As diners grow more adventurous, bold new high-end dishes can help restaurants draw in traffic.

Sponsored by Southeastern Mills.

Gourmet may not be the first word that comes to mind when most people think of quick-service or fast-casual restaurants, but changes in the American palate and lifestyle are driving more of these brands to embrace on-the-go upscale food offerings. As diners have become more comfortable with bold flavors, many are seeking restaurants that offer bold ethnic flavors and spicy dishes in convenient formats.

“In 2018, it seems like guests are becoming more adventurous in trying new flavors, textures, and ingredients, but people still want a quick-service meal,” says Nick Landry, culinary development chef at Southeastern Mills. “With bold new flavors starting out in independent restaurants, ‘on-the-go gourmet’ attracts those guests that just want something quick and don’t want to go to a full-service sit-down restaurant.”

This has created new opportunities for the quick-service and fast casual brands, because while many consumers want to try these new taste adventures, Landry says that many are not comfortable or willing to try creating them at home without exploring them at an affordable price point in a restaurant first. With proper marketing, restaurants can attract consumers and differentiate their menus by embracing these bold flavors with gourmet offerings that one would not traditionally find in quick service.

“With millennials being a huge part of the food industry and most of them considering themselves foodies, they want new things and are willing to eat gourmet items even if they are trying it for the first time,” Landry says. “If their experience eating the gourmet items on the menu is a success then you may have just won a repeat customer you were not getting in your restaurants before.”

Landry says that calling out specific upscale ingredients on menus can help restaurants attract diners to these gourmet offerings. “When restaurants call out specific peppers, like ghost, Calabrian, Aleppo, and aji, it’s considered a gourmet offering,” he says. “Then you can use terms like ‘poutine,’ ‘truffle,’ and more to further distinguish dishes. All those names sound high end to the average customer, and they become excited to eat dishes with them at an affordable cost.”

Capturing these bold flavors on the menu, however, can be a challenge for many restaurant brands. Not only is it difficult to anticipate which ingredients might play well within a regional audience, but it’s important to stay ahead of the competition. To make offering these unique ingredients easier, Landry suggests that food and beverage leaders pay attention to regional food trends, check out local competition, and review research provided by companies like Datassential, which analyzes menu and ingredient trends.

Additionally, to remove some of the burden of researching trends and formulating the proper seasoning blends, restaurants can partner with companies like Southeastern Mills to source high-quality proteins and seasonings for these gourmet offerings. “Chicken is the highest-consumed protein in the U.S., and we can flavor chicken in any way possible by way of dry seasonings in a marinade or using a base as a marinade,” Landry says. “Both these applications work great for grilled options. We also have a wide variety of coating systems with different flours, crumbs, cracker meal, and seasonings to give the right texture and flavor profile to meet consumers expectations for gourmet foods.”

Though bringing boldly flavored gourmet options to quick service and fast casual may seem daunting, the strategy can pay off for restaurants that get ahead of the trends.

“Be adventurous,” Landry says. “Try to be the first to market with the most unique gourmet items on your menu. Millennials are willing to take a chance and try something new. If you are first to market, you gain serious credibility as a trend leader and, at the end of the day, those are the customers you need to start bringing into your establishments.”

By Peggy Carouthers

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