solid understanding of where a cuisine is on the menu adaptation phase. Adaptation phase is a term we use to discuss how familiar the American consumer is with a cuisine as a whole. The key indicators in assigning cuisine adaptation phase is specific ethnic restaurant popularity and menu incident growth. For example, as you see an increase in Thai restaurants and more Thai dishes populate general menus across the country, you can begin to assume that Thai cuisine is growing in popularity and moving up in the adaptation phase. Another example is 15 years ago, restaurants used the generic term “taco”, but today menus and retail product are calling out more regional specialties like barbacoa or carne asada to expand the taco realm. They are able to do this, because Mexican cuisine is in an advanced adaptation phase called the ubiquity stage. The ubiquity stage is where the consumer is extremely comfortable with the cuisine, to the point that they are ready for another step to true authenticity. In this later stage you can go deeper with flavor exploration and naming. Understanding where a cuisine lands in the menu adaptation phase is an important key in developing a profile that will be understood and accepted by your consumer.
The phases of menu adaptation are:
- Stage 1 - Inception: This is the early stage where dishes will show up in fine dining
- Stage 2 - Adoption: Small chains and larger percentage of menu incidents
- Stage 3 - Proliferation: Larger chains and mainstream restaurants will have incidents on their menus
- Stage 4 – Ubiquity: It will be everywhere from the little mom and pops to the large national chains
WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW FOR GLOBAL PROFILES: ASIAN AND REGIONAL MEXICAN
Many different Asian cuisines have experienced a strong growth in restaurants over the past decade and are becoming more approachable with fast casual chains helping shorten the learning curve. As Asian cuisines continue to unravel and chefs explore more authentic ingredients, we will see continued growth across this broad category.
- Japanese cuisine is one where Americans feel like they can take another step. They have embraced sushi to the point that we see sushi being made at traditional grocery stores, and Ramen shops become busier and busier. These are just a couple indicators to pay attention to for this cuisine. The next few movements for Japanese food could be the exploration of their Yakatori shops, small Japanese BBQ stores, or Izakaya; which may be best described as Japanese tapas.
- Korean cuisine has only scratched the surface. Consumer awareness has expanded as has their comfort with some of the basic dishes and ingredients like Korean BBQ, kimchi and gochujang. Korean cuisine has depth and flavors that should be easy for Americans to accept. The areas to pay attention to here are Korean dumplings and their traditional rice dish the Bibimbap. This cuisine fits well with the trendy bowl format of a single dish.
- Thai cuisine with its incredible balance of sweet, spicy, savory and sour profiles is often called the most flavorful cuisine in the world. Look to coconut-based curry flavors and some approachable bases sauces such as sweet Thai chili.
Mexican may feel old and worn, but it is actually in the stage where consumers feel most comfortable with exploration. Deeper dives into authentic regional Mexican cuisine and more authentic naming will be the driving force for this trend.
- Watch as Mexican menus deepen their terminology from the Generic use of “chilies and tacos” to more specific terms.
- As we move away from the generic term salsa, look for increased focus on authentic salsas like salsa molcajete.
- Authentic Mexican street tacos like Conchinta Pibil, a Yucatan barbecue will continue to have strong presence.
- Regional dishes, such as Oxxacan Mole.
WHAT IS FURTHER OUT ON THE HORIZON FOR GLOBAL PROFILES:
- Indian food, if continued growth in the QSR segment continues, could finally be poised to start making some ground in the coming years. The cuisine is delicious but has faced an uphill education battle that currently has many Americans feeling like it is too foreign. Recently, a few small chains such as Hot Indian in Minneapolis and Choola in Cleveland are promoting Indian cuisine through small fusion QSR steps. Lack of exposure and education has held Indian cuisine back till this point.
- Vietnamese cuisine has some shining stars that have helped the general public embrace it. These include Pho, the delicious rice noodles with broth dish and the Banh Mi sandwich, which has started or influenced other dishes with its Banh Mi effect of adding fresh or pickled ingredients into a sandwich or dish. Their use of fresh herbs and ingredients to finish dishes is very popular with consumers.
- Latin American and Caribbean cuisines show promise and should be watched over the next few years. Their flavorful use of spices and great roasted meat show potential for wide acceptance and ability to gain popularity.
ON THE PERIPHERY:
Potential dark horses are cuisines that have great profiles and depth but may take a little longer to get the attention required to bring them into retail. Both African and Peruvian cuisines may need some foodservice help in educating the consumer, but seem to have exciting promise.
- African has some wonderfully delicious profiles such as the spice mixture Berbere and their piri-piri chicken, which is also a common Peruvian dish. This continent has deep culinary roots, but is in need of a food service champion prior to being ready for retail.
- Peruvian has the pollo a la Brasa with the amazing Aji verde sauce and the Aji chilies and Criollo.
KEY POINTS TO UNDERSTAND WHEN DEVELOPING:
Is the fact that global flavors have been so popular over the past decade enough to run with an exciting ethnic profile you love? Is the explosive growth of technology, the ease of travel, the multitude of TV shows exploring the exotic cuisines reason enough to launch a Za’ Atar seasoned pistachio? People love the thought of travel and they want to do it with their food. Whether it’s to explore or to remember eating global cuisine, the fact that they want different cuisines isn’t enough on its own. When you look at global profiles for the next culinary inspiration, keep a few things in mind.
- Understand the menu adaptation phase: Where is this cuisine on the growth scale, is it emerging, in a growth period, or is it developed?
- Flavor is king: Beyond all other attributes to a new product, if it doesn’t deliver great taste, it wont last. When it comes to all food, flavor is king. Focus on the dishes that are popular in their culture, how do these dishes translate to American pallets?
- Buoyancy through other trends: Try to pick flavors and profiles that cover multiple trends, not just ethnic profiles. For example, hot sauces are popular right now as a trend, Sabal is a popular Indonesian hot sauce, and chefs are using it on menus and in food trucks. The ability that Sambal has to cross into multiple trends will give it buoyancy and make it a stronger selection.
- Know the difference between a fad and a trend: Don’t develop to buzz. Trends are products that have not just appeared overnight, but if you paid attention you’ll see they’ve grown over time. Learn to tell the difference.
- Know your target audience: More than anything on this list other than flavor, know your target consumer. A Bulgogi rice bowl may be perfect for a millennial but will be lost on a baby boomer. A great product speaks to its consumer.
There has never been a more exciting time for developers to work with global flavors and profiles. Our consumers are more receptive than ever and while there is no crystal ball, tracking and deciphering these trends, and developing new products with broad appeal is much easier than you may think. Remember to follow a few key points, like watch what restaurants are doing, they are still our best education process for the consumer, and their consumer is also our consumer. Track cuisines and know how to use the menu adaptation phases to choose a cuisine. Remember that the consumer is asking us to help them travel with their food and is willing to stamp their culinary passport to try exciting profiles. All you have to do is understand the clues they are giving us and learn where their taste buds want to go.
Dax Schaefer is the corporate executive chef and director of culinary innovation at Asenzya Inc.
Readers may contact him at (414) 764-1220 x325ext, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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