Millennials are embracing global ethnic flavors.

KANSAS CITY — Millennials—and others who take to instant gratification—are joyously embracing up-and-coming food trends that savor the economic upturn. The pleasure principle, as it’s been dubbed by Andrew Freeman & Co., made it to the San Francisco, Calif.-based food service consultancy’s Food Trends Index as a top influencer of 2015 food and menu trends.

Instant gratification, education and participation will be recurrent themes,” Mr. Freeman said. “The economic upturn in 2014, coupled with the desire to attract the millennial patron, a market estimated to be worth in excess of $90 billion to food service, has led to a surge of new concepts, personalized service and customized experiences geared towards satisfying this ‘demand’ generation.”

Based on Andrew Freeman and Co.’s research, the consultancy highlighted eight current menu items and menu trends, and an equal number waiting in the wings to take center stage on upcoming trend lists. These include cauliflower as a current trend (soon to be the radish); sea urchin (trout roe); cabbage salad (banana blossom salad); the 15 ingredient cocktail (Old Fashioned); Aleppo pepper (marash pepper); pork belly (chop); umami (sour); French (Spanish).

A category influencer identified by the consultancy is tacos. Mr. Freeman cites Alex Stupak’s new taco-centric concept in New York City, Empellón al Pastor; in addition, there’s James Beard award winner Sean Brock who recently opened Minero, a Mexican taqueria, in Charleston, S.C.

While scrambled eggs are coming on strong — and not just for breakfast anymore — note that toast was a hit at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco earlier in the year. Toast may be served with retro flair, with lots of butter and cinnamon/sugar or with a modern slant on artisan bread with local butter and salted avocado slices. Also keep in mind many millennial consumers often revert to comfort foods, like toast, well after their college dining halls years.

Maeve Webster, senior director of Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry, pointed to another comfort food trend for millenials, hot and spicy foods, continuing, but reaching beyond sriracha.

“Look out for pepper flavors like harissa, aji´, gochujang, togarashi, and peri-peri; meanwhile, nut butters, stouts and savory jams will also impact menus,” she said.

“Asian” concepts are also trending, according to the market research firm Technomic.

 “From my perspective, we will see more concepts specializing in lesser-known Asian cuisines, including Korean and Vietnamese,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president. He predicts millennials will welcome such new menu concepts and flavors.

“For the next wave of Asian chains to succeed, establishing authenticity is critical, but so is creating transparency,” he said. “Operators should explain their history and cuisine, making sure to point out ties to Asia as well as include information on sourcing and the quality of their ingredients.”

Asian concepts to watch, according to Jaime Calderone, Technomic Inc.’s product coordinator, include: Bibibop Asian Grill, a Columbus, Ohio, chain that specializes in build-your-own bibimbap-style bowls; Bibigo, a South Korean-based chain featuring traditional bibimbap and hot stone rice and noodle bowls; Bonmi, which offers customizable banh mi sandwiches, with locations primarily in universities; and Xi’an Famous Foods, a New York City chain known for its hand-ripped noodles and authentic Xi’an, China fare.

|||READ MORE: Ever-evolving flavor trends|||

Toast is trending.


Ever-evolving flavor trends

Kara Nielsen has seen flavor trends come and go and knows the market “often burns through them like fashion.” Ms. Nielsen, who holds a master’s degree in Gastronomy from Boston University, has been a culinary professional for more than two decades and is currently the culinary director for Sterling-Rice Group, a Boulder, Colo.-based brand growth firm. She translates culinary trends for strategic innovation and product development, and she says a significant trend today is full-flavored, layered flavors in dips, condiments, etc., “but it’s more interesting looking at flavor families — there’s always a ‘new’ chili with heat,” she said.

For example, there’s Popeye’s fried chicken wings with ghost pepper, and before that there was sriracha pepper wings.

“Perhaps next year it will be peri peri wings,” Ms. Nielsen said. “It’s all part of the continued evolution of chile pepper heat and the heat spectrum.”

When the Sterling-Rice Group was drawing up its own 2015 Culinary Trends report prior to the new year, Ms. Nielsen remembers noting with interest the whole smoke/heat/char flavor family evolution.

“Now, we’re seeing it evolve into char and even burnt,” she said. “The intensity keeps moving up.”

For example, at Butter, New York, executive chef Alex Guarnaschelli offers Pan-seared Branzino (charred romanesco, caper berries) as a “large plate” on her dinner menu as well as Charred White Cloud Cauliflower (marash pepper, braised baby carrots, aged sherry). The “char,” a result of caramelizing sugars, produces an intense flavor also found in toasted bread.

From the hot-hot “Asian trend” aspect, there’s also a growing focus on the incendiary charcoal used in Japanese cooking.

“The charcoal, binchotan, burns very hot but somewhat smokeless and odorless without putting out a lot of char,” Ms. Nielsen said.

Circling back to how some chefs are using the grill differently, she pointed to Chicago’s Oak + Char with its wood-fired oven in keeping with its emphasis on modern Midwestern dining.

“They have a smoked chicken dish; also crispy broccoli, white anchovy, parsnip aioli, Calabrian chili as well as tandoori octopus with charred eggplant, ‘nduja vinaigrette.”

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Sriracha has proved the spicy food craze is here to stay.


Move over, umami

Often called upon as an expert witness in the food litigation circuit, Kantha Shelke, PhD, is an enthusiastic “witness” to the phenomenon of school age children raising their parents’ awareness of a variety of “healthful” foods. She says they’re explaining why these foods should be part of the diet and also discussing the benefits to the environment.

