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NPD: Consumers are seeking more bold, authentic flavors

NPD: Consumers are seeking more bold, authentic flavors

Mainstream Americans love their meat and potatoes, but now many also are embracing jalapeños and edamame—and they want restaurateurs to do the same.

Out of 21 flavors that consumers said they wanted to see more of on restaurant menus, Mexican/Latin/Spanish influences, Italian influences, garlic, hot/spicy and Asian influences topped the list, according to new data from The NPD Group for the year ended in February. Also popular were pepper, jalapeño, chocolate, citrus and teriyaki. The data also revealed that chili, curry, garlic and spicy were some of the preferred flavors for condiments and sauces.

“Consumers today are moving beyond the basics and looking for more interesting flavors,” said Bonnie Riggs, an analyst for the Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. “They are looking for bolder tastes and more authentic flavors.”

Increased travel and media exposure have made consumers more accepting of new cuisines, flavors and spices, Riggs said. The wider availability of new and authentic flavors and spices also is helping consumers become more knowledgeable about their food choices, she said.

Cravings vary by age, location

When it comes to the kinds of flavors and spices consumers say they want to see on restaurant menus, gender, age and region of residence all play a role.

According to NPD data, men want to spice up restaurant menus with such flavors as Cajun/Creole, peppercorn, horseradish, jalapeño, chipotle and wasabi, while women want to sweeten them up with such flavors as berry, chocolate, vanilla and cinnamon.

When it comes to food choices, adults over age 35 are the most interested in experiencing new flavors, the data show. In the year ended in February, adults ages 35 and older were more likely than younger consumers to have said that they wanted to see more Mexican/Latin/Spanish influences, Italian influences, garlic and Asian influences in restaurant meals.

While older consumers said they wanted to see more flavors on restaurant menus, the desire for spicy ingredients seems to fall off with age. Of consumers who said they wanted to see more hot/spicy flavors, 29 percent were between ages 35 and 49, 26 percent were between ages 50 and 64, and just 15 percent were 65 or older.

Where consumers live also appears to affect what flavors or spices they want to see on restaurant menus, according to the data. Consumers living in Western and Southwestern states showed a penchant for Mexican/Latin/Spanish influences and jalapeño flavor. Those living in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions largely said they wanted to eat more Italian and garlic.

In the states near the Gulf of Mexico, respondents said they wanted more hot/spicy flavors. Consumers living in the Northeast and Western regions of the country said they wanted to see more Asian influences and more flavors like pepper, chocolate, citrus, teriyaki, cilantro, Alfredo and vanilla.

“Restaurant operators and manufacturers need to consider generational differences and cultures when developing products with high flavor/spice profiles,” Riggs said. “They can also take advantage of regional tastes to create exciting product offerings.”

QSRs span the world

From burger joints to coffee chains, quick-service restaurants have been taking a cue from their table-service competitors and adding ethnic ingredients and bolder flavors to their menus.

“[Quick-service restaurants] have picked up on it and are making a success of it,” Riggs said. “In the last year, we’ve seen almost a proliferation of it.”

Heeding consumers’ desires for more flavors with Mexican, Latin and Spanish influences, a growing number of quick-service chains are adding such ingredients as chipotle, tequila and lime.

In April, Oakbrook, Ill.-based McDonald’s introduced its Southwest Salad, which features cilantro-lime glazed chicken, fire-roasted corn, roasted tomatoes, poblano peppers and chile-lime tortilla strips.

“People are being exposed to so many more ingredients and cultures, it only makes sense that McDonald’s embrace [them] as well,” said Dan Coudreaut, executive chef of McDonald’s USA.

The Southwest Salad is one of several ethnic-inspired products that the No. 1 burger chain has started offering in recent years. Others include the Asian Salad, which features orange glazed chicken, edamame and mandarin orange slices; and a Mexican-inspired chipotle barbecue dipping sauce for the chain’s popular Chicken Selects.

While Coudreaut said he was excited to push the envelope with new ingredients and flavors, he noted that the focus at McDonald’s would always be on items that appeal to a broad range of consumers.

San Diego-based Jack in the Box has been appealing to consumers’ desire for authentic Italian influences since 2005, when it first introduced burgers and sandwiches on ciabatta rolls.

“Consumers’ palates are more sophisticated today, and they’re looking for new and exciting flavors,” said Jack in the Box spokeswoman Kathleen Anthony. “We’ve introduced several menu items in recent years that offer bolder tastes, such as our Bruschetta Chicken Ciabatta, Chipotle Chicken Ciabatta and our new [limited-time only] BBQ Ranch Chicken Salad.”

While Anthony would not disclose specific sales information for the ciabatta products, she said consumer response to the Italian-style rolls has been “extremely positive.” The chain is hoping to have similar success satisfying consumers’ chocolate cravings with its new Chocolate Overload Cake, a bundt-style cake made from dark European and double-Dutch cocoa mixed with bittersweet chocolate chips and topped with a drizzle of chocolate butter-cream frosting

“Everybody loves chocolate and dessert, so it has a broad audience,” Anthony said.

With the June launch of a new lunch program in 22 markets, Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. is not only trying to appeal to consumers’ demand for more flavorful foods, but also is targeting them in specific markets.

“Consumers wanted more choice, interesting flavors,” said Starbucks spokeswoman Tricia Moriarty.

The program features two new ethnically influenced salads, the Tomato Mozzarella Insalata and the Fiesta Salad, which are available nationally. Other salads and snacks, such as the Asian Sesame Noodle Salad, White Chicken Curry with Couscous and Albacore Tuna Penne, are available in company-owned stores in select regions. According to Moriarty, the chain’s local food managers chose certain items to feature in their markets based on their appeal.

While bold ingredients and authentic flavors seem to be showing up on menus in nearly every restaurant category and segment, the midscale segment—in which NPD includes chains like Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, IHOP, Shoney’s and Perkins Restaurant and Bakery—does not seem to have taken note of consumers’ desire for more adventurous fare just yet, NPD officials said. But with consumers beginning to broaden their palates, Riggs warned, “If you don’t have [these flavors on your menu yet], you should.”

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