Gone are the days of delicately seasoned cuisine to appeal to the big middle of dining patrons. More than just the result of small change over time, diverse and adventurous consumers crave unique and creative dishes that bring on the heat. Hot-and-spicy—it’s the “new black” of what’s for dinner.
How did this transition come to be? It’s rare for people to change their tastes, even gradually, without exposure to new things, but our global economy has broadened the palates of many consumers—particularly millennials.
- Growing multiculturalism within the population
- Increased global travel
- Adventure-seeking values of young adults
- “Fusion” food and mash-ups on trend in dining
- Mainstream acceptance of spicy condiments like Sriracha sauce
Food has increasingly become much more than just a way to fill hunger. Dining out is about the experience—from the restaurant (or grocery purveyor, or even food truck), to the company the food is shared with—and the cuisine itself has to stand up to (or compete with) expectations. Millennials and other daring diners want robust, hot-and-spicy flavors to support the special dinner occasion. And sometimes, the intense flavors of the food are the destination: can the brave patron handle the heat? Millennials customers can actually enjoy the challenge of tackling the heat, even more than appreciating the flavor. (After all… with excessive heat, is there flavor?)
It’s important for restauranteurs to understand not only the craving patrons have for spicy and hot food, but also the results of regularly consuming such spicy food. It can be “addictive”—not necessarily clinically, but consumers seem to crave it more often, and may continuously increase the level of heat. And across the industry, this experimentation with spiciness has led to tolerance that seems to require new levels. Chipotles were once on the edge of heat. But their smokiness gave way to the aforementioned Sriracha craze. Jalapeños are now mainstream (and up to 4 times hotter than Sriracha), and it’s not uncommon to see ghost peppers on the menu for the most intrepid diners—roughly 125 times hotter than the meanest jalapeños!
To heat connoisseurs, a meal out is lacking if the tongue doesn’t tingle, the eyes don’t burn, and the nose doesn’t run. But that doesn’t mean that restaurants should only offer extreme-heat dishes when Millennials walk through the door. Rather, the best way to compete is to offer well-seasoned, tasty, and intriguing dishes that keep patrons happy—and talking about you. Then, offer either a handful of fiery dishes or the option to customize the heat level on many of your core dishes. Standalone “spice trays” giving customers control over the heat level can also meet the need without complicating your recipes.
Are Millennials the only generation looking for a spicy experience? Many patrons across generations have been exposed to tasty and pungent cuisine from various cultures, so the audience craving these trends is growing. Certainly, comfort foods are still popular, but bland versions won’t bring in customers. Create delectable, well-seasoned versions, perhaps mash them up with other influences, and delight patrons with flavor-filled sensations—from mild to five alarm. Hot and spicy truly are the “new black” in dining, but what diners truly crave is flavor… and lots of it!
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