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Global Flavors Enhance Snacks, Desserts and Comfort Foods

Emerging ingredients in familiar forms can generate product trial, menu excitement.

New Year, New Formats: How to Infuse Comfort Foods with Global Flavors

Menu innovation often involves putting a new spin on familiar dishes and experimenting with emerging flavors and ingredients—particularly those found in global cuisine.

Many operators have discovered that customers are more willing to try new flavors if they appear in dishes that are already familiar and beloved. Offering such items as shareable appetizers or snacks gives guests a low-risk way to explore new taste experiences—without committing to a full entrée they may or may not like. These pairings also give operators a platform for testing new ingredients—and for using existing ingredients in different ways.

Bringing ethnic cuisine to American palates can manifest in countless ways. Here are a few recent examples of innovative offerings with global influences.

A&W Sriracha Cheese Curds

A&W Sriracha Cheese Curds

One of the keys to introducing new flavors or global cuisine is to use familiar forms so the dish isn’t completely foreign to customers. A&W Restaurants recently introduced Sriracha Cheese Curds, made with Wisconsin white cheddar cheese and Sriracha seasoning. The item allows customers to sample a trending ingredient on a food they likely know well already. For those customers already familiar with Sriracha, it also offers a fun change of pace.

Spot Dessert Bar Yuzu Eskimo

Spot Dessert Bar Yuzu Eskimo

Asian dessert shops, which often combine Asian ingredients in familiar forms (such as cake or ice cream), have been gaining traction around the country. Spot Dessert Bar’s two New York-based locations offer a variety of such items, including the Yuzu Eskimo—a citrus cream bar with an OREO crust. The combination of a familiar form (the ice cream bar) with an emerging ingredient—identified as “citrus” in the menu description—may make the offering more approachable to consumers unfamiliar with the flavor of yuzu.

Fox & Hound Crispy Thai Ribs

Fox & Hound Crispy Thai Ribs

Another way to introduce innovation to the menu is to borrow from global cuisines. This limited time offer from casual dining concept Fox & Hound allowed customers to experience Thai flavors through a classic comfort food: baby back ribs. The battered and fried ribs were marinated in Thai sweet chili sauce and topped with sesame seeds. The Asian-influenced variation on sweet-and-spicy BBQ sauces likely appealed to rib lovers unfamiliar with the flavor profile of Thai sweet chili sauce.

The Cheesecake Factory Cheeseburger Spring Rolls

The Cheesecake Factory Cheeseburger Spring Rolls

This hybrid combines the flavors and form of two cultural favorites—cheeseburgers and Chinese spring rolls—in an appetizer stuffed with Certified Angus ground beef, melted cheese and grilled onions. Several restaurants around the country have reimagined egg rolls with Jewish deli-style fillings, including pastrami and corned beef. New York's RedFarm, for example, is known for its Katz’s Pastrami Egg Rolls, while the appropriately named Asian Corned Beef in Detroit offers its signature Corned Beef Egg Rolls.

Find more appetizer and snack inspiration in the Mondelēz International Foodservice Culinary Center.

Interest in global flavors and ingredients remains strong in 2021, as consumers continue to seek out new flavor experiences at foodservice operations.

Snacks, desserts and appetizers can be an effective vehicle for introducing consumers to emerging global flavors and ingredients. According to Allison Rittman, corporate research chef at Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Culinary Culture, consumers are often more willing to experiment with new flavors if they can sample them in small quantities—and in forms that are familiar, such as pizza bites or chicken wings.

“Those categories tend to lend themselves to flavor exploration that’s a safe risk,” Rittman explains. “People might be willing to try a new spice on a chicken wing, but maybe not on a pizza that the whole family is going to eat.”

After a year in which many in the industry were focused on implementing safety protocols and optimizing their menus for takeout and delivery, restaurant operators are expected to spend 2021 prioritizing menu innovation, with on-trend flavors and ingredients leading the way. A&W Restaurants, for example, recently capitalized on the growing popularity of Sriracha sauce with the introduction of a Sriracha Cheese Curds limited time offer that combines fried Wisconsin white cheddar cheese with Sriracha seasoning.