As a principal of Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based science and research firm that specializes in strategic competitive intelligence and expert witness services in food science and ingredient technologies, Dr. Shelke said we should “expect a shift in demand away from mass-manufactured and clone-like consistency to artisanal, hand-made and unique products that provide clear evidence of being better for the environment and for the consumer.”

As Americans continue to enjoy “comfort foods” such as chicken soup, macaroni and cheese, etc., Dr. Shelke sees the comfort food menu expanding to include ethnic comfort foods “such a ramen noodles, posolé, polenta and grits — but with a healthful twist.” She believes such items will boast more fiber and protein, be less starchy “and will rely on the complex flavors of the past styles of slow cooking,” she said.

In the category of “who knew?” Dr. Shelke said most people really appreciate “kokumi,” a term coined several years ago by Ajinomoto Co., Inc., the Japanese food and chemical company. Different from umami, the fifth taste that is associated with deliciousness or brothiness, kokumi refers to the flavor that comes only from made-from-scratch preparation.

“For example, you could have a beef stew with all the ingredients in a crock pot vs. making each ingredient separately, then simmer,” Dr. Shelke explained. “You’ll have all the flavor compounds from each — you’ll have a stew with a ‘rich’ aroma and you’ll know it was all browned separately.”

No surprise, food manufacturers are working to create kokumi wherever they may. Overall, Dr. Shelke sees her customers are beginning to value the complexity of well-prepared foods.

Flavor houses are not only racing to bring the “kokumi” of time-consuming preparation into soups, but they’re also racing to bring the layered complexity of flavors achieved with spices to entrees and savory foods as well as to beverages, desserts and condiments.

“Expect to see various peppers for their heat, their flavors, excitation, color, and for their therapeutic benefits in beverages, desserts and ice creams, confectionery and condiments,” Dr. Shelke said. “It’s not just sriracha and Tabasco, but also shishito peppers, cayenne, roasted Hatch peppers, Thai fingerhots — the list is endless. Expect other ‘hot’ flavors such as ginger, wasabi, etc., in mainstream foods, to perk up grains and to add complexity to sauces.”

Since many people become bored with the same flavors, they seek a change in the foods and beverages they consume.

“In Western philosophy, we saw the synergy of flavors by combining like plus like,” Dr. Shelke said. “Now, chefs are inspired by the Eastern philosophy in using contrasting elements such as smooth and crispy; sweet and sour, etc.”

Recently, N.Y.-based Mediterra created “the first ever” savory ready-to-eat nutrition bars inspired by the Mediterranean diet. Its tomato, basil and capers combination and olive, walnut and chives variety are now being sold in Target stores and may reach critical mass sooner than later, according to Dr. Shelke.

“The flavors that emanate from fast casual tend to spiral into popularity much faster, just from a larger starting base,” she said. “For example: cayenne in honey; shishito peppers from corner Japanese kiosks, etc.”

|||READ MORE: Food theater and more|||

Food theater and more

Suzy Badaracco is pleased to tell you that she’s “the only one in the country who went from tracking serial killers to tracking cereal bars” when she started Culinary Tides, Inc., Tualatin, Ore., in 2005. She’s a toxicologist, certified chef and registered dietitian with a B.S. degree in Criminalistics, an associate degree in Culinary Arts and a master’s degree in Human Nutrition. Looking to menu trends for 2015 and beyond, Ms. Badaracco identified a variety of concepts that may be emerging.

“Seasonal” from “wherever” geographically is the way to go rather than “local” which is too limiting, according to Ms. Badaracco. She also talked about open kitchens, where cooking is on display as a “since satisfaction goes up regardless of the meal.”

She added that California Pizza Kitchen is switching over all of its Florida locations to boast open kitchens with the expectation that customers spend more and will return more often.

“It’s part of the ‘kitchen theater’ concept that also includes preparing any part of the meal or beverage tableside, so any kind of interaction with staff is on trend —consumers want to be entertained,” she said.

Another trend, grocery, theater, morphs c-stores to “c-restaurants,” so to speak.

“Recently, Tim Hortons (the c-store chain) has partnered with about 57 upstate New York c-stores to offer its store-within-a-store concept,” Ms. Badaracco said.

She also expects to see the Wegmans supermarket chain offering a standalone restaurant concept as it expands its customer-centric outlets into the Boston, Mass., region.

She sees the “flexitarian” option as a trend with staying power.

“The recession gave it a window of opportunity, but it’s still growing because it ties into millennial trends including cost savings, obesity concerns and a goal of increasing grain consumption,” she said. “Nothing will knock flexitarians out of the way.”

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Following the so-called fads

To conclude the survey of menu trends for the coming year we turned to FoodGenius founder and chief executive officer Justin Massa. He identified three trends from the past year “that are well beyond being just a fad or a blip on the radar,” he said.

These include “spicy” and “healthy options,” both of which continued to increase their respective presence. But new this year is what he dubs “Italian in America.”

“We see restaurants whose primary cuisine is American, or Contemporary American, adapting pastas, desserts and preparation methods that are typically associated with Italian cuisine staples into their offerings,” he said.

This is linked, he believes, to consumers’ desire to eat authentically.

In analyzing how spicy plays out on the menu, he finds preferences vary both regionally and by market segment.

Just as a nationwide push to reduce sodium consumption appears finally to be gaining traction, Mr. Massa is certainly not alone in seeing “salted” as a flavor sensation crossing the food and beverage divide going forward.

“It’s seen some interesting growth across the board (both segments and meal parts),” he said, “and it’s among a small set that we’re keeping a close eye on in the upcoming year.”