On The Menu: Flavor Player

New flavor combinations are percolating, while snacking study reveals generational differences

By  Robert Lillegard, Freelance writer
Abbie Westra, Editor-in-Chief, Convenience Store Products

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The Culinary Visions Panel conducted a study on snacking behavior among baby boomers and millennials, and related organization Y-Pulse surveyed 500 children to find out what tomorrow’s tastemakers were eating. Taken together, the research covers the past, the present and the future.

According to managing director Rachel Tracy, while kids still largely prefer the typical pizza, chips and soda, ethnic foods are trickling down to youth.

“The interesting thing we found was the variety of things they mentioned,” says Tracy. “A lot of them are venturing into chicken Parmesan and chicken teriyaki, moving into an expanding variety option. We see their palates are expanding.”

Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for The NPD Group, says those staples of chicken and pizza do have a value differentiation across the generational spectrum. Customers are willing to pay more for pizza they perceive as higher quality, suggesting an opportunity for c-store foodservice looking to differentiate.

“When it comes to pizza, even though they’re purchasing more at retail outlets, they would prefer to have restaurant pizza. There’s quite a difference in price point,” says Riggs, referring to data found on p. 50. “When it came to chicken, it was pretty close. They didn’t really see a great deal of difference.”

Research firm Food Genius has likewise seen an evolution on the pizza menu itself.

“Barbecue sauce has surpassed pesto as a sauce option,” says Justin Massa, founder and CEO. “[It was] tomato, barbecue, pesto, salad dressing, hot sauce. Barbecue chicken pizzas have become one of the core, canonical pizza offerings in the U.S., [and] one of the fastest-growing terms in Italian food was buffalo sauce.”

It’s a twist that might surprise an older generation, but then, older generations have different purchasing habits anyway. Tracy says that when it comes to snacking, boomers are willing to pay $1 to $3 for snacks while millennials will pay $3 to $5. It all comes down to how meals are viewed.

“Millennials are treating snacks more like meals,” Tracy says. “A boomer is eating their typical three meals a day.”

The products being ordered are changing, too.

“The four big dramatic trends [are] sandwiches and wraps, health, hot and spicy, and strong ethnic flavors,” Massa says.

Surprisingly, the “eat local” movement receives a lot more media attention than it does menu or shelf space.

“It’s actually pretty small,” Massa says. “It definitely has an impact on price [for] items that use terms like local. The flip side of that is it’s actually not that prevalent and it hasn’t been growing as dramatically as one might expect.”

Overall, it seems that 2013’s menu trends are more of a continuation of a theme than a new paradigm. Today’s customers aren’t much different than those of yesterday, but they do expect to see a few new flavors paired with their standard favorites, be able to order something at least partially handmade or fresh, and find a variety of food at any type of foodservice venue, whether it’s a drug store, a c-store, or a QSR. It’s just that simple—and that hard.

“Any operator has to adopt a foodservice mentality,” says Donna Hood Crecca, senior director at Technomic. “It’s whether or not top management is committed.”

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