Barbecue sandwich and fries
Barbecue flavor trends are branching in a variety of directions.

Food service operators are striving to take advantage of consumer demand for barbecue. The efforts range from the introduction of authentic applications that have been smoked in a slow and steady fashion to the development of sauces that add the perception of barbecue to menu items that have been prepared in a more efficient manner.

Research conducted by Datassential and included in a report titled “Menu Trends Keynote Report on Barbecue and Southern Foods” shows that more than half of all restaurants in the United States include some type of barbecue item on the menu. The reason is simple — barbecue has wide appeal with more than 95% of U.S. consumers saying they like the application and nearly one-third saying they eat barbecue or barbecue-sauced items in any given week, according to the market research firm.

To differentiate, restaurant operators are adding new flavors and preparations to their menus. Maple and buttermilk are the fastest growing flavors that are being added to barbecue on menus. Operators also are experimenting with adding ethnic flavors, with Korean and Mexican applications being the most common.

“Barbecue is a ubiquitous, well-loved platform,” said Jennifer Aranas, project director for Datassential. “It’s a staple you can find at every level of food service and in hospitals and K-12.”

The most important factor in barbecue is the meat, with chicken, pork and beef the most common found on menus.

“Chicken has the highest menu penetration,” Ms. Aranas said. “After that you see a lot of pork and beef.”

But she noted seafood and duck are trending.

“Duck is trending by double-digits over the past year,” she said. Ms. Aranas attributed the rise in barbecue duck to the rise of Asian cuisine.

She added that she was surprised to see seafood rising as a menu item. Wood planking is the primary method, and consumers may find items on the menus of such chains as Carraba’s Italian Grill, Red Lobster and California Pizza Kitchen.

As part of its research, Datassential also surveyed consumers to determine their barbecue flavor preferences.

“What rises to the top are smoky flavors followed by sweet and spicy,” Ms. Aranas said.

While smoke flavors generated by different processing methods are a staple of barbecue, sweet and spicy applications are being influenced by ethnic cuisines. The addition of sweet maple, a component of Korean barbecue, is a trend as well as the addition of such spicy ingredients as habanero and sriracha.

Other flavors trending, according to Datassential, are soy, citrus, Dijon, vinegar, chutney, chimichurri and lemongrass.

Ms. Aranas said food service operations that produce barbecue that would be considered authentic are still a niche. The equipment, time and labor required to produce the product is a barrier to growth and scale.

“Where barbecue is growing is in the sauce,” Ms. Aranas said. “Operators don’t want to miss out and are creating innovative sauce flavors to add to their menus.

“It’s not just a tomato-based or sweet molasses-based sauce anymore. We are seeing herb-based hoisun sauces, more vinegar styles, and Alabama-style white sauce (which uses mayonnaise as a base).”

Other flavors called out in the Datassential report include jerk barbecue and Hawaiian.

“Hawaiian falls into the sweet category, with sauces that feature tropical flavors like pineapple,” Ms. Aranas said.

In addition to the menu analysis of barbecue flavors, ingredients and trends, the Datassential report also examined the menu presence of Southern comfort foods, including entrees, sides and desserts. The most popular entrees for consumers are Southern-style fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and chicken-fried steak, while strawberry shortcake, peach cobbler and pecan pie top the list of consumer favorite Southern desserts.