Adrienne Cheatham, a private chef who contributes culinary content for the Institute of Culinary Education, says the shareable nature of snacks, desserts and appetizers makes these dishes ideal for flavor experimentation when consumers are enjoying meals at home with family. Replacing the paprika on a deviled egg appetizer with berbere—an Ethiopian spice blend that imparts a peppery, tangy flavor sometimes compared to a fiery barbecue seasoning—is one way to achieve this, she suggests.

Rethinking comfort foods

Consumers have enjoyed familiar comfort foods during the pandemic, and they are ready to explore these items in new forms and with new ingredients.

Rittman cites fried pickles as an example of a snackable, bite-size comfort-food item that could be given a twist by adding some Nashville hot sauce to the batter. “People know Nashville hot sauce and they know fried pickles, but maybe they have never had the two together,” she explains.

Comfort foods with a better-for-you twist also could spark consumer interest in 2021, Rittman continues. Some consumers may view french-fried avocados, for example, as a healthier version of a familiar, comfort-food format. “People might want their comfort foods to be a little healthier but still feel like they have indulged,” she says.

Comfort foods such as egg salads and potato salads also offer opportunities to introduce new ingredients and seasonings, Cheatham adds.

Flavoring proteins with global seasonings is another way to add variety to a menu in a familiar form, such as a sandwich. Cheatham suggests seasoning a turkey breast with berbere or za’atar, for example. “It can be just a little on the outside of the meat, so people get a small taste,” she says.

When it comes to desserts, consumers are also interested in global cuisine and globally influenced flavors and ingredients. A recent report on 2021 flavor trends from T. Hasegawa, a company that specializes in flavor creation, reveals that international flavors and ingredients in both dairy-based and baked dessert items are attracting consumer interest.

Dairy-based desserts featuring spicy ingredients and flavors with a health halo—including turmeric, acai, cardamom, matcha, yuzu, tahini and dulce de leche—are especially appealing, the report continues. Similarly, “offering more international bakery options for at-home consumption, like churro, dulce de leche or matcha, can appeal to consumers looking for internationally inspired options.”

Creating efficiencies

Operators’ quest for menu efficiencies and streamlined inventories to reduce costs also lends itself to menu innovation. “We’re seeing a lot of cross-utilization,” Rittman says, noting that restaurants are looking to make the most of the ingredients they already carry rather than adding more ingredients.

“A lot of the larger chains [are] looking for ways to use the ingredients they have on hand to create one new SKU instead of bringing in a bunch of new SKUs to create a whole new dish, which is what they have traditionally done,” she says.

One way operators might do this is to repurpose cookie piece inclusions normally used in a milkshake dessert item in a whole new dish, such as a brownie or miniature bundt cake.

Geographic shifts

The pandemic also appears to have accelerated a trend in which consumers are increasingly moving to smaller markets, including suburban and rural areas, and taking their culinary preferences with them. The shift has created what Datassential has dubbed “hipsturbia” enclaves outside of large urban areas, where consumers with sophisticated palates are seeking restaurants that offer global cuisines.

Datassential reports that opportunities may be emerging for cuisines that currently are offered mainly in large urban areas—such as Indian, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern—to move into smaller markets. This migration allows operators in these markets to experiment with emerging flavors and ingredients before they become mainstream, rather than waiting for them to catch on in large metropolitan areas.

“The demand will be there to have these kinds of foods and options outside of just ‘tier one’ city centers,” says Jack Li, Datassential’s CEO. “There’s going to be more opportunity to spread innovation into these areas—[something] you really didn’t have to do it in the past.”

The opportunities for restaurant operators to incorporate globally influenced flavors and ingredients are only expanding, as consumers continue to seek adventurous eating opportunities. As consumers move from dense urban areas into suburbs and smaller cities, they’re bringing their global food preferences with them, expanding the geographical opportunities for such fare.

Bite-size snacks, desserts and appetizers are ideal vehicles for flavor experimentation, as they allow consumers to sample new ingredients without committing to a full entrée.

Mondelēz International Foodservice offers resources for operators seeking to capitalize on flavor and ingredient trends, including this roundup of foodservice trends for the year ahead.

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