With more and more consumers diving into exotic flavors, the idea of opening an ethnic quick serve is becoming more feasible than ever for operators with diverse culinary backgrounds.
And with ethnic minorities poised to become the majority in just a few short decades, limited-service ethnic concepts are only poised to increase in the future, says Qaiser Kazmi, founder and CEO of Merzi, a Washington, D.C.–based fast-casual Indian concept “with a British accent.” At Merzi, Kazmi blends the English influence of his youth with traditional Indian flavors.
Steven Chan, founder and CEO of Tin Drum AsiaCafé, says ethnic quick serves are well positioned for growth, thanks in part to the fact that the flavor profile across restaurants and across the country is continually expanding.
This means it’s now easier to persuade consumers to experiment with dishes they may not have tried before.
Chan also says even non-ethnic brands are using foreign flavors and dishes, such as sriracha and Korean barbecue, which also eases customers into trying ethnic cuisines, as well.
Kazmi says that because American diners are naturally inquisitive, coaxing them into trying ethnic cuisines may be easier than many tend to think.
“[America’s] a country of learning. People want to know what’s going on, what’s happening, and they want to add to the knowledge that they already have,” he says, adding that this allows ethnic brands to educate customers about international cuisines.
But that can also be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to operating an ethnic quick serve, Chan says.
“In an Asian concept, which I believe is still quite new, you want to take baby steps,” he says. “You don’t want to just put it all in front of the consumer at one time. You have to take time to just step by step have them learn about the concept.”
This can be accomplished through both an easy-to-comprehend menuboard, as well as a staff that’s accessible and helpful. The process can also be simplified if ethnic brands make sure not to go overboard on the concept’s culture.
“The truth is, we’re playing in the U.S. market, and sometimes you go too deep into the culture, into the ethnic part of the concept,” Chan says.
“You have to have just the right touch of ethnic in it,” he says, “but not overly done.”
This goes not only for the environment of the concept, but its food, as well. Chan says ethnic brand owners must balance between authentic dishes and American tastes.
Kazmi says a good rule of thumb is the simpler a dish, the better.
“In QSR, you’ve got to be careful not to make it too complicated, where you can give people something that we call ‘decision fatigue,’” he says, adding that it’s wise to steer clear of items that are completely unfamiliar to American diners.
“If you give someone something outlandishly strange that you may eat in your own country, but people don’t eat over here,” this can spell disaster, Kazmi says.
He adds that it’s also important to test more authentic offerings on a test market before adding it to your chain-wide menu, or else you can risk wasting a lot of money on items that Americans won’t purchase.
This topic will be covered in depth at this year’s Dine America, the executive conference hosted by QSR September 12–14 in Atlanta. Visit www.DineAmerica.us  for the schedule, and register at http://dineamerica.us/registration .
By Mary Avant