With Spicy Food, Restaurants Search for Next Big Thing

    Whatever you do, don’t call spicy a trend.

    Spicy chicken sandwich.
    It’s not just fandom that keeps spicy menu items around.

    Spicy can be a hard category to define. While some customers like a hint, others look for a level that pushes the limits. But as seekers of all things hot continue to ask for more, in multiple forms, restaurants are listening.

    And whatever you do, don’t call spicy a trend.

    “Over my 30-plus year culinary career I can say one thing for sure: spice is here to stay,” says John LI, vice president of culinary innovation at Wendy’s. “Yes, trends and popularity of certain flavors and items evolve, but customers are always going to crave that spicy classic they know and love, or innovative item they’re interested in trying. There’s something about spice that ignites the senses and evokes more flavor than a regular item, and I don’t see that love for the category ever diminishing.”

    Wendy’s has supplied diners with spicy foods since the launch of its Spicy Chicken Sandwich in 1996. It’s been a rush ever since. When the chain briefly removed Spicy Chicken Nuggets from the menu in 2019, Li says customers were so vocal online Wendy’s was forced to reverse course.

    I can’t even imagine the social uproar we would receive if we dared to remove the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, which is why this menu item is here to stay,” Li says.

    It’s not just fandom that keeps the spicy menu items around. Li says Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich has been one of the restaurant’s best-selling items for as long as it can remember. Part of what makes Wendy’s spicy offerings so approachable and successful, Li adds, is there’s something for everyone, like the recent Jalapeño Popper Chicken Sandwich launch.

    There’s plenty of customizable options for customers to comfortably work their way up the spice ladder at Wendy’s,” he says.

    While he wouldn’t give specifics, Li says customers “can count on Wendy’s to always have something spicy up its sleeves.”

    Chicago-based fast casual Portillo’s takes a bit of a different approach. Until recently, one of the only spicy foods you could find on its menu was an Italian beef sandwich topped with hot giardiniera, a spicy Italian relish made up of pickled vegetables.

    Then came the chain’s own version of a spicy chicken sandwich. Garrett Kern, senior director of strategy at Portillo’s, says the brand wanted to make sure its product wasn’t just a trendy launch.

    “We realized we were well past the point of the spicy chicken sandwich craze fizzling out,” he says. “At that point we thought this [spicy chicken sandwich] is something that would definitely add meaningful traffic.”

    Unlike some brands that will introduce spicy items as LTOs, Kern says Portillo’s has no intentions of taking the spicy chicken sandwich off the menu.

    “This is a permanent item,” he says. “You see more and more places making spicy food a permanent part of the menu.”

    Kern says one of the reasons spicy foods are becoming more of a mainstay on menus is because spice is a taste and not a flavor—an important distinction. “You can have all sorts of different flavors that give you spice or pair wall of spice,” he says.

    Brian Loukmas, vice president of beverage innovation at Monin, shares Kern’s sentiment. Loukmas says he would even consider spicy a full-fledged category, with the caveat that certain levels of spiciness could be considered a trend.

    “There’s always that intensity with spice,” he says. “It really just depends on how intense you’re willing to go for. There’s the basic level of spice, like a spicy bloody Mary, and then you have things like inferno or three alarm wings.”

    Loukmas believes part of what’s driving spicy food fans to seek out heat is the fact younger generations were brought up with intense flavors, like hot chips, or sour candy.

    Spicy isn’t just limited to food, either, he says. Menus across the country are starting to feature spicy drinks, and not necessarily in the ways you would expect. Most people have come across a spicy margarita, but have you ever heard of a spicy milkshake?

    “When I look at an account and they have milkshakes on their menu, I always suggest throwing one spicy milkshake on there,” he says. “My go-to spicy milkshake is a habanero, peach milkshake.”

    Loukmas says the trend of finding the hottest peppers to make the spiciest food imaginable will eventually get to a point where it simply isn’t palatable. Certainly, there will be pepper-heads looking to push the envelope, but he believes restaurants will stick to finding flavors that excite the taste buds while remaining enjoyable. As far as what the future holds for spicy menu innovations, one thing is for sure: “Everyone’s looking for the next big thing,” he says. “That’s spicy food.”