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Does the American Palate Have a Passport?
Written by Betsy
Tuesday, 30 April 2013 15:50


Every year, the month of May brings the National Restaurant Association (NRA) show to Chicago. Kairos Consumers looks forward to the four-day show as a source of inspiration when it comes to foodservice trends, several of which routinely come our way for testing in the months that follow.

One topic explored on an annual basis at the NRA show, through not only the diversity of international exhibitors international exhibitors (with the NRA claiming 1,800 from 100+ countries as participants), but also through its range of education sessions and speakers, is the influx of ethnic flavors into even the most mainstream foodservice menus. This year at the NRA will be no exception, with sessions like Ethnic Food Trends: From Niche to Mainstreamamong those likely to expound upon the prevalence of global flavors into the even the fast food dining repertoire. Unquestionably, Latin/Hispanic flavors have long proven popular with U.S. consumers as an everyday menu option.

 But does the average U.S. consumer truly have a global palate at this point, or are we actually talking about a very select group of “worldly eaters”? And is the education worth the cost of trial and error at this “mainstream” level? As a company looking at global consumer trends on a daily basis, though, the overall adaptation process at the mainstream level by U.S.-based chains seems rather slow to us. The globalization of McDonald’s menu may not be a sure bet.

Interestingly, chain “imports” do seem to have staying power. Among chains based abroad that have cracked major urban markets in the U.S., we see Pollo Campero (Guatemala), Nando’s (South Africa) and Giraffas (Brazil) as just a few examples that have attracted a following among fast food/fast casual diners in the U.S. without exhaustively educating these consumers as to the origin of the cuisine/flavor. It should be noted that foreign-based chains including those mentioned tend to select sites very carefully, weighing not only the demographics of a particular area (Pollo Campero counts several restaurants in urban areas that are densely-populated with immigrants from Central American countries) but also the psychographics of the consumer (globally diverse cities like Washington, D.C. tend to embrace more exotic flavors). Well-established U.S. chains seem unconcerned of losing footing to these foreign upstarts, at least for now. The question from the consumer research angle seems to be: Are ethnic flavors an occasional indulgence, best relegated to specialty chains? Or have we reached a point where these flavors are enough a part of the diner’s palate that thinking beyond the burrito becomes a must for even the most American of chains?