Sponsored by Cholula Foodservice.
In the four decades since Burger King told customers to “Have it your way,” diners’ drive to customize their meals has grown significantly. According to studies conducted by Chicago-based Mintel Research in fast casual restaurants alone, 30 percent of millennials say the ability to customize their meals is important when considering which restaurants they’ll visit. In other words, they like having the power to make their dishes powerfully flavorful. Restaurants have met the challenge by giving customers more control over the flavoring experience at the table and, in essence, letting them have the final say over the flavor of their foods.
But while giving patrons the ability to customize a menu item to their liking can be good for business, having the wrong condiment choices can be risky business.
Phil Friedman, chief executive of Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based chain, says, “Our culinary team works hard to create signature flavor profiles which distinguish Salsarita’s from the competition while pleasing its customers. So the decision on what condiments to make available becomes a carefully scrutinized process,” Friedman says.” For example, hot sauce — there are so many popular brands, yet we found most of them to have a sharp, vinegary heat which competed with or masked our unique flavor notes. Then we discovered Cholula Hot Sauce. Cholula was special; it had a unique flavor that complemented and never overwhelmed our food flavors.”
Today at all 80 of the chain's locations customers can choose from five varieties of Cholula Hot Sauce: Original, Green Pepper, Chili Lime, Chili Garlic and Chipotle. They are accessible at every condiment station in caddies which customers can take to their table, he says.
Customizing condiments is also very popular. Gastropubs serve labor-intensive frites with dipping sauces like chipotle ketchup, fiery honey mustard and creamy salsa verde. And at chicken wing spots the sauce options never end. Meanwhile, some high-end restaurants offer a range of boutique olive oils and aged vinegars for salad accents, while others roll out a variety of pepper sauce options for added zing. Condiment stations are now condiment bars where customers add exotic sauces accented with harissa, cilantro or smoked chiles.
Mintel found that millennials are especially predisposed to wanting exotic flavors in their foods. Unlike previous American generations, they’ve grown up amid great culinary diversity. Ketchup, mayo and mustard are still popular with these 19- to 35-year olds, but the adventure begins with bold ethnic flavors from Latin American, African, Indian and Asian traditions. Yet these flavors aren’t just appearing on foods in ethnic restaurants. According to a Datassential study, many of the fastest growing authentic ethnic flavors are appearing on nonethnic menus.
According to Friedman, “It’s not just millennials who love to punch up the flavors on their plates, it’s the majority of our customers.”
He stresses that variety also is key, and that Salsarita’s customers don’t always stick with just one type of sauce. Cholula’s Original pepper sauce is their top choice, while Chili Lime is the runner up. But overall, “We move lots of it,” he says.
Salsarita’s do-it-yourself hot sauce success isn’t an isolated example of consumers’ appreciation of spicier foods. According to a 2015 NPD SupplyTrack study, cases of hot sauce shipped to foodservice outlets increased by double digits from 2012 to 2014. Yet the growth of hot sauce use is also happening in the home. NPD reported that 56 percent of households have hot sauce on hand in their kitchens.
“Hot sauce is clearly part of the diet of many U.S. consumers, and it’s a food that crosses gender, age, ethnicity and income,” says Annie Roberts, vice president of NPD SupplyTrack.
Yet, as Roberts adds, “It’s important to know specifics about who uses hot pepper sauces most often. As a seasoning category, they are huge,” she says, adding, “For restaurateurs it’s about understanding the category’s share.”
In an NPD National Eating Trends study, researchers found that most often hot sauces are added to foods eaten by males, rather than females, but not by much more. Both genders appear to like some sizzle in their fare.
Friedman says he’d love to know which sauces they prefer to add to which dishes so his culinary team would have more clues as to how customers might want their food seasoned in the kitchen beforehand.
In the coming year, however, his chefs are moving to create as many as eight customized bold flavored sauces to be used in future LTOs. Accented with a variety of Cholula products, the sauces will be added to foods in the kitchen and will begin rolling out in 2017. Teaming up with Cholula’s culinary team, he adds, has been crucial to developing those sauces.
With the finishing touch to the final flavor experience left in the hands of your customers, you might take some time to rethink your condiments to be sure they are working for you and not against you. At the end of the day, it’s the final flavor experience your customers enjoy which distinguishes your operation and keeps them coming back!