Web Exclusive | June 2014 | By Alex Dixon

Ethnic Cuisines Take Root

From Thai and Korean to Peruvian and Nordic, global foods are going mainstream in limited-service industry.
Fast food restaurants serve ethnic food options to curious customers.
Viva Chicken in Charlotte, North Carolina, serves up Peruvian cuisine in a fast-casual setting. Viva Chicken
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After visiting numerous Peruvian rotisserie chicken places with his wife, a Peru native, Randy Garcia had an idea: He wanted to combine the feel of the restaurants he’d seen throughout Peru with a modern, fast-casual format. That idea came to fruition when he opened Viva Chicken in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2013.

“Since I’ve been with my wife, she’s taken me to all these places, but I’ve never seen one done in the way we did it,” Garcia says. “We’ve done a really contemporary look as opposed to most of the places I’ve been to, [which] have been very ethnic.”

Just as Peruvian food is growing in popularity through Viva Chicken and other limited-service restaurants, other ethnic cuisines have spread to the mainstream in the U.S. thanks largely to the success of the fast-casual category. From Yum! Brands testing a banh mi shop in Dallas to foreign brands like Giraffas expanding their U.S. presence, more ethnic concepts are finding potential in the American palate.

Part of this success is due to the fact that more Americans are traveling abroad, increasing access to information about global cuisine, says Maeve Webster, senior director of market research firm Datassential.

“I think you’re also seeing a lot of newer cultures featured in popular media, whether it’s movies or books, and all of that certainly contributes to Americans interest and comfort with that cuisine,” Webster says. “The other thing we’ve got is continued and growing immigration into this country, and as more people from various cultures move here, they’re bringing their food with them and they are meeting more people. As they integrate into society, they can help increase awareness and interest in that cuisine.”

Datassential outlines four phases for trends that take hold in the foodservice industry, like ethnic cuisines: inception, adoption, proliferation, and ubiquity. During the inception phase, operators who menu the trends are often fine-dining or independent operators. Casual-dining restaurants pick up the trend as it moves to the adoption phase, and then there’s the proliferation stage, in which the trend has been validated for a mass audience and it is present at quick-service brands.

Peruvian, North African, and Nordic cuisines are some that are emerging in the inception trend phase, according to Datassential.

Midscale dining is usually the last to implement a trend, at the ubiquity stage, when the trend has been firmly established across all segments, as is the case with cuisines such as Mexican and Italian.

Peruvian, North African, and Nordic cuisines are some that are emerging in the inception trend phase, according to Datassential, while Thai, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, and Spanish/Tapas have moved into the adoption phase.

“Peruvian food is the fastest-growing cuisine that’s out right now, so hopefully we’re just ahead of the curve a little bit,” Viva Chicken’s Garcia says.

But Webster says certain elements of individual cuisines will move faster than the cuisine itself. She points to Indian food, which she says is still early in its trend cycle.

“Curries and chutneys and some elements of Indian cuisine have moved fairly quickly, and you will see those items at [quick-service] operations that increase its awareness and availability through the U.S. market. Those items can pull the rest of the cuisine through the menu adoption cycle.”

Annika Stensson, senior manager of research communications for the National Restaurant Association, says menu adoption at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants often begins with spices and herbs rather than the main proteins of ethnic foods.

“You can still prepare ethnic flavors with the same chicken that you use for your regular chicken sandwich,” Stensson says. “It’s more on the flavoring side than the protein or starch side.”

However, as ethnic trends grow in popularity, challenges arise in retaining the cuisine’s authenticity. Availability, for example, is a major barrier, Webster says.

“If you’re talking about a large-scale, high-volume quick-service operator, just having [ingredients] available in the country is one thing, but having it available in the volume and consistency that that kind of operator needs is another issue altogether,” she says.

Another barrier is cost, Webster adds. “[Global cuisine] products are very often more expensive than other ingredients restaurants could potentially use … to create maybe not the most authentic item, but something that’s as close to authentic as they can present without completely eliminating their profit margin,” she says.

The most authentic and expensive ingredients can also be the most polarizing, Webster says, and can make it difficult to incorporate in a limited-service setting.

Garcia says the Peruvian chicken is the star of the Viva Chicken menu, but adds that the menu is designed to appeal to everybody, with vegetarian options, steak, pork, salads, appetizers, sandwiches, and wraps.

That kind of appeal is helping to establish ethnic cuisine as a more prominent force in the limited-service industry.

“Ethnic cuisine is a long-term trend that’s been going on for the last couple of decades … so it’s not necessarily for the specialty target audiences like it maybe was 20 years ago,” Stensson says. “Now it’s sort of for everyone, just for variety.”