In mid-to-late-20th-century America, this country was teeming with so-called “meat ’n’ potatoes” diners. These consumers’ satisfaction with their meals was determined to a large degree by whether said meals were built around a slab of animal protein and a basic starch—often potatoes or white rice. Their palates were relatively inexperienced. Novel herbs, provocative spices, and strong, piquant seasonings were rare, and acceptable deviations from the norm were generally few.
To some extent, this lack of culinary adventurousness reflected a lack of exposure to other cultures. But times have changed—rather radically, in fact. Today, we have a younger generation—the so-called Millennials born between 1980 and the early aughts—that has grown up in a more multicultural America. They’ve broken bread with friends and neighbors from countries and regions around the world. They’ve sampled fare at the vast range of ethnic restaurants in our cities and suburbs. They’ve come of age with the Internet and cable TV, both of which have exposed them to a host of different cultures and cuisines. And they’ve traveled—extensively.
The market research firm Mintel has reported that more than 60 percent of younger Millennials consider themselves “adventurous eaters.” The combination of experiencing other cultures firsthand and coming of age in a more multicultural environment has made it tougher, if not outright impossible, for restaurant chains to lure Millennials with straightforward meat and potatoes offerings. That’s why it’s increasingly important that limited-service chains work harder to attract young diners with culinary forms and flavors that speak to their unprecedented worldliness and interest in exotic tastes and textures.
Fortunately, just about every geographic region on Earth offers the thrill of discovery. In the past 30 years, Americans have become increasingly well acquainted with the cuisines of Thailand, India, Japan, several Mediterranean countries, France, Germany, and Mexico, among others. Now, at CCD Innovation, we’re seeing in our various trend surveys a growing interest in some traditionally lower-profile cuisines of Europe and the Americas. By adapting some of the signature forms and flavors of these heretofore unsung cuisines, operators may be able to identify the next big thing.
Old-world tastes inspire
The cuisines of Spain, Greece, and the countries of Scandinavia are trending among U.S. chefs with a taste for the exotic.
From Spain, there are many forms and dishes worth appropriating, from fideos—a sort of toasted angel hair pasta that’s broken into pieces and served with various meats and vegetables—to distinctive meatballs, fritters, and rice dishes. And from a flavor standpoint, Spanish cuisine derives much of its continental appeal from its liberal use of smoked paprika, smoked and dried meats, olives and olive oil, sherry, vinegar, and various cheeses. And then, of course, there are tapas, which address Millennials’ desire for variety, portion control, and flavor adventure in one fell swoop.
Greek food is finding greater favor among Millennials as well, in forms ranging from flatbreads to skewers and spreads. The signature ingredients of Greek cooking are notable for their high healthfulness quotient, as well as their bold and bright flavor profiles. Some of the most distinctive include citrus, garlic, olive oil, oregano, yogurt, cheese, mint, and cucumber.
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, there is growing excitement about the foods and food-preparation styles synonymous with Scandinavia: pickled vegetables and fish, interesting berries, savory pancakes used as carriers, potatoes, cheeses, mushrooms, and meatballs. To wit: The Viking Soul Food cart in Portland, Oregon, proudly offers a delicious pølse sausage with Jarlsberg cheese, lingonberries, and Dijon mustard, all wrapped in Norwegian potato lefse, or flatbread. And at Pläj in San Francisco, diners can choose a creative treatment of Swedish meatballs, or a delicious serving of greens with persimmon, Danish Blue cheese, dill vinaigrette, pomegranate seeds, and candied almonds.
New-world accents with high adaptation potential
Various cuisines of Central and South America also provide a host of forms worth investigating, from the Salvadoran pupusa—a thick corn tortilla filled with cheese, meat, and beans—to the more pastry-like empanada and the arepa corn flatbread native to Venezuela. All could be effectively leveraged, with minor modifications, in quick-serve environments.
On the flavor and ingredient side, Salvadoran cuisine is rich with chilies, plantains, cheeses, and a fermented slaw known as curtido. Peruvian cuisine is a consummate fusion of Spanish, French, Italian, Asian, and North African traditions, with plenty of lamb, stir-fried beef, beer, garlic, chilies, quinoa, rice, and pickles. And both Brazilian and Argentine cuisines are rife with steak, ribs, sausages, and condiments ranging from chimichurri to aji amarillo paste.
As quick-serve and fast-casual chains continue working to capture the loyalty of the Millennial generation, each of these cuisines may be worth investigating further to determine whether its signature forms and flavors can form the basis for new menu items, or for updates to existing ones. As always, I’d be interested in hearing what you come up with. Drop me a line at [email protected]