What’s Behind the Flavour Dichotomy?

U.K. consumers say they want back-to-basics flavours on one hand, new and adventurous tastes on the other.

Still impacted by the lingering economic recession, today’s U.K. consumers are hesitant about spending, causing restaurant-goers to be more demanding than ever as they actively seek the best overall value. Technomic research shows that flavour is more important than ever before, driving customer traffic, shaping the overall dining experience and helping operators differentiate themselves.

Consumers indicate that they are increasingly driven to try unique flavours. Nearly three out of 10 consumers overall, and two-fifths of consumers aged 18–34, say they are more likely to try new flavours than they were a year ago, according to the latest Flavour Consumer Trend Report. Additionally, 39% of consumers express a preference for restaurants that offer unique or original flavours, up from only 35% of those polled in 2010. On the other hand, our research also highlights the impressive staying power of tried-and-true flavour profiles.

Together these findings signal the need for operators and suppliers to stay on top of flavour trends to reinvigorate classic offerings with innovative twists.

In Search of Flavour

Consumers seek out value, convenience and an overall satisfactory experience when choosing to dine out, but the taste and flavour of the food is arguably the most important factor of all. Differentiated flavour profiles fuel cravings, rouse consumer interest in the menu and most importantly, can help drive repeat restaurant visits.

When asked to describe their attitude towards trying new flavours, two-thirds of consumers (66%) indicate that they like to try new flavours from time to time—the same percentage of consumers in 2010. These consumers likely have a desire to try different flavours occasionally, but also enjoy ordering foods with familiar flavour profiles.

One-quarter of consumers (24%) say they actively seek out new flavours on a regular basis. Comparison data shows that consumers are slightly more likely to often seek out new flavours today than one year ago, perhaps due to a wider availability of ethnic or unique foods.

Base: 1,000 (2010 and 2011) consumers aged 18+
Source: Technomic Inc. Flavour Consumer Trend Report

While men and women are just as likely to actively seek out new flavours on a regular basis, data suggests that females may be more willing to try new flavours. More females (69%) than males (62%) report that they like trying new flavours from time to time. In contrast, twice as many males (14%) as females (7%) report that they prefer sticking to their favourite flavours and rarely try new ones.

Because the majority of consumers enjoy trying new flavours occasionally but do not actively seek them out, operators will want to consider low-risk menu strategies that allow for flavour innovation without ostracising those who are looking for classic flavours. For example, putting an innovative twist on an established favourite is a great way for operators to experiment with new and unique flavours without putting themselves at risk. And operators can explore new flavour profiles with limited-time-only and seasonal offerings. This strategy allows them to easily add and subtract items without making changes to the core menu.

Ethnic Flavours Can Fill the Bill

Although consumers most strongly prefer what is familiar to them, they are increasingly interested in expanding their palates. A quarter of consumers (26%) are more interested in trying ethnic flavours and cuisines now than they were one year ago. This is up slightly from 2010, when just 24% of consumers agreed.

Consumers aged 25–34 are the most likely to indicate a greater interest in ethnic flavours and cuisines compared to a year ago. Further, this group of consumers represent the largest increased interest in ethnic options (33% in 2010 versus 40% in 2011). Consumers aged 45+ also show a slightly greater interest in ethnic options today than in 2010.

Base: 1,000 (2010 and 2011) consumers aged 18+
Consumers indicated their opinion on a scale of 1–6 where 6 = extremely important and 1 = not important at all
Source: Technomic Inc. Flavour Consumer Trend Report

Unique Flavours as a Traffic Driver

Two out of five consumers report that new or innovative flavours influence their decision of which restaurant to visit. This sentiment is especially pronounced among consumers aged 25–34. About half of consumers in this age group say they would be more likely to visit a restaurant that offers new or innovative flavours.

Flavour innovation is slightly more important for operators today than in 2010, when just 35% of consumers agreed that they were more likely to visit restaurants that offer new or innovative flavours. Consumers aged 25–34 are especially more likely to visit a restaurant offering innovative flavours today than a year ago, with a 15% jump over the past year. Operators looking to appeal to this demographic may want to examine their menu to make sure they offer new and unique flavours.

Base: 1,000 (2010 and 2011) consumers aged 18+
Consumers indicated their opinion on a scale of 1–6 where 6 = agree completely and 1 = disagree completely
Source: Technomic Inc. Flavour Consumer Trend Report

The study also found that three out of 10 consumers say they are willing to pay more for a restaurant meal featuring new or unique flavours. Furthermore, this percentage has increased since 2010, when just 28% of consumers agreed that they would be willing to pay more for these restaurant offerings.

For some operators, this signals room to experiment with new and unique flavours. While adding unique flavours to the menu could lead to increased costs, in terms of skill, labour or rare ingredients, these costs may be offset if the flavour is well accepted and the menu item can be offered at a premium price point.

Back to Basic British

Despite consumers’ love for new flavours, national pride has driven up the demand for classic British food and drink, from artisan English food preparations to U.K. wines, beer and cider.

Aside from the revelry of the Jubilee and Olympics, another factor is fuelling this craving for the nostalgic: the global economic downturn. As belts tighten, there’s a return to the simple things, such as foods that evoke home cooking and a comfortable feeling. The comfort-food trend features strong British influences that are reflected in ingredients from meats to produce.

This love of all things British has many restaurant chefs returning to a “back to basics” approach to cooking. This retro sensibility includes a focus on local foods, subtle flavours and natural, artisan preparations that bring out familiar tastes.

Watch for continued exploration of foods and flavours derived from local farms and regional purveyors. Linked to freshness (and thus better flavour) in the minds of consumers, local and seasonal ingredients on the menu can convey a strong message of quality for classic foods. Flavour combinations will be simple, veering away from innovative or unique spice blends, seasonings and sauces to emphasise the traditional and subtle instead.

Look for chefs to also increase their promotion of traditional bread-making, butter-churning, cheese-making, butchery, charcuterie and other hands-on, artisanal preparation techniques. According to Foodwatching.com, some chefs may even own farms or elsewhere grow their own produce, in order to tout the quality and robust flavour of the ingredients that they use to create British favourites like fish and chips and pies.

On the other hand, a literal interpretation of the classics isn’t the flavour route that some chefs are taking; instead, they’re reinventing traditional British foods. For example, Chef Gary Rhodes showcases his love for British cuisine at his namesake restaurants. Rhodes has devoted his career to reinvigorating public interest in British foods by putting new upscale twists on traditional dishes.

Rhodes Twenty Four restaurant in London puts a spin on the conventional, and offers steamed mutton and onion suet pudding with crushed swede; pressed duck foie gras and pheasant terrine with quince and thyme jelly; and free-range English duck with caramelised turnips, buttered curly kale and duck prune gravy. Desserts include warm treacle tart with orange-curd ice cream and warm date pudding with toffee sauce and sticky-toffee ice cream.

Key Takeaway

Emphasising traditional flavours on the menu is a solid trend, but so is consumers’ continuous curiosity to try new foods. To delight those consumers, operators should work to develop flavours that stand out and mark menu differentiation. The bottom line is that inventive flavours—in combination with preparation styles—can create a craving for a particular food item, which in turn draws customers who cannot duplicate the flavour profile in their own kitchen or find in any other restaurant.

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