Menu Innovations | August 2012 | By Amanda Baltazar

The Sauce is the Boss

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California Tortilla draws customers with popular Wall of Flame offering.
California Tortilla draws customers with popular Wall of Flame.
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“The basic condiments done right are what the guests expect,” he says. “They want a little fun and the variety to the basics.”

“It’s the details that make the difference,” adds Shane Schaibly, corporate chef for Tampa-based Front Burner Brands, which owns Burger 21. The condiments add something extra to meals, he says, which really makes them stand out.

“Condiments could and should differentiate a chain, particularly in a crowded market,” Hayden says. “Even a partnership with a valued name brand is another way to differentiate.”

This differentiation means that the most popular condiments vary from restaurant chain to restaurant chain.

The popular picks

At California Tortilla, the favorite hot sauces are those containing mango. These have some heat but tend toward the medium to mild end of the scale. After those, the most popular are the hotter sauces. “People are always feeling challenged to try the hottest they can,” Goldman says.

Hot is also popular at Freddy’s. Some guests want their food kicked up a notch, Redler says. “They want a more intense flavor. Lots of people order jalapeños and grilled jalapeños.”

Burger 21’s most popular condiment is honey mustard, but otherwise, the popularity of sauces depends on the age of the diner, Schaibly says. Kids gravitate toward the chain’s toasted marshmallow syrup (especially good with shoestring sweet potato fries, Schaibly says) and the apple cider sauce.

Consumers are more adventurous now, he explains. “They don’t necessarily want an entire burger with this crazy sauce, but they will have a little taste of each sauce. Some people try all of them. But regulars know and go back for their favorite. They can have it added at the back-of-house if they know they love something. It takes away a step, and we find that most people actually want to add to their own meal a bit.”

Noveshen sees old-school sauces, such as Russian dressing and green goddess dressing, getting more popular.

“There’s still continued acceptance for these retro classics, but made with real ingredients,” he says. “It’s what Millennials want. It’s part of the transparency movement. It’s the simple, pure, and real. A lot of it’s about a connection—to a source, to an emotional tie, to history, or something that is real. Things are moving so quickly that the backlash is that people don’t have enough of those connections, so they seek them out.”

No matter the condiments operators serve, the experts say it’s important to keep the selection vibrant.

Every year Goldman switches out 10–12 of California Tortilla’s sauces. There are always complaints, he says, but alternatives are suggested to customers who complain, and that usually satisfies them.

Burger 21 also changes up its sauces from time to time. On top of ketchup, mustard, honey mustard, toasted marshmallow, and apple cider, the company offers Thai ketchup, chipotle mayo, and Ragin’ Cajun.

“It’s cool because they’re not on the menu anywhere, so we have a little freedom so we can turn on a dime and change the sauce and can put something crazy on there,” Schaibly says.

“We don’t necessarily change because a sauce isn’t working, but to change it up. And the guests love it; it’s fun. People become very passionate about their sauce and are in love with their sauce. They sometimes mix and match with half a pump of one and half a pump of another.”

The sweet spot

But what’s the saucy sweet spot when it comes to how many condiments to carry?

For California Tortilla, it’s 75. “I could have kept going, but it’s a significant investment in inventory, so you have to order enough of every sauce to keep it on your shelf and have a backup,” Goldman says. “We order two to three cases of each flavor at any time. So I drew the line at 75.”

Having learned the hard way, however, Goldman does tend to stick with hot sauces that come from just a dozen or so manufacturers.

“In the past I’d get mom and pops coming to me, and I’d give [their products] a try. But sometimes they go out of business and you have a hole on your list. And sometimes you can’t get some sauces because of problems in countries, like Costa Rica, for example.”

Burger 21’s Schaibly says it’s possible for condiment line-ups to get overwhelming. “In our restaurants, it’s more about the flavors and how you can combine them,” he says. “I think the sweet spot is 10.”

Moe’s Southwest Grill landed on five salsas “in order to provide a variety of heat level, flavor profiles, and ingredients,” says corporate chef Dan Barash. The chain offers five salsas, two of which rotate out every four to six months. They include pico de gallo, roasted corn pico de gallo, sour cream, jalapeño lime sour cream, cilantro bacon sour cream, guacamole, and queso.

“Knowing how much guest preferences vary and how much people appreciate customization, the more the merrier,” Barash says.

Moe's Raises the Bar

Moe's Southwest Grill let its guests participate in its condiment development with a contest that ran this summer.

Raise the Salsa Bar Contest launched May 24 on Facebook.

Guests were encouraged to submit their best original salsa recipe for a chance to have it featured alongside Moe's famous fresh-made salsas in the chain's salsa bars.

"Moe's fans know we offer free chips and a variety of salsas from our salsa bar with every meal," says spokeswoman Lauren Barash. "But many don't know that we have these rotating seasonal salsas that are made fresh daily and all of our salsas are made from all-natural ingredients. We're using this contest to get the word out about that in a fun and engaging way."

Voting for the contest was completed through Facebook and finalists will be tasted in different markets.

"The contest gives guests yet another way to express their creativity and customize their meal," says corporate chef Dan Barash.