Holy jalapeno! How hot will menus get?

July 16, 2014 | by Alicia Kelso
Holy jalapeno! How hot will menus get?

The temperature isn't the only thing rising this summer. Restaurant dishes are too, courtesy of increasingly ubiquitous ingredients such as Sriracha and jalapenos.

The demand for a little heat picked up a little bit around 2006, with concepts such as Carl’s Jr. responding with a Jalapeno Burger. At that time, CMO Brad Haley said “not long ago, the idea of making a burger with jalapenos would have been rejected because of limited appeal. But things have changed dramatically.”

However, menus began to cool in 2008, when a salmonella outbreak was traced back to jalapenos, causing brands such as Qdoba and Chipotle to stop service. Fast forward a few years and restaurant concepts across every segment are not only bringing back the heat, but dialing it up a few notches.

Just within the past year or two, for example, Jack in the Box introduced a new Jalapeno Ranch Ultimate Cheeseburger and a Hella-peno Burger, while Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s added a Jalapeno Big Chicken Fillet Sandwich and a jalapeno turkey burger. Cousins added jalapenos and jalapeno cheddar to its Chipotle Chicken sub, while Pretzelmaker came out with a jalapeno dog. Whataburger even began celebrating Jalapeno Week in January.

Fast casual concepts from Veggie Grill to Newk’s and Barberitos to Corner Bakery began spicing up their offerings with jalapenos, chile peppers, poblano peppers and habanero peppers.

Pizza brands jumped on board, too. Mazzio’s launched a jalapeno-stuffed crust in May, while Pizza Patron’s La Chingona featured jalapeno-infused pepperoni as well as fresh-diced jalapenos. That offering set all-time sales records for the company, underscoring the demand for more spice.  

Sriracha ‘skyrockets’

Jalapenos aren’t the only ingredient setting mouths ablaze. Sriracha is also popping up on menus across the industry, from White Castle’s Sriracha Chicken Sliders, to Subway’s Sriracha Chicken Melt and Bruegger’s Sriracha mustard and Sriracha Egg Sandwich. BD’s Mongolian Grill serves Sriracha ketchup, while Ledo pizza recently began offering Sriracha Jumbo Wings.

Sriracha, according to CCD Innovation, is in 2014 what chipotle was in 2009.

“When CCDI covered Sriracha in its 2011 report, the sauce had spawned its own cookbook,” a CCDI report recently wrote. “Since then it has birthed its own festival, documentary, a second cookbook and a stunning array of food products … There’s no question: Sriracha is hot right now.”

Quartz, an online news source, reported in January that the U.S. hot sauce market has grown 150 percent since 2000. As with the growth in jalapenos, many analysts attribute the growth in Sriracha to the adventurous palate of younger generations, as well as its versatility.

“I believe the reason Sriracha sauce and jalapenos have become so popular reflects consumers’ growing preference for pepper flavor and heat,” said Darrel R. Suderman, Ph.D., president of Food Technical Consulting. “They can be applied to a wide range of products that cover ever QSR menu daypart, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, afternoon, dinner or late night.”

Whereas jalapenos used to be found mostly on spicy-focused concepts (Church’s Chicken, for example, used to be the largest importer of jalapeno peppers), they are now found on every day menus at brands as large as McDonald’s and Subway, Suderman said.

Part of a larger trend – ethnicity and diversity

According to information from Food Genius, jalapeno mentions have grown by 3 percent on unique menus across all segments in the past year. Overall, jalapenos have grown by 8 percent on unique chain menus across all segments in the same time period, and 3 percent on independent menus.

Overall, Food Genius reports, jalapenos have grown 100 percent in terms of item percentage across all segments, from 1 to 2 percent in the past year. They are now available at 35 percent of all locations, up from 25 percent a year ago.

“We believe the rise in jalapeno mentions is part of an overall theme we’ve noticed in the growth of spicy ingredients. This is also being fueled by the alignment of two larger themes – growth in ethnic flavors in more diverse segments, and the need for operators to market to Millennials that crave more adventurous flavors,” Food Genius CEO/Founder Justin Massa said.

McAlister’s Corporate Executive Chef David Gross said spicy is becoming more approachable, and lends itself to interaction, another Millennial-driven trend.

“With spicy it’s fun, you can put some in the food and some on the side and let customers dial it up as much as they want. It allows them to interact with their food,” he said.

With that said, these ingredients may very well be just the tip of the iceberg (heatberg?).  

“Foodservice providers would be wise to experiment with other pepper sauces to set themselves apart from the Sriracha-selling pack,” the CCDI report suggests. “Consider alternative peppers such as Anaheim, Peppadew or Poblano to stand out from the pack, or explore different applications that haven’t yet been widely covered.”

Photo provided by Wikipedia.

Topics: Food & Beverage, Research & Development / Innovation, Trends / Statistics

Alicia Kelso
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine. View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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