The Flavor Experience 2012

The annual Flavor Experience conference brings together leading chain operators and their food & beverage suppliers.  Conference sessions include the latest consumer research, menu ideas and hands-on experiences. The conference experience also includes non-stop flavor tasting and networking opportunities.

Current Menu and Flavor Trends

Sandwich Sensations – Globally inspired ingredients are adding appeal to this already popular category.  The big news is in the wrap – naan is the latest to gain a following.


Baby Bites – Small plates are no longer a trend they just are.  Making a big impression are baby bites like cicchetti which are tiny bar snacks rounding out the menus in salumerias.


Grains – From whole wheat to ancient grains, consumers are captivated with the taste, texture and health benefits.  Quinoa has become a mainstream ingredient in healthy salads and even traditional ethnic foods are offering whole wheat options like Chinese Bao with a whole wheat bun.


Pork On The Menu – Pork belly has gone well beyond the realm of fine dining as chefs are turning it into a custard delicacy – now it’s easy to find a pork belly sandwich is most major cities.  Porchetta that is made fresh daily is another slow food gaining favor.  Bier gardens are driving demand for sausage in a wide range of venues and pork is being added to new custom meat grinds to increase flavor variety at a moderate food cost.


The New Value is Under $10 – A few years ago there was a lot of talk about $10 burgers in New York, today it’s $10 tacos at Unforked outside of Kansas City.  It seems mainstream Americans are more and more willing to fork over the cash for premium product.


Asian Goes from Bowl to Box to Bao to Burger – Asian flavors continue to be popular and drive menus.  Vietnamese is emerging as the healthiest among Asian flavor aficionados.  White Castle has introduced a noodle concept, Chipotle opened ShopHouse, and Asian Box, a new concept in Palo Alto, was also featured at this conference.


Burger Boom – There is no slowing down with this trend as independent operators in major cities put their own spin on the burger.  Chicago, for example, is becoming known for grass-fed beef burgers.


Secret Menus – The customer is in control with off menu items that are often made available to keep loyal customers.  Anytime menus feed the snacking trend.


Red Sauce Renaissance – The rise of family recipes with chef driven interpretations has given new life to grandma’s red gravy.


Rise of The Restaurant Butchers – Nose to tail fanatics who butcher not only for the restaurant but for retail sale in the refrigerated case are giving food safety extremists pause, but consumers are flocking in and restaurateur/butchers are selling out almost as fast as they can fill the case.


Bar Snacks – Feeding the bite size boon, housemade bar snacks are adding profits and customer satisfaction.  Look to nuts, deviled eggs, pretzels, olives and popcorn as crowd pleasers.  Jasper’s even offers a prize at the bottom of ballpark popcorn – a tattoo with the restaurant’s logo.



Ethnic Goes Mainstream

While the big three still top the list, Latin, Asian and Mediterranean, niche cuisines like Peruvian, Moroccan, and Ethiopian are slowly making their way onto menus.  Classic preparations like the tagine and braising techniques make the flavors from these cuisines appealing to consumers who are looking for more adventure.



Feeding Foodies

Foodies are important because they are the first to try new menu items, but mainstream consumers are important as the are loyal customers who love their tried and true choices, according to research presented by the Culinary Visions® Panel.


Foodies have strong preferences for ethnic menu items and value quality and homemade taste before they consider price in their purchase decisions.  They also prefer bitter, sour and umami flavors.  Mainstream consumers have a different relationship with food; they are price conscious, food traditionalists who favor sweet and salty flavors.


The secret to captivating them both can be done by balancing flavors and adding a little culinary adventure as alternatives to favorite menu items without going too far beyond the comfort zone of regular customers.




Emerging Segment – Drug Stores

Referred to in one presentation as the attack of the drug stores, upscale foodservice offerings are now available in some major market stores.  Duane Reade and Walgreen’s both offer everything from ultra premium wines and sushi to fresh grab-and-go items directly competing with local restaurants and gourmet retailers.

The Julia Generation

Several presenters opened their presentations with comments about Julia Child’s impact on today’s culinary scene as the 100th anniversary of her birthday approaches on August 15th.  Yet the impact of Julia Child is strongest on the 50+ demographic, which is a big target for many restaurant companies.

Consumers 50+ go out to restaurants with the greatest frequency, they purchase alcoholic beverages, more add-ons, and in desserts.  Although the Millennials may spend a larger percentage of their income on food away from home, it is far less than the boomers and beyond.


Trend Talk

An annual feature of the Flavor Experience is a discussion and debate of the emerging food trends.  Following are trends that captured the greatest discussion:

  • Tropical Flavors – pineapple, mango and coconut are finding their ways into salsa, beverages and ingredients across the menu.
  • Tea – as a beverage, customized blends, different varietals for different times of day and even as a cooking method in items like tea-smoked shrimp.
  • Clean Cuisine – fresh and simple menus with attention to local sourcing and green operations.
  • Slaw – inspired blends beyond the basic slaw, housemade upgrades used as a sandwich layer or a base for seafood entrees to add a fresh and flavorful crunch.
  • Pickling and Fermenting – housemade pickled vegetables offered as garnishes or sold as bar snacks.
  • Layered and Loaded – indulgence reigns supreme with layered desserts, salads, sandwiches, and the infamous fries.
  • Bubbly Beverages – the old fashioned soda fountain returns with made-to-order flavored sparkling beverages.  Sparkling beverages are often said to become popular as they portend good times to come.
  • Breakfast All Day – the big news in breakfast is egg white, ethnic flavors and protein for energy.
  • Super Foods – interest in foods with high nutritional density are broadening the focus beyond just super fruits.


Taste Talk Tweet

Nutrition is of interest to 36% of consumers, who check restaurant websites prior to dining out.  Trending ethnic restaurants according to Flavor Experience attendees are Ethiopian, soul food, Moroccan, Korean, Vietnamese, and Peruvian.  Some also noted that Millennials, more than any other age group, are interested in trying new flavors as well as ethnic flavors.


If you would like to follow our observations in real time, please follow us at  The next conference we will cover the National Association of Convenience Stores, October 7-10.




Implications for Food Marketers:

  • Flavor Forward Solutions.  Whether it is adding flavor to classic comfort or an ethnic-inspired item, effective use of flavor continues to drive value and customer satisfaction.
  • The Consumer Is The Curator of His/Her Own Culinary Identity. Today’s consumer is active and in charge when it comes to the foods they like and the places they like to eat thanks to Pinterest and other similar sites.  Savvy marketers have learned how to stimulate or join the conversation, not just react to fallout.
  • Understand The Consumer’s Relationship With Food.  Demographics are only the beginning of understanding how to please today’s consumer, and understanding their relationship with food is key to success.
  • Create a Healthy Halo.  Consumers evaluate the criteria of healthfulness on many levels including ingredients, emotion and social concern.  Understand what’s relevant to your customers.  Traditional claims were “low in (ingredient),” whereas the contemporary claims that sell are fresh, homemade, not processed.  Ethical food is becoming a cue for healthy.






Copyright Olson Communications, Inc., 2012

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