When it comes to Latin American flavors in U.S. foodservice, culinary styles from across Mexico dominate the category, with flavors from the rest of Central America, South America and the Caribbean gaining market share. Latin America is huge. Consisting of 33 countries and home to roughly 659 million people, Latin American cuisine is wonderfully diverse. It varies greatly by country (and native ingredients) as well as the speciﬁc regions within each country. While food in Central America tends to be on the mild side, and staples like ripe plantains are served with every meal, Caribbean cuisine derives its bold ﬂavor from ingredients like garlic, ginger, cinnamon, and all spice instead of chile peppers. Mexican food is what people in our country know best, but it’s really just a slice of the big Latin American pie.
Hispanic Heritage Month, which ran from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, is a great opportunity to get customers to experience and enjoy the expansiveness of Latin and Latin-influenced cuisine. The reality is that American consumers, including the approximately 19 percent of the U.S. population that identifies as Hispanic or Latino, are increasingly enjoying more adventurous flavors from these regions all year long. A key driver for the increase in popularity for Latin flavors in the U.S. is the category’s inherent and unique ability to mesh well with a wide range of other global cuisines’ ingredients and cooking methods. This is inspiring foodservice chefs, especially in the quick-service space, to innovate menus with recipes that create combinations and mashups that infuse flavors from Latin America with ingredients and dishes from across the spectrum of international cuisines, including Asian and Middle Eastern.
Consider the taco, a simple menu item with roots as a street food from Mexico. For operators, the taco is a nearly perfect vehicle for a Latin flavored mashup. Popular versions in foodservice include Korean, Filipino, and Middle Eastern variations. In fact, the well-loved tacos “al pastor” style originated in the 1930s from Puebla, Mexico, by Lebanese immigrants to the region. Even France, the birthplace of haute cuisine, offers a version of the taco, typically found in snack bars and fast-food places, the French taco uses halal meat with various toppings, usually fries, cheese sauce, vegetables, and often includes eggs, bacon, and ham, all wrapped in a flour tortilla and grilled, panini-style.
While kudos and media attention around menu innovation and untraditional recipes is nice, quick-service restaurants are for-profit organizations, and menu innovation must contribute to growth, with long-term economic benefits to the restaurant organization and brand. Menu creativity must be subject to constantly run menu margin analysis to identify the high movers that drive high profit - and discard and winnow items that don’t pull their weight. The infusion of Latin flavors can be an effective way to elevate menus in a time when costs continue to be of concern and diners are looking for new options.
A core ingredient of many Latin recipes is the pepper. Technically a berry fruit, the delightfully flavorful pepper offers flavor exploration and versatility. Because of this versatility, it’s no surprise to anyone that all peppers have seen double-digit growth in menu penetration over the past several years-and they are getting easier to use. For example, instead of using back-of-house staff to stem, seed, toast, soak and purée dried peppers, they can be delivered in the form of pastes, addressing staffing and labor challenges, without losing any of their vibrant flavor. Take the Guajillo from Mexico, a very accessible pepper widely used in foodservice for marinades, salsas, pastes, butters, with the dried, pulverized powder used as spice rubs to flavor proteins, fat, and oils with other ingredients. One example of a powerful Latin flavor/global cuisine combination is pork and pineapple, a popular protein based sweet-savory pairing with roots in the cuisine of Hawaii, served with a guajillo chile sauce. The ancho pepper, (the dried version of the poblano pepper known for mild to medium heat) is extremely popular as a marinade for various chicken recipes as well as a main ingredient in many salsas and hot sauces, and Ancho chiles are also used to enhance chocolate-based desserts like cakes and brownies.
Going beyond peppers, there is the increasing popularity of menu items that include another fruit, the avocado. The average American now eats nearly 8 pounds of avocado per year, and although the Mexican state of Michoacán is the avocado capital of the world, avocados have established themselves as a staple ingredient across the Asian cuisine landscape, including Korean-style guacamole, as a dessert ingredient in Filipino recipes, and of course, a staple in any menu that includes sushi e.g., the ubiquitous California Roll. Most quick-service restaurants with menus heavy on sandwiches and burgers offer avocado as a topping, and with breakfast burritos increasingly including avocados, and avocado toast notably taking the mantle as the breakfast of choice for millennials and Gen-Z, the avocado really pulls its weight as a menu item that can be spread across all dayparts as well as age demographics.
Flavorful good-quality food is table stakes and when it comes to Latin flavors, it’s about incorporating bold, adventurous, new flavor, and much more, because in the current environment, operators are reliant on easy-to-use products they can use to consistently execute great food and service regardless of the staffing and labor challenges on any given day.
Ryan Michaelis is President of MegaMex Foods. MegaMex Foods, a joint venture between Hormel Foods and Herdez del Fuerte, is a leading full-line provider of Mexican foods in the retail, foodservice and convenience store channels with brands such as HERDEZ products, WHOLLY avocado and guacamole solutions, TRES COCINAS Authentic Pepper Pastes, LA VICTORIA salsas and sauces, EMBASA brand and DON MIGUEL brand products. Michaelis began his career with Hormel Foods in 1997 as a meat products sales representative in Denver, Colo. He assumed his current role in 2018.