Turning the Heat Up on Restaurant Flavors

Middle-of-the-road bland foods to satisfy the masses have disappeared under a layer of spice and diversity. Restaurant fare is getting increasingly hotter, with more spices, flavors, garlic, and diversity of cuisines—and all signs indicate the trend will continue.

Restaurants stocking up on spices and seasonings from bulk distributors accounted for a 3% bump in such product orders last year, on top of an 8% increase the year before. Indian, South American, Mexican, North African, and Southeast Asian “heats” are among the fastest risers, including tikka masala, curries, and the hotter chiles, like habanero and Aleppo. But hot sauce rules with growth at rates sometimes more than double.

The adventurous palates of ¾ of American adults—and dominated by the youngest adult generation (Gen Z)—account for this explosion of heat craving. Today’s restaurant consumers love trying new flavors, especially when it transports them gastronomically to a new region of the world, with ell-seasoned and spicy flavors. Further fueling the success is the early adoption by local establishments infusing their region with creative chef-inspired dishes. Increasingly, as consumers eschew chains for local restaurants, demand for these unique dishes and exotic flavors spreads to other local establishments and then make their way “up the chain,” so to speak. What starts out as a hit in the hands of one creative chef can quickly become a regional or national trend—and so the heat continues to turn up.

For those considering following the trend and adding new spice palettes and heat levels to their menus, such changes and introductions should be done with care. While there will always be patrons ordering ever-hotter dishes seemingly on a dare, most connoisseurs want high quality food they can still taste even as it tingles the senses. A deft hand is needed for subtle heat adjustments with the end goal being food that just tastes great, not just hot.

Watch for restaurant patrons to explore new flavors and step out of the familiar. Spicy Mexican or Tex-Mex, Thai, and even Korean are much more familiar than some of the Mediterranean, Indian, and North African dishes that are now on the rise, so there is a whole new array of tastes Americans are getting introduced to. The ongoing love of fusion dishes presents new opportunities for creative chefs to merge different and unique sources (and levels) of heat with accessible, familiar dishes.

Where there’s heat, there’s also a need for refreshment, so it’s not surprising that pubs and cocktail bars are spicing it up too. The trend isn’t going away, so how will you turn up the heat on your menu?

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