Hot trends in the US
Just found this article on FastCasual.com – nice plug for the HSB!
The market for spicy foods in the United States has been sizzling since hot wings and salsa found their way to our palates in the 1980s. Now, many fast-casual chains offer menu items with a spicy kick to attract heat lovers and keep them coming back for more.
“If you took a bite of something and there was too much vinegar in it, you wouldn’t take another bite,” said Coyote Joe Daigneault, cooking-show host, author and founder of the Mad Coyote Spice Company. “But you do take another bite of hot stuff. There’s something in your brain called a P-factor that releases endorphins” when spicy food is eaten.
“Even though there’s a pain involved,” he said, “a second later your brain is saying, ‘I want more of those endorphins.’”
If that’s true, it’s not surprising that a recent NPD survey revealed 19 percent of Americans want to see more hot and spicy offerings in restaurants. Americans’ love for spice has provided market opportunities for chains ranging from Buffalo Wild Wings to Tijuana Flats, with ever-widening varieties of sauces appealing to a broad variety of customers.
Lisken Lawler, director of concept development for 750-unit WingStreet, said about 40 percent of her customers walk in the door craving heat.
“We serve a pretty mainstream audience, so 40 percent is a significant amount of people,” she said. “We find in focus groups that people who like spicy foods tend to be passionate about them and will order them all the time.”
Keith Goldman, vice president of operations for 19-store California Tortilla, which is based in Maryland, said one of the chain’s key draws is its “Wall of Flame” ““ a giant shelf in each restaurant that displays more than 80 different hot sauces customers can use to enhance their meals.
The Wall of Flame features everything from standards such as Cholula, a popular Mexican hot sauce, to lesser-known habaÃ±ero-based scorchers like Blair’s After Death Sauce. There’s also a sampling station, and Goldman said it isn’t unusual to see customers trying three or four different types of sauces on their burritos.
“I think people definitely identify our brand with the Wall of Flame,” Goldman said. “This gives people the opportunity to play with the sauces and determine what level of heat they want on their food. If you want, you can take 10 bottles to your table and try each one.”
California Tortilla also has its own specially created hot sauce called California Screamin’. There’s a bottle on every table, and it is also used in some of the menu items. Goldman said the sauce is quite popular and is another reason patrons return.
Turning up the heat
Spicy foods have been consumed for centuries; the first known bottled hot sauce in America appeared in Massachusetts around 1807, according to The Hot Sauce Bible, a book by Dave DeWitt and Chuck Evans. Tabasco sauce was commercially available by 1870, but only in recent years has hot sauce achieved broad appeal.
Daigneault said chiles are more widely accepted than ever in America, but they’ve been diet staples for centuries of peoples living near the equator.
Compared to today, American diets largely were bland until Cajun cooking scorched the culinary landscape in the 1980s. Latin foods, however, get most of the credit for tingling gringos’ taste buds. Immigrants to California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico brought their cuisines with them and they started restaurants to serve their own. Locals soon gave them a try and were hooked. Some of the most fiery foods of all, however, came from peoples of Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific Rim and India, where whole chiles of truly incendiary varieties are as common as salt and pepper here.
Be it a toughening of the American palate or the awakening of a latent desire for food that’s savory and searing, people are showing they want to eat the heat.
“As time goes on people can tolerate more and they desire more of that heat,” Daigneault said. “That has grown exponentially.”
DeWitt is editor of Fiery-Foods magazine and has published dozens of books on spicy foods. He calls the change “a paradigm shift in the way Americans are eating. It’s been going on for two decades now.”
He points to a number of factors, including a waning fear of chile peppers. “Back in the old days, everyone thought there was one kind of chile pepper and it would burn your mouth out. Now they know there are hundreds of varieties with a number of flavor profiles.”
In addition, magazine articles, books and Web sites, such as HotSauceBlog.com and DeWitt’s own Fiery-Foods.com, have educated the public about spicy foods, and more people know their own heat tolerance.
“Another reason is that once you start eating hot and spicy foods, you rarely if ever go back to bland,” DeWitt said. “If you don’t like it, you give it up after the first experiment; if you do like it, you tend to expand your horizons, and you tend to think everything else is pretty bland.”
All in the flavor
People savor flavor more than heat. Goldman noted that when the Wall of Flame was originally stocked at California Tortilla, it was the sauce with snazzy labels and funny names, such as Mad Dog Liquid Fire and Pain and Suffering, that drew most of the attention. Now sauces for the wall are chosen primarily on quality ingredients and flavor. Untraditional sauces with bases of peach and mango attract customers who seek variety more than just heat.
DeWitt said while Tabasco is popular and is a good basic hot sauce, sauce seekers are migrating toward other choices. Tabasco is made with tabasco peppers, salt and vinegar, and nothing more, whereas Cholula uses much smoother and more flavorful piquin peppers along with various spices and less vinegar.
“That’s why you are offered a number of salsas when you go to Chipotle, because people are realizing there is a depth of flavor,” DeWitt said. “Cholula delivers the same amount of heat as Tabasco but is much more flavorful.”
Monte Manguno is director of sales and marketing for Paradise Tomato, a Louisville, Ky., company that makes hot sauces for a variety of poultry processors and restaurant chains. He said Paradise Tomato Kitchens will make in excess of 10 million pounds of hot sauce this year.
“Hot wings are the No. 1 appetizer now, but you’re also seeing a much broader cross-section of products with pizza, wraps, sandwiches, salads, you name it,” that employ hot sauce, Manguno said. “And you’re seeing more products with hot sauce added coming from the processor level. The public seems to be turned on to heat.”
Hot sauces can be incorporated into a fast-casual operation in a number of ways. For sandwich-oriented fast-casual operations, DeWitt said, chipotle sauces would be ideal. “They have a smoky dimension to the flavor, and anyone who likes BBQ will like a chipotle-based sauce,” he said.
Daigneault said an easy way to incorporate spice into a menu and entice customers is to offer specials that feature a specific spice or signature sauce.
Another take on California Tortilla’s Wall of Flame concept is to feature a display honoring customers who try all the hot sauces available, or who are brave enough to try a particularly fiery one.
Daigneault said a solid concept for a fresh-Mex operation is to incorporate a salsa bar with plenty of choices. The key is to educate employees on the salsas and sauces, and their ingredients, so that knowledge can be passed on to curious customers. Also, he said, sauces need not be tongue scorchers.
“The ‘I-melted-my-tongue’ thing goes so far in a guy environment,” Daigneault said, “but in a family restaurant that won’t work.”
Wings-based fast-casual restaurants are prime examples of this strategy. One of Buffalo Wild Wings’ promotions for its Wild sauce features a man holding a bottle of hot sauce, with his head blown off and scorch marks around the collar where his neck used to be. However, among Buffalo Wild Wings’ 14 choices are smooth sauces like Sweet Barbecue, Teriyaki and Mild.
Wingstop employs a similar strategy, said vice president of marketing Andy Howard. While the chain recently won awards at the National Buffalo Wing Festival for its Atomic and ultra-spicy Cajun wings, it also was recognized for its decidedly milder Garlic Parmesan. Wingstop’s booth at the competition even featured a lemon-pepper wing-eating contest for children.
“It’s all about the sauces,” Howard said. “We’ve got some that don’t really have much heat, just great, great flavor. People love them.”