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By Cari Price, corporate chef at Food IQ
Burger-and-fry-loving consumers have been opening up to foreign cuisines, including Korean fried chicken, black rice, dumplings, kimchee, naan bread and Indian chutneys, more today than ever before. Many large cities have established districts around independently-owned restaurants that specialize in various cuisines, such as New York City's Little Italy and Chinatown.
Though we love those districts for their culture, authenticity and adventure, ethnic ingredients are now being spotted outside of these pockets. In fact, ethnic ingredients are appearing on mainstream commercial chain menus at an increasingly faster pace. Additionally, more ethnic-branded chain restaurant concepts exist today than in the past, and it seems as if restaurants across the country are trying to identify their consumer's tolerance level for new flavor profiles and forms.
There aren't signs of a trend slow-down. Technomic's recently released 2013 restaurant predictions included an increase in Asian fare, and more ethnic flavors — from American barbecue to Southeast Asian soups and sandwiches to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare.
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 limited-service chains. Recently, however, more authentic concepts, when it comes to branding and atmosphere, are popping up. For example, 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 the 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. Another example is 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 segment leading the trend
The fast casual segment is leading the idea of customization and simplicity, and 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, are not offering the most authentic burritos but are touting freshness and quality. New Palo Alto, Calif., 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 sweet and salty spices to top your customized box.
Forms are also important to ethnic cuisine. This is 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 latter 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 are also jumping on board
Don't forget about targeting ethnic consumers with menu offerings. McDonald's and others have targeted Hispanic Americans with items such as Real Fruit Mango Pineapple Smoothies which deliver on bright fresh flavor and native ingredients, and highlight quality. McDonald's advertises this item on TV in both Spanish and English.
Domino's has had success driving this group with promotional tactics like the Perfect Combo, a nationally-launched meal bundle inspired by Hispanic customer feedback. The combo includes two medium, one-topping pizzas, a 2 liter Coca-Cola product, 16-piece Parmesan Bread Bites, and 8-piece CinnaStix for $19.99 for families or large groups. Pizza Patron ran a promotion for a free pizza for any customer who ordered in Spanish, calling it Pizza Por Favor. Andrew Gamm, Pizza Patron's brand director, said: "Only the companies that are committed to developing relationships with the Hispanic market are going to succeed."
Limited-service restaurants are seeing success with ethnic concepts and are helping mainstream Americans 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.
Cari Price is corporate development chef at Food IQ. Her experience and expertise in nutrition, food marketing and the restaurant industry help her clients in the development of strategically relevant menu ideas.
Photo provided by Harrysfoodblog.
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