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.
The Island Fire sandwiches have a sweet habanero sauce for an extra kick. “You always have guests who want more spices or who might think it’s too hot, but I really think we were able to find the right spices with this,” Petersson says.
Most diners expect hot and spicy when they visit a Mexican restaurant, since chile peppers are so much a part of that ethnic cuisine.
“We do chilies in just about everything,” says Ted Stoner, director of strategic product development at Qdoba Mexican Grill. “We use seven different chilies across our menu, and all but one of our sauces use jalapeños.” The one exception is the habanero sauce.
“Chilies serve a dual purpose,” Stoner says. Just as different chilies and spices have various levels of heat, they have a range of flavor profiles, he says.
Chipotles, which are smoke-dried jalapeños, provide smokiness, while anchos (dried poblanos) have more of a sweet, dried fruit quality. Qdoba also employs poblanos and dried California and New Mexico red peppers.
“It’s up to chefs to understand the nuances of these chilies to provide the most depth in flavor and how the flavor lingers,” Stoner says.
The chain’s ancho chile barbecue sauce, inspired by Mexican mole, includes several chilies, with flavors of hickory, mesquite, and chocolate. Qdoba’s salsas range from mild (traditional pico de gallo) to extra hot (habanero).
At TacoTime, the hottest item on the menuboard is the 5-Alarm Burrito, which uses the chain’s fiery 5-Alarm salsa made with red peppers and red chile paste. The sauce “has the perfect amount of burn,” says brand president Kevin Gingrich.
Early Asian influences on the U.S. palate came from Chinese restaurants that catered to tame American taste buds. More recently, however, the spicy flavors of China’s Szechuan province, Thailand, and other parts of Southeast Asia have come to the fore.
“It’s more of a flavor profile in the Asian community to have the heat,” says Geoff Alexander, vice president of the six-unit Wow Bao, part of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. “We do more heat than spice. Heat is more digestible on the palate.”
Wow Bao has two particularly hot baos and bowls, Spicy Kung Pao and Spicy Mongolian Beef, the latter being the second-biggest selling item across the chain’s six units. “People are looking for heat to heighten their meal experience,” he says.
Panda Express has also found that the demand for hotter dishes has increased, and it has a range of spicy items on the menu, including the sweet and mildly spicy Orange Chicken, its most popular dish. The Kung Pao chicken is slighter hotter because it is not sweet.
“Sugar cuts the power,” says Andy Kao, executive chef of product innovations for the 1,600-store company based in Rosemead, California. The company uses whole and crushed chile peppers, as well as ingredients like gochujang, a Korean condiment
with red chile.
In the fall, Panda Express launched Sriracha Shrimp as an LTO, with shrimp, string beans, bell peppers, and sriracha sauce.
Sriracha, a popular Thai-influenced sauce, is made from ground red chile peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. It has gained a fervent following for its bold flavor, and “a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon,” says Food Genius’s Stanley.
“Sriracha has a bold tangy flavor and is very versatile, allowing its popularity to expand outside the Asian community and into the mainstream culinary world,” Panda Express’s Kao says.
Subway is also using a version of the sauce, having launched the Sriracha Chicken Melt and Sriracha Steak Melt in the fall as part of a Fiery Footlong Collection.
“We are looking at the food trends and are intrigued by the way different foods are changing in the world,” says Subway’s executive chef, Chris Martone. Sriracha is a “flavor trend, and we wanted to offer that.”
The sriracha melts feature a creamy sriracha sauce made with a number of chilies and garlic. The sandwiches also incorporate pepper jack cheese.
“The great thing about sriracha is there’s real flavor to it,” Martone says, adding that the Subway version is not shy on heat. “Sometimes with a chain our size, you look for a sweet spot to appeal to a broader audience. But this is hot. For our segment, this is aggressive.”
Sauce-maker Kikkoman USA also makes sriracha, with chilies cured by vinegar, garlic, and sugar. Its heat is “geared to the back half of the mouth,” says Debbie Carpenter, senior manager of national foodservice and marketing for Kikkoman.
The company, originally known for Japanese sauces, also has a sweet and spicy Thai chile sauce and developed a wasabi sauce made from the Japanese horseradish-like root.
“\It’s not nearly as hot as a wasabi paste,” she says of Kikkoman’s sauce. “I showed it at a school event, dipping chicken in it. Some of the attendees said, ‘Oh, no, no, not wasabi.’ But I told them not to let the word scare them. This won’t grab your tongue.”