The ethnic food revolution is here: Commentary

By Chef Cari Price, corporate chef at Food IQ

Hamburger- and fry-loving Americans have been embracing foreign foods, including Korean fried chicken, black rice, dumplings, kimchee, naan bread and Indian chutneys, more today than ever before. Most urban cities have established districts of independently owned restaurants, specializing in various cuisines, such as New York City's Little Italy and Chinatown. Although we know and love those districts for their culture, authenticity and adventure, ethnic ingredients are now being spotted outside of those neighborhoods. In fact, ethnic ingredients are on mainstream commercial chain menus at a faster rate than ever before. Additionally, more ethnic-branded chain restaurant concepts exist today than ever before and it seems as if restaurants across the country are trying to identify their consumer's tolerance level for new flavor profiles and forms. Are authentic ingredients and ethnic flavors added to familiar dishes enough to satisfy our ethnic cravings, or is the U.S. consumer eventually going to seek more authenticity in cuisine and atmosphere from chain restaurants?

I think we can all agree that when it comes to food, authenticity can be like walking a tight rope with American consumers. Too authentic, and some may consider the food unapproachable or too much of a risk. A modern, yet established atmosphere has been adopted by most ethnic fast casual chains. Recently, however, more authentic concepts, when it comes to branding and atmosphere, are popping up. ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, owned by parent company Chipotle Mexican Grill, is opening its third location serving customizable ingredients modeled on cuisine from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Beyond the green papaya slaw and chicken satay menu items featured, there are also some unique authentic cues in their dining area which includes a Coca-Cola soda fountain written in Thai, a brand that is impossible not to recognize no matter what language. This small token of culture can bring about a level of believability and trust to an ethnic restaurant concept. A NYC Chinatown restaurant has gotten a lot of attention by featuring an artisan hand pulling noodles in the front window, adding a whole new level of culture, quality and authenticity.

Fast Casual chains embracing ethnic menus

As a restaurant segment, Fast Casual chains own the idea of customization and simplicity, so when it comes to ethnic foods this is a distinct advantage for consumers. They know trying a new cuisine is much less risky in an assembly line model, where they can pick and choose ingredients. This is the perfect environment to push the boundaries on authentic flavors; more exotic ingredients can be featured for the adventurous diner because customization reduces the risk greatly. But it's key to remember that authenticity is not always the hook, the most successful fastest growing ethnic chains, like Chipotle for instance, is not offering the most authentic burritos but they definitely tout freshness and quality. New Palo Alto concept, Asian Box, is an excellent example of an ethnic concept that touts all- natural and made-in-house marinades and sauces, yet walks that fine line of authentic flavors with tamarind vinaigrette and Asian street dust, a blend of spices to top your customized box with sweet and salty blend of spices.

Forms are important to ethnic cuisine, that's what tells the customer the difference between an Indian uttapam and dosa, both made out of the same fermented rice and lentil batter but one being thick like a pizza and the later thin like a crepe. If experimenting with authentic forms, such as Chinese steamed buns offered at Wow Bao in Chicago, some fillings should be familiar and approachable like their teriyaki chicken and BBQ pork baos. Kogi truck chef Roy Choi's famous Korean BBQ taco helped us understand the value of ethnic fusion, making a Korean-inspired taco familiar enough to go mainstream. In NYC's Times Square, Nuchas offers Argentinean empanadas filled with short rib and one with jambalaya. American regional cuisine fusion makes some of our favorite American flavors just a bit more interesting.

QSRs playing in the space

Don't forget about targeting ethnic consumers with menu offerings. QSR burger giant, McDonald's and others have targeted Hispanic Americans with items like Real Fruit Mango Pineapple Smoothie which delivers on bright fresh flavor, native ingredients, and highlights quality. They advertise this item on TV in both Spanish and English. Domino's has had success driving this group in with promotional tactics like their Perfect Combo, a national launched meal bundle inspired by Hispanic customer feedback. The combo includes two medium one-topping pizzas, 2 liter of Coca-Cola product, 16 piece Parmesan Bread Bites, and 8-piece Cinna Stix for $19.99 for families or large groups. Pizza Patron ran a promotion for a free pizza for any customer who orders in Spanish, calling it Pizza Por Favor. Andrew Gamm, Pizza Patron's Brand Director, believes "Only the companies that are committed to developing relationships with the Hispanic market are going to succeed."

Fast Casual is seeing success with ethnic concepts and is helping mainstream American's take a big step into worldly cuisines. Remember the most successful concepts are not serving the most authentic food; it is freshness, quality and flavor that consumers desire. Try twists on authentic forms to bring new and unique items to your menu but small authentic cues that add value and believability to the restaurant environment.

Cover photo: Harrysfoodblog

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • todd semrau
    I couldn't agree more with Chef Price regarding her commentary; "The ethnic food revolution is here" November 28, 2012. She is spot on in her views regarding the recent rise in ethnic food profiles that go well beyond the Mexican, Italian and Chinese fare that American's have become so accustomed to. I have seen a lot of interest from my clients in exploring African, Indian and far flung Asian concepts. Chef Price is also correct in that any new ethnic concept must be packaged in a way that's approachable and not too exotic to avoid chasing away potential customers. It is imperative that the concept development and branding are carefully thought out and positioned for any new restaurant venturing into this exciting territory. Todd Semrau, Owner Urban Eats Consulting Group
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