By Mindy Armstrong, Insights Manager, Food IQ
We all know well the winners in the fast casual market — Chipotle, Panera and Five Guys — and continue to look to them for inspiration as it relates to the model for the category. But as they grow and hold themselves as a fixture in communities across the country, the buzz has been growing around the next cuisine that will gain a stronghold in the limited service marketplace.
Consumers have indicated what they want with their dollar: value, premium ingredients, healthier options and fresh preparation styles. On top of those key planning pieces, customization and control have continued to gain importance. According to Mintel, more “Chipotle-like” service-style concepts will encourage consumers to take control of their plate — from picking salad makings to topping their pizzas on demand. And while commodity prices are a concern, it only forces more creativity on the menu development team. This has led to the emergence of more slowly cooked, pulled meats for sandwiches, rice bowls and wraps. But, none of these items necessarily reside within a cuisine type; instead, these points indicate a desire for value, flavor and personalization.
As we look to what consumers are actually eating, we find the truth: Americans like to eat American cuisine. As a result, traditional American cuisine dominates the top 10 list of cuisine types found on restaurant menus, according to Mintel Menu Insights, with more than double the number of menu items than Italian cuisine, which holds second place. Considering that American cuisine encompasses the many burger chains, sandwich shops, steakhouses and family-dining places with mixed menus, its strong lead makes sense.
But, “American” can mean a lot more than it used to. With consumers being more curious and educated than ever before, now is the perfect time to tap into all the regional variations American cuisine has to offer. Sometimes this even means going beyond regional and into sub-regional, by providing a more geographic spin on some well-known cuisines. Cajun food can become Southern Louisiana cuisine, for example.
Imported ideas also are prevalent and present in our consideration set. For example, London-style fish and chips have found a home in American gastropubs and Mediterranean chicken wraps can be found on many varied menus.
But, if we were to talk about cuisine, what’s next? First, let’s start with the predictions, forecasts and rumors.
In early 2012, experts were anticipating that Peruvian cuisine would gain momentum. The cuisine coined as “the original fusion food” by BBC’s food blog would seem to make sense as a flavor profile that Americans would love, but will the general restaurant consumer know what it is?
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In addition, hamburgers continue to be popular but seem poised to outrun demand. Word on the street is that you should be asking for the burger that’s not actually on the menu. But, how do you know when and where to ask?
Korean hits the charts thanks largely to food trucks entering the American lexicon. But, it’s pretty far down the list with very low awareness on what it is … just as consumers pair sushi with Japanese, Korean seems most often tagged with “BBQ,” rather than awareness growing around the full breadth of options that would be within the cuisine’s consideration set.
And lastly, Moroccan is rumored to be ready for trial. While that is true for certain sectors of the foodservice market, this is not true for the general restaurant consumer. Expect to see Moroccan spices rise from this cuisine, but beyond that, it might be a slow move into mainstream space.
Then, let’s look at the real predictor: restaurant consumers.
Although we’ve started to ease our way onto ethnic flavor profiles and there’s an indication of interest, consumers still look to the top three — Italian, Chinese and Mexican — most often and have for a while. The good news for those of us that follow the food market is that we have seen interest growing in other cuisines. In a recent survey by NRN, Thai, Indian and Greek have started creeping up the list.
And then there’s this reality: Between 2000 and 2010, the size of the Native Born Hispanic population grew by 51.4 percent. In the same time period, the Asian American population grew by 44 percent. A continued merge of ethnicities will need to be considered in menu planning; as Asian/Hispanic/African American populations increase, flavor preferences have the potential to dramatically shift. As a result, preferences in food among non-Hispanic whites will be shaped by interactions with people of other races and ethnicities. This offers an even greater opportunity to explore regional and ethnic flavor profiles.
There will likely be a need for greater menu diversity to meet the interests and needs of emerging demographic groups (i.e. Millennials). As a group that is more open to trying new flavors, there is an opportunity for experimentation.
So, where will experimentation lead us?
If we take a look at the cuisines that lend themselves well to growth within the fast casual segment, it all starts with a higher level of quality. Where can we find freshness paired with customization and layers of premium ingredients? Perhaps the best contenders are already growing in size around us.
Mexican is a highly acceptable “ethnic” flavor profile in the U.S. The fast casual phenomenon brought us Chipotle.
Chinese foods have been Americanized and are quite present in the U.S as a result. In Pei Wei and Shop House we can see that consumers definitely have a love of Chinese cuisine.
Italian is loved as well. In fact, it’s second in line behind traditional American. And because of its prominence on menus and in the full-service sector, perhaps a more focused Mediterranean cuisine would be welcome.
It has been evident in the last couple of years that consumers have been gaining interest in Greek cuisine. If you look to the grocery aisles for evidence, you will find Greek Yogurt flying off the shelves, providing one of the fastest growth spurts the food industry has seen in years — Chobani, Inc. alone has seen sales soar 2,812 percent since 2008. And the traditional Greek salad is found on more than 120 menus in the top 500 chain accounts.
But, what makes Greek work for fast casual?
First, it has a fresh and healthy perception, and we’ve already been introduced to the cuisine through familiar applications such as pita sandwiches, salads and kebobs.
Additionally, the ability to customize and personalize your Greek-inspired lunch or dinner is appealing and refreshing when compared to all of the clutter in the marketplace.
We’ve only started to explore the possibilities within this cuisine, but all of the realities that are true for other cuisines apply: be authentic in the expression; educate your customer; share the news about the health factors and flavor potential that is possible; and, lastly, be open to the potential.
Mindy Armstrong is the Insights & Account Manager at Food IQ. Her background in branding, foodservice marketing, and product innovation and development gives her clients a unique advantage in the creation of insight-driven menu concepts.