Korean barbecue madness. The locavore movement. Artisanal toast. Seaweed. The food truck as the casual usurper of the Michelin-starred restaurant. Food trends change so quickly that it is nearly impossible to keep up with them. Do you remember the Cronut? Have you heard that fonio is the next quinoa? Listening to a table of foodies get heated up about the latest fads in flavor is like listening to the banter at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. As chef and author Anthony Bourdain put it: “This is The Era of Crazed Oral Gratification.” Today, even average grocery shoppers are inundated with flavor trends better suited to science fiction. A bag of Southern Biscuits and Gravy Lays potato chips… really? It appears so. And it’s all part of the seismic food culture shift in America.
We are living in an age of food experimentation. Twenty years ago there was nothing more repulsive to the average burger and pizza loving American than a plate of raw fish. Today, we are fanatical about sushi; we Instagram plates of toro as colorful as kimonos and talk about the Zen-like wonders of small-batch soy sauce. Maybe “food experimentation” is the wrong phrase. Perhaps it is an age of food investigation. We want to explore new flavors: buttermilk, seaweed, cilantro, chocolate as dark as a black hole. But we still want the classic flavors at our disposal: bacon, ranch and barbecue. They are our comfort zone, or like that old pair of jeans that can't be parted with. The secret to flavor success is in balancing these two consumer desires.
American’s Tastes Are Constantly Changing
According to the Technomic 2015 Flavor Consumer Trend, 40 percent of consumers say they are more willing to visit a restaurant that offers new and/or innovative flavors. At the same time, classic flavors are still popular. Are our palates changing or are Americans just learning to appreciate different flavor profiles? It is probably a little bit of both. And it is not only different flavor profiles that consumers are enjoying. Americans are also learning to enjoy, or at least appreciate, a host of textures that we once found vile—all the rubbery, chewy and fatty bits. More people are eating liver and kidneys. And one of the hottest items on menus right now is pig’s ears. While the palate can and does change, how they change and what they will appreciate next remains a mystery. There is a reason why Japanese umami has not been embraced in America, we just don’t know why, and that can make it difficult to keep up with all of the new and evolving flavor trends.
Let Them Eat Cake, Er... Toast
At the 2015 Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, toast was the hottest new flavor. It makes sense, too; if food is often a reminder of family and childhood, hearth and home, then there is nothing more reminiscent of childhood than the flavor of roasted bread and warm, melty butter. The French author Marcel Proust was transported back to his childhood in Combray with the sweet taste of a shell-shaped madeleine cake. And it won’t be long before modern grocery shoppers are being transported back to their younger years with foods flavored like sweetly-buttered toast as, according to the Specialty Food Association, popular flavors at these types of shows typically hit mainstream supermarkets within the year.
A Balanced Combination
The fact that "toast" was the hottest flavor trend to emerge in 2015 proves that consumers have both a penchant for classic tastes and a desire to investigate new flavors, or, better yet, new spins on old flavors. The best way for restaurants, operators and food suppliers to stay ahead of flavor trends isn’t to pin all their hopes on the hot new thing—most are a flash in the pan with a short shelf life—but to offer a balanced combination of the old and new.