In terms of seasonings and spices, the limited-service industry has been bending one direction for a while: global. Panera Bread offered ramen-like umami soy-miso broth bowls earlier this year and is now featuring Baja and Mediterranean grain bowls. Arby’s has a Roast Beef Gyro on the menu complete with Greek seasoning and tzatziki sauce.
“Nothing says ‘I am an adventurous eater and interesting person’ like eating a gyro at Arby’s,” the marketing messaging on the brand’s online menu says. This taps into the appeal of such an offering—expanding one’s palate and discovering new cuisines. Additionally, a huge incentive to get flavors like these on menus is the pursuit of making health-driven dishes like salads and protein bowls more attractive to guests. “Customer trends are going to continue moving toward diversity and convenience while focusing on healthy food options,” says Sonia Hoon, social media manager at four-location, Washington, D.C.–based Indian brand Spice 6.
This is true for the D.C.-based, veggie-forward concept Beefsteak by José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, where seasonings and spices are used to bring the flavors of vegetables to life. The goal is to offer guests a memorable, craveable, and well-balanced meal. “Within our bowls, sandwiches, and salads, we assemble ingredients that are crisp, crunchy, saucy, sweet, salty, and savory through our sauces, dressings, grains, proteins, and fresh and crunchy toppings,” says Eric Martino, COO of ThinkFoodGroup. Balance for Beefsteak and so many other health-driven concepts like it, then, is achieved through flavor, and the flavors that are resonating most with guests today are Mediterranean tastes, heat-driven spices, and herbs that add a layer of freshness to ordinary menu items.
“We are loving za’atar,” Martino says of the traditional Mediterranean spice mix. “This is a family of herbs, as well as a spice mixture typically used as a condiment, containing herbs along with toasted sesame seeds, dried sumac, and often salt.”
Earlier in 2019, 21-unit Daphne’s launched a Za’atar Shrimp Plate to much customer demand. The brand focuses on incorporating traditional Mediterranean flavors into items that resonate with a Southern California audience. “Oftentimes, that includes playing with new and unexpected spice combinations,” says David Eldredge, director of marketing. Around the same time as the shrimp plate, Daphne’s also launched three limited-time offers that featured a turmeric and tahini sauce.
Items like turmeric tahini sauce and the Za’atar Shrimp Plate help Daphne’s give exciting flavor experiences to guests while also offering food that is healthy, fresh, and quickly prepared. “The Mediterranean fast-casual segment has exploded in the last few years, and we expect that trend will continue as more traditional Mediterranean spices make their way onto menus in new ways,” Eldredge says.
Harissa, a Mediterranean tomato and chile paste, is also stepping up to the plate in a major way this year. Daphne’s, for one, developed its proprietary harissa ketchup that offers the flavor profile of the authentic Mediterranean spice in the approachable American package of ketchup. “It gives guests the confidence to try menu items that they normally wouldn’t expect themselves to enjoy, or items that are out of their comfort zone,” Eldredge says.
CAVA already featured harissa on the menu as a spicy table spread and ingredient in its popular Spicy Lamb Meatballs, but the brand dove deeper into the harissa trend this fall by offering a Harissa Honey Chicken, the first new protein the brand has debuted in four years.
To kick the heat up even higher, CAVA also introduced Fresno peppers to its line as a bright, tangy new topping. “The fiery yet balanced flavor of Fresno peppers amplifies meals and invites our guests to challenge their taste buds,” says Chelsea Grieco, a CAVA spokeswoman.
Choolaah Indian BBQ is also betting that the market continues trending toward heat. “As we move into the fall and winter months, consumers tend to gravitate to more full-bodied, robust-tasting flavors often accompanied with a little spicy zing,” says Randhir Sethi, co-CEO. The Indian concept is taking a cue from brands like Daphne’s to develop proprietary sauces available in retail, like hot and barbecue sauces.
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Similarly repackaging Indian cuisine in a way that is accessible for an American audience, Spice 6 offers naan pizzas and customizable rice bowls that are dressed up with bold, diverse Indian spices. “Spice profiles such as curry and cardamom will continue to see a surge,” Hoon says. She also believes heat will continue to capture guests in the near future.
Herb-forward seasonings have found their place on menus lately, too. Daphne’s offers a Chicken Sharwarma Pita Melt with cinnamon and pesto flavors, and Beefsteak has found much success with its daily-brewed Lavender Lemonade, which is made from steeping dried lavender in lemonade for an aromatic, robust, sweet, and savory refreshment.
Additionally, in the pursuit of making healthy menu items flavorful and attainable, brands have begun rethinking the bases to many sauces that carry seasoning and spices. Take, for instance, CAVA’s vegan garlic dressing that leverages aquafaba (chickpea water) as a binder from the brand’s house-made falafel—an ingredient that previously didn’t have a use at the restaurant. “Garlic is a central ingredient throughout Mediterranean tastes, and the chickpea aquafaba implemented in this recipe goes even further to create a vegan dressing that’s richly Mediterranean,” Grieco says.
Asian flavors, too, such as Mulberry & Vine’s Sesame Scallion Tofu and Noodles World Kitchen’s Spicy Korean Beef, continue to drive consumer interest. Both Justin Schwartz, cofounder and nutrition director at Mulberry & Vine, and Nick Graff, vice president of culinary at Noodles World Kitchen, see Korean chile paste gochujang and its dried counterpart gochugaru continuing to trend on menus.
For innovators in the industry, the diversity of trending spices and seasonings is good news; there’s a lot to play with. And for guests, there’s a lot to discover.
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