Now trending: A new twist on Asian flavors

Now trending: A new twist on Asian flavors

Editor's note: This is part 1 in a series called, "Now trending." Each story will dissect an upcoming fast casual trend.

By Moritz Breuninger, A.T. Kearney

With mainstream restaurant chains struggling to grow, an emerging segment of Asian foods and flavors may be one key to changing the game. There are promising opportunities today to integrate Asian appetizers, entrees, drinks and desserts that are in demand by Generation X and Millennials. This is an Asian food revolution so don’t mistake this for anything you know or are already serving. To take advantage of this, each restaurant format needs to assess the cuisine and flavor profile fit against their brand position, customer base, menu and their operational capability to make it a success. 

The David vs. Goliath Struggle
The restaurant industry in the U.S. is experiencing a fundamental shift toward a new age where growth is no longer coming from large traditional chains such as Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel, or Carrabba’s, but instead small independents and completely new concepts. Millennials and Gen X are shifting expenditures away from material things towards experiences and dining out, but the “Goliaths” of the foodservice industry have been struggling to capitalize. Even worse, large chains are experiencing a recession with declining same-store sales and traffic. And while the most recent data shows some signs of industry recovery, the winners are still not the big guys. Small independents and innovative fast casual concepts have done well to draw in customers with on-trend items, particularly authentic ethnic food options and a new wave of Asian food.

From ethnic to mainstream
In fact, Americans are consuming more Asian food than ever before. It is becoming a staple of our diet regardless of heritage. Yes, Asian food and flavors are not new, but they are now reaching critical mass and go far beyond just “Americanized” Chinese food and sushi. Even globally, Asian food has been the fastest growing food category for years now according to Euromonitor.

Asian food is no longer limited to simple and cheap "mom & pop" restaurants. The perception of low-cost, low-quality Asian food is being put in the rear-view mirror. In the market, you can find premium entrees and appetizers in full service restaurant chains, upscale Asian fast-casual restaurants and throughout contracted food service menus, especially in universities. Our perception of Asian food is being transformed and updated with new flavors, meals, and innovative restaurant concepts. Asian food and flavors are pushing toward the mainstream.

The New America
So, what has changed with Asian food consumption? There are three primary factors that are bringing this new wave of Asian food to the mainstream: 

  • Strong demographic shift towards Asians living in the US and attending higher education here. Immigration from Asia now surpasses any other minority with 39 percent share according to Pew Research while universities’ share of international students from Asia has never been higher. 
  • Millennials and Gen Z want to try new foods. Out with old and boring. In with new ways of finding, consuming, and reviewing new cuisine. These are explorers looking to find something different and exciting that they can post on Instagram and review on Yelp. 
  • Desire for more bold and spicy flavors that Asian food offers. In a recent study, Mintel researchers found these age groups “to be more adventurous with their palates, and seek out ethnic flavors like Chilean and Korean, as well as spicy peppers and flavor.”

Move over Chinese and Japanese cuisine
What are the growing types of foods and flavors? While Chinese and Japanese cuisines still dominate in the market as they have done for decades, consumers are moving beyond these standbys into new territories. They are more sophisticated and crave different experiences, trying new flavors and new cuisines. Authenticity is important to them. Beginning to bridge the gap to the Chinese and Japanese cuisines are Southeast Asian (Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian), Korean and Indian.

Through the analysis of food and beverage items appearing on more than 7,500 current menus in North America, Korean menu items, while less penetrated compared to Chinese showed the fastest growth in amongst the Asian cuisines.  Other attractive, well-represented cuisine with menu item growth was Vietnamese.

The new Teriyaki
Consumers, bored with traditional flavors like teriyaki and sweet and sour sauce are looking to experiment and try bold flavors. One of the best examples is the exponential growth of Sriracha over the past decade, with its origins in a town called "Sri Rancha" in Thailand. What started as a condiment in local ethnic Asian restaurants bridged over to the mainstream to flavor ready to cook protein, dipping sauces and added to packaged foods. 

Today, there is already a whole range of new bold and spicy sauces in the market poised to replicate this growth and become ‘the next Sriracha’. Ghost Pepper from India, Sambal from Southeast Asia, and Gochujang from Korea. They are famous in their countries of origin yet relatively unknown still in the US. Gochujang, for example, is a sweet and spicy fermented chili that comes in a paste or sauce. Leading chains have only recently begun to experiment and innovate with Gochujang, adding it to burgers or as a cooking sauce. The number of listed menu items featuring Gochujang has rapidly increased over the past three years, but is still far from the level of penetration of teriyaki or even Sriracha sauce.

Chart: Technomic

Cover photo: istock

Topics: Trends / Statistics

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