Some like it hot. And some like it even hotter. Fiery dishes are heating up limited-service menus as operators increasingly recognize consumers’ growing interest in spicy, hot entrées.
A 2013 Consumer Flavor Trend Report by Chicago-based restaurant market research firm Technomic found that a majority of Americans (54 percent) now prefer hot or spicy foods, sauces, dips, and condiments. That’s up from 48 percent in 2011 and 46 percent in 2009.
“The demand for spicy foods has been trending upward, but the size of the increase this time was a little more than expected,” says Kelly Weikel, senior consumer research manager at Technomic. It shows in all dayparts, she adds.
The shift to tongue-tingling chile peppers and other hot and spicy items is led by Millennials and other adventurous diners seeking more robust flavors. The appeal of hot, spicy foods is highest—more than 60 percent—among 18–34-year-olds, although Technomic’s study found that a preference for hotter, spicier items rose among most age groups.
“Millennials like hot, spicy foods because of their experience with more ethnic foods, like Hispanic and Asian,” Weikel says.
During a recent six-month period, hot and spicy items expanded from being at half to three quarters of all quick-service and fast-casual restaurant locations, according to research from Food Genius, a Chicago-based market research firm.
“There are a lot of different influences behind this,” says Benjamin Stanley, vice president of product at Food Genius. “The main one is the general rise in ethnic foods and ethnic flavors.”
Among the most popular flavors in hot sauces are jalapeño, cayenne, and red chile peppers, Technomic found. Increasingly, however, lesser-known habaneros, anchos, Szechuan peppers, and sriracha are gaining fans.
“Before, we only used to see jalapeño, but now there are all types of chilies being used,” says Jay Scroggins, culinologist at sausage maker Johnsonville, of Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. “I’ve been able to do a variety of recipes with peppers.”
That includes habanero-and-mango and chipotle-and-maple-syrup sausages. “We’re getting a lot of requests for heat and sweet,” he says. The company also does some regional favorites, such as Cajun andouille and Southwestern chorizo.
Food Genius research shows that the highest impact of spicy items on restaurant menus can be found in the South Central and East Central regions of the country.
“The large influence in the South Central is related to the growing Hispanic population,” as well as hot items popular around Louisiana, Stanley says. The East Central region is a little harder to explain, he says. “There’s just a lot of interest there.”
One reason may be that cayenne pepper–spiced chicken wings, created in Buffalo, New York, began to move across the country after a Buffalo native and his friend opened a small joint, Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck, in Columbus, Ohio, in 1982.
That single unit has grown into Buffalo Wild Wings and its more than 900 units. There are now thousands of chain and independent restaurants around the country serving chicken wings or pieces of chicken breast slathered in a wide variety of hot sauces.
Often, the hotter the sauce, the better. Wings restaurants give their sauces names like Blazin’, Atomic, and Homicide, or name their sauces for their heat-generating ingredients or style, like jalapeño, habanero, Caribbean jerk, Asian curry, and Louisiana rub.
“Customers have expanded their palate and want more choices,” says Eric Ruger, director of operations and marketing at Wings to Go and a franchisee for the 51-unit chain based in Millersville, Maryland. “Now there’s more fusion with spices and seasonings.”
At one time, the goal was to go even hotter, but now there’s more interest in different flavors, he says. Wings to Go’s Asian Fusion wings, for instance, are sweet at first, deliver a teriyaki taste after a few wings, and finish hot as the habanero builds heat.
Cayenne is also in the DNA at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Cayenne and other peppers give zing to the Atlanta-based chain’s original chicken, created more than 40 years ago.
“It’s safe to say we use a blend of capsicum,” says Amy Alarcon, vice president of culinary innovation for the 2,150-unit chain. Bone-in chicken is marinated with a dry rub blend for at least 12 hours and then breaded, she says.
Popeyes’ sauces use various peppers, along with Cajun seasonings or Louisiana Hot Sauce, a popular cayenne pepper condiment also served at the restaurants. The chain also used Tabasco sauce in some earlier limited-time offerings.
One of its popular LTOs is Rip’n Chick’n. It’s a chicken breast, cut into pull-apart strips that can be ripped off, marinated in a hot blend of cayenne, habanero, and white and black peppers before being breaded, deep fried, and served with a dipping sauce.
“Hot food is all about the sensory experience,” Alarcon says. The Rip’n Chick’n “doesn’t hit you at first. It just keeps growing with so many unique characteristics.”
Wendy’s was one of the first burger restaurants to bring real heat to its menu, although that occurred in an indirect manner. The company has had chili on the menu from the beginning, but when the chain added a taco salad in the 1980s, customers began using the salad’s hot sauce in their chili. The company eventually decided to offer the condiment with the spicy stew.
By the 1990s, spokesman Denny Lynch says, guests were using the hot sauce on various other menu items, but particularly chicken sandwiches. That led to the launch of the Spicy Chicken sandwich, featuring cayenne and other spices in the breading.
Other restaurants created their own spicy chicken sandwiches, and several have turned up the heat. Last fall, Sonic developed a Spicy Classic Chicken sandwich, Island Fire chicken and cheeseburger entrées, and a Southwest Chipotle breakfast burrito.
“We wanted to add some spice,” says Claes Petersson, chef and vice president of product innovation at Sonic. At the same time, “we didn’t want to make it so spicy to scare people away.”
The chef says he dove into Sonic’s library of recipes and fine-tuned some for the new products. The breast meat in the spicy chicken sandwich, for instance, is spiced with a “Tabasco-ish marinade” that includes cayenne.