Taste Makers

Ten facts about consumer flavor preferences

By  Dana Squilla, Freelance writer

CHICAGO -- Ever the contradictory consumer: While Americans are gradually becoming more adventurous eaters and will profess as much, many still prefer flavors they have known and loved all of their lives.

So for you, the operator or supplier, the question stands: What are the boundaries when it comes to experimenting with flavor?

A survey conducted by Chicago-based Technomic revealed how consumers make flavor-based purchasing decisions. Following are 10 points that define the way we eat.

[image-nocss]1. Simplicity Rules. When asked, nine out of 10 people revealed the flavor of grilled meats and other grilled fare is at the top of their craving list. Seven out of 10 said they enjoy a fruity or sweet treat, while six out of 10 take pleasure in meals with a spicy, tangy or smoky twist. A flavor preference to steer clear of: bitterness.

2. Healthier is Tastier. In today's increasingly health-conscious world, customers are on the hunt for delicious fare that won't bust their belt buckles. According to the study, most consumers believe that "good for you" items can be as tasty as indulgent ones--which is why healthy portion sizes is a deciding factor in 59% of dining decisions.

3. The Zone of Creativity. When it comes to a new menu addition, there is a fine line between being intrigued by something new and being too scared to try something "foreign." The key to new-product success? Offering just the right amount of unfamiliarity for that particular dish.

4. Casual-Dining Restaurants Draw the Adventurous. Applebee's, Chili's and similar spots with a wide variety of menu items are where diners are most likely to test out their taste buds, with 74% of consumers saying they'd be willing to try a new menu item there. Asian restaurants bottomed out with 56%. Within limited-service establishments, 72% of customers said they'd be open to experimentation at sandwich shops; coffeeshop patrons were the least likely to branch out (48%).

5. The Big Three. Americans tend to turn to their three favorite foreign foods--Italian, Chinese and Mexican--when seeking out innovative flavors. Why? When they're already comfortable with the cuisine in general, they are more willing to step outside the box and order something new.

6. Moroccan on the Rise. Surprisingly, this cuisine is best positioned as "ready for trial" for restaurant customers, with 40% expressing great interest in ordering a dish with flavors from this uncommon North African cuisine.

7. Frequent Diners Expect Innovation ... Those who eat out at least once a week are more likely than other diners to: seek out eateries that offer new flavors; have food cravings that change with the season; have a growing interest in new flavors; and be willing to spend more for those flavors.

8. ... But Still Order Familiar Flavors. Nonetheless, regular patrons do like to stick to food they know. So why would they want to see more flavors? According to the study, heavy restaurant users have stronger opinions about food in general, even those they don't order.

9. Change is Lucrative. Almost 90% of diners said they would come back to order a "new" item again, while 80% say they would return to branch out even more and try other flavors and menu items.

10. A Subtle Mix. Bottom line, most diners are looking for creative options, but not too creative. The study attributes the ongoing consumer flavor evolution to two aspects: health consciousness and a customer's willingness to accept uniqueness within a comfort zone of specific flavor and ethnic categories.