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    The Sauce is the Boss

  • Quick serves turn to condiment innovation to give guests the customization they want.

    California Tortilla draws customers with popular Wall of Flame.

    Quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants are meeting today’s demand for variety head-on, but they’re not just doing it with menu diversification. Some are providing customers with greater selections in the condiments they offer, allowing guests to customize their own meal with expansive condiment bars.

    And it’s not just a rote selection they’re offering, either; these are top-notch products, since it seems traditional line-ups of mustard, mayo, ketchup, and ranch dressing simply don’t, well, cut the mustard anymore.

    Perhaps the ultimate in condiment choices is Rockville, Maryland–based California Tortilla, whose Wall of Flame with 75 hot sauces has attracted a cult following over the 17 years the chain has been open.

    “People began coming to us because of our Wall of Flame,” says vice president of operations Keith Goldman. “It really has become one of our brand identifiers. And it really fits in well with our culinary focus because we have so many different flavors and we view the hot-sauce wall as the accent.”

    The sauce selection at California Tortilla has grown over the years.

    “As we added more and more sauces to the selection, people became more and more interested in the different flavors and varieties of hot sauces,” Goldman says. “To some it became one of the biggest reasons for frequenting California Tortilla; for others it was an introduction to flavors they had never experienced before.”

    Customers came to expect that a comprehensive list of hot sauces would always be available “and that California Tortilla would carefully select the list the same way a sommelier would put together a great wine list for a restaurant,” he adds.

    Companies just getting started with condiment innovation, however, don’t have that customer expectation and must craft their condiment programs with consumer demand in mind.

    Customize, customize, customize

    “People really want to customize their meal, and the hot sauce is a perfect vehicle to give that perfect accent of flavor that makes it so they can’t get that anywhere else,” Goldman explains.

    Alkis Crassas, president of Tampa, Florida–based EVOS, also believes that the customization factor is most important when it comes to condiments.

    “People like to customize more and more, so giving them the option to do so is our chance,” he says. “People are more sophisticated and aware of what their needs are—nutritionally and for quality.”

    EVOS doesn’t quite have a Wall of Flame, but it does have a Ketchup Karma Bar. It features the chain’s four signature flavored ketchups: Original Americana, Cayenne Firewalker, Mesquite Magic, and Garlic Gravity.

    “It’s taken us years to get to these four flavors,” Crassas explains, “and they are very equally consumed.” There have been other varieties, including a coriander ketchup that had a loyal following, “but not loyal enough,” Crassas says.

    Diners have come to expect customization wherever they can get it, says Kathy Hayden, a foodservice analyst with Mintel.

    “It’s diners in the driver’s seat,” she says. “They want an element of control, whether it’s calling ahead to make sure their food is ready when they want it or mixing and matching condiments.”

    Doing things the customer’s way is the name of the game at Mooyah, too.

    The 23-unit burger chain offers its own Mooyah Sauce (which bears some resemblance to Thousand Island dressing) on top of Heinz ketchup, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, French’s mustard, KC Masterpiece BBQ sauce, A1 sauce, Hidden Valley Ranch, Cholula sauce, and Frank’s Original buffalo sauce.

    “One of the key tenets of our business is ‘a million ways to love your burger,’ so we need to have a variety of condiments,” says Michael Mabry, director of franchise and culinary for Mooyah. “Customers want customization. They want their burger their way.”

    But along with variety, it’s also very important to Mooyah that all of its sauces, except its Mooyah Sauce, are brand names.

    “They’re the highest quality, the most recognized,” Mabry says. “Brand names show quality and show we are listening to our guests. There’s a reason these brands are No. 1 sellers and that’s because that’s what the consumer wants.”

    Quality is key

    Condiment quality is a must across the board for operators.

    Though that’s the case at California Tortilla, offering dozens of hot sauces was originally a joke, Goldman says. “But over the years we’ve found there were a lot of real, fanatical people out there who love hot sauce,” he says. “So I became more interested in it and we started to build a list of sauces that were quality and had good ingredients.”

    Now the quality of the sauces is the focal point, Goldman says. “We started to pick the sauces we carry based on their ingredients. I want to see that the first ingredient is a pepper and that it has fresh lime or fresh cilantro in it. It used to be vinegar primarily, but I think people need more and more flavors.”

    Having high-quality condiments is essential, Hayden says, because so many customers have traded down to quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants from casual dining in recent years.

    “Once people trade down, they’re accustomed to something new and you can now keep them coming back,” she adds.

    Aaron Noveshen, founder and president of The Culinary Edge, a consulting firm in San Francisco, also says that restaurants are upscaling their condiments.

    Aïoli, for example, “is starting to pop up everywhere in the mainstream and is appearing in quick-serve restaurants,” he says. “It’s a way of upscaling mayonnaise and giving mayonnaise more cachet. But it’s hit the prime time.”

    With so many companies expanding their menus and serving innovative foods, customers have come to expect high-quality everything, says Scott Redler, COO of Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers. Redler says his Wichita, Kansas–based concept strives to meet those demands by stepping up its condiment quality.