For roughly 15 years now, I’ve been privileged to occupy this space in QSR—sharing reflections, ruminations, recommendations, and research with you, the men and women responsible for the incredible upgrade in food quality and variety at quick-serve concepts over the past few decades.
Those of you who remember the hamburger, pizza, and sandwich chains of the 1970s and 1980s can testify that in those days, menus were a fraction as expansive as they are today, and food quality … well, when was the last time you saw a burger sitting under a heat lamp at a major chain? Beginning in the late 1980s or so, consumers began demanding more from their quick-serve experiences: a dizzying variety of options in beverages, entrées, and sides; fresher ingredients; ethnic twists on everyday favorites; salads and other healthy offerings; creative packaging for neater on-the-go dining; and value options galore.
The industry has risen to these demands with aplomb, introducing more and better products quickly without seriously compromising speed of service. I can’t offhand think of an industry sector that has evolved so successfully, and consistently, along with its consumers. The one constant, of course, has been the central, non-negotiable importance of taste. Consumers will in some cases trade speed for quality or variety, but when it comes to flavor, they stand firm. Always.
Which brings us to my final topic as QSR’s menu-development columnist: condiments. Their function, very simply, is to serve as taste enhancers, and they run the gamut from simple to complex. On the simpler side, think plant material such as herbs and roots, minerals/salts, seeds, spices, and juices. Then there are plant extracts, such as vanilla; mixtures of ingredients, like the combination of oregano and thyme, which together create a whole different type of flavor; and, finally, complex flavor systems composed of multiple ingredients, such as ketchup, mayo, mustard, and so on.
Condiments can’t fix a flawed menu item, but they can be transformational. Here are a few condiment trends worth noting.
Avocado oil gains favor
A condiment seldom has as many factors working in its favor as avocado oil. It’s vegan, heart-healthy, and free of sugar, gluten, and cholesterol. It’s satiating, with a clean, slightly nutty taste. It has a high smoke point and is suitable for several popular diets, including the paleo and keto regimens. Perhaps as a result, it’s turning up everywhere. In packaged goods and restaurants, you’ll find any number of condiments that showcase this unique oil: pesto, aioli, mayonnaise, dressings, hot sauces, spreads, dips, and many, many more. The relatively high cost may make it impractical for some quick-serve chains, but for those that can swing it, avocado oil offers significant consumer appeal.
Getting sweet on sour
My grandfather, who lived to the ripe old age of 92, drank pickle juice every day of his life and attributed his longevity to the stuff. I’m not sure I believe any single product or ingredient can extend someone’s life span, and I wouldn’t recommend opening a jar of kosher sours and knocking back the briny stuff therein. But with its probiotics and electrolytes, there are certainly arguments to be made for the nutritional value of this sour specialty. And this perhaps explains why pickles and pickle juice are red-hot at the moment. Ditto for kombucha, yogurt, sauerkraut, gastriques, and fruits and shrubs in flavors such as tamarind, hibiscus, and passionfruit. Millennials love sour for its tanginess and complex taste, so condiments that offer this intense flavor adventure may just be intriguing enough to pass muster with this sought-after consumer demographic.
Dip, dip away
Sauces and dressings offer plenty of coverage, whether they’re ladled on meat, salads, or sandwiches. But dips and spreads are giving these more traditional mealtime condiments a run for their money. The reason? When it comes to snacks especially, millennials and other young consumers seem to enjoy the active nature of dipping and spreading, as opposed to having their food pre-slathered and seasoned. Nowadays, instead of a salad tossed in dressing, we often see veggies replacing lettuce and other greens, and spreads replacing dressings. There’s simply more consumer involvement when you spread something or dip it compared with eating the whole shebang with a fork and knife.
Take a look in the refrigerated area of your local grocery store and you may find everything from fava bean aioli to sweet potato hummus, as well as other variants flavored with beets, avocado, and red bell peppers. Whipped feta, herb and cucumber tahini, salsa verde, tapenade—armed with compelling flavors and fresh ingredients, the world of dips and spreads is ripe for discovery.
Once again, my thanks to QSR for this unforgettable opportunity as columnist. And readers, please stay in touch! I remain at firstname.lastname@example.org.