As our Chef Marion Gibson puts it: “The world got very small very quickly.”
How so? Food and culture are intimately connected. And as the U.S. melting pot grows ever more diverse, Americans have a hunger for options beyond the mainstream Chinese, Italian, and Mexican choices of the past.
Small shifts in population can have a big impact on consumer tastes, according to Datassential, a food industry market research firm and Aramark partner. Our country’s evolving palate is largely driven by younger generations—48.5% of Gen Z comes from a non-Caucasian background, compared to 25% of Baby Boomers—who embrace what’s known as second-generation American food. According to a 2018 Datassential report, those Boomers lean toward Southern and European foods, while the influential Millennials like (even love) a range of Latin, Asian, and Caribbean cuisines.
“People are more educated about what’s on their plate, and that makes them more willing to try new things,” states Chef Gibson, Culinary Development Director with Aramark. According to Datassential, more than half of American consumers will go out of their way to try a novel global food after hearing about it.
Gibson shares that Asian food is having a heyday, in part because it can be fun to eat (think sushi and noodle bowls). “And now we’re seeing a similar trend toward Latin cuisine, as consumers come to appreciate its diversity: Brazilian, Caribbean, Mexico City street food, and Pueblo-style dishes, to name a few.”
Our Mexican street corn wrap was inspired by Aramark employees of Hispanic heritage and is a consumer favorite.
As an industry, we always have our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the food world. A chef’s mission? “To find the right balance of tradition and trend,” says Chef Gibson, “because that’s what consumers are looking for.”
How We Create: Mi Comida
You don’t have to travel the world to serve up authentic meals (though a well-worn passport helps). Some of our greatest resources are found within our own walls—chefs like Marion and culinary employees from other functions. We often invite staff to “poke holes” as we move a concept from inception to execution.
When it came to launching our Latin-inspired concept Mi Comida, we sought the expertise of Impacto, our employee group that works to create a multicultural and inclusive workplace while raising awareness of Hispanic culture and marketplace insights. This team provided honest feedback on everything from the flavor profiles and spice level (authentic dishes may be too spicy for the average consumer), to the recipe names and marketing collateral. The big question: Does the menu come across as authentic?
“This collaborative approach offers checks and balances,” Chef Gibson explains. “Each person may come to the table with specific expertise, but everyone knows the comforts of home when they see, smell, and taste it.”
Our Mi Comida concept melds Latin cuisines with other international flavors to provide consumers a new twist on familiar foods.
How We Operationalize It
Global food concepts follow the same cycle as any other, notes Heidi Hogan, Aramark Vice President of Product Development. “We don’t necessarily go into it thinking ‘we’re going to develop this concept or that concept.’ We start with data and see where it takes us. All of our menus are designed to work as a cohesive system.”
We conduct our own research and analyze third-party insights to learn what consumers of various demographics and psychographics are eating, what they are looking for in their dining environments, which foods and flavors are gaining traction on menus, and other current and forecasted trends.
“The culinary innovation team will couple that with what’s already working well, plus the business case we’re solving for,” Hogan explains. This background drives the ideation process with a cross-functional group consisting of the insights team, culinary team, product developers, general consumers, manufacturers, and others.
“The facilitated discussions help us capture those ‘blue sky’ ideas,” says Hogan. From there, new concepts undergo a screen test with our proprietary consumer panel. “We make things over and over again,” Chef Gibson attests. “No one is harder on us than ourselves. We have to make sure it’s perfect for the people we’re serving.”
Hogan’s team then scales the ideas that rise to the top, prioritizing them by season. Our trusted specialty suppliers work closely with us to source less-common ingredients, making it easy for chefs to purchase them through our supply chain. When we roll out new menus across our locations, they are accompanied by chef tips in the form of a playbook and short videos to ensure quality and consumer satisfaction.
“It’s like we’re in the kitchen with them as they introduce these menus, recipes, and ingredients to their guests,” Chef Gibson says. Our process comes full circle as that end result becomes the input for our Voice of the Consumer surveys, which guide the next round of menu development.
Where Authentic Meets Approachable
Globally inspired food presents a double challenge: introduce American consumers to cuisine from around the world while appealing to their sense of the familiar. When ethnic items such as Sriracha mayo and naan start trending on non-ethnic menus, it’s a true sign that food is being globalized.
It generally takes six to eight years for ethnic foods to progress from inception to ubiquity, Datassential says.
Chef Gibson suggests starting with a format consumers already know. For instance, our Bibim Box concept takes the trusty rice bowl and lets guests experiment with Korean ingredients like Gochujang, a red chili paste. Or you can take the ubiquitous Caesar salad and pair it with exciting Southeast Asian flavors for a unique twist on a classic.
This approach works best when the “carrier” is easy to personalize with flexible ingredients. Salads, burritos, and bowls are all popular for their personalization potential, a trend we see in all corners of the business. This contributes to the appeal of our ramen bar concept, O-Mori: consumers can choose among broth, noodle, protein, and topping options to create their own bowl of warm comfort food.
Thinking (and Eating) Globally
What’s the next stop on the consumer taste world tour? Chef Gibson predicts cuisines from Latin America, the Middle East, and North Africa will become more mainstream. Indeed, Datassential reports that these cuisines are in the inception and adoption stages of the menu adoption cycle. And anything plant-forward like falafel has an advantage, as it aligns with other trends in the marketplace.
No matter what, you can count on our kitchens to test it out—and consumers to dig right in.
“We often see our clients and guests five days a week, or every semester for years,” Chef Gibson says. “When you have someone cooking for you like family, you’re willing to take that tasty chance.”