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National Restaurant Association - Catering to the demand for ethnic cuisine

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Catering to the demand for ethnic cuisine

The growing hunger for ethnic cuisine among restaurant patrons shows no signs of slowing. According to the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Industry Forecast, more than two-thirds of consumers surveyed said they were more likely to eat ethnic cuisine in a restaurant than cook it at home. Here are some tips for tapping into the trend:

Focus on a specialty item.  “If your menu has 15 items, you’re not going to be known for all of them.  Pick your signature dish, like we did with the bao [steamed buns], and promote that,” says Geoff Alexander, president of Chicago’s Wow Bao and chairman of the NRA’s Fast Casual Industry Council.

“The more you focus, the better,” agrees Taki Sawi, owner of the Santorini Greek Kitchen in Indianapolis.

Make it accessible. Wow Bao made bao more well-known in the United States by expanding the locations where it is available, Alexander says. In Chicago, hungry diners can get Wow Bao in select grocery stores in and around the city. In Baltimore, hungry baseball fans can get Wow Bao at Camden Yards stadium. A new Wow Bao restaurant recently opened in Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport.

Know your customers. Greek Island Spice president JoAnne Theodore says the first step in deciding which new flavors to introduce depends on the geography and demography of your restaurant clientele, as well as your customers’ comfort zones. “What’s new and hot may mean one thing to one group and something else to another group,” she notes.

Stay on top of flavor trends. “Chimichurri is showing up on menus everywhere,” says Theodore.  African flavors also are hot right now, from Moroccan chermoula to Ethiopian berberes to Durban curries. But operators should still make room for traditional favorites, she advises, adding that her company’s No. 1-selling product is mango chutney. “Some old standards are just tremendous and can be tweaked simply. Take a fig or olive tapenade and spice it up in a particular direction, then drizzle olive oil over it,” she suggests.

Test new items before making them menu staples. Sawi added a new seafood shish kebob only after offering it as a daily special and gauging its popularity. “We sold 15 one day, 20 the next, and it continued to grow,” he says. “After a few months, we added it to the menu.” 

Theodore suggests trying new flavors as bread dips with oil or butter flavorings or as aioli for sandwiches as a cost-effective way to see which ones guests like best. “Inevitably you’re going to discover which flavors fly,” she says. “You can take a basic sautéed or grilled chicken breast into a dozen different directions with aioli.”

Educate consumers about your brand. Look for opportunities to get your operation’s name and product in front of consumers. “We did outdoor concerts and arts festivals,” says Wow Bao’s Alexander. “We have food trucks and bicycle delivery with big inflatable bags with our name….We ran a campaign where every Wednesday we put a secret word on Facebook and if a customer mentioned it in the store, [he or she] would get a free bao.”

In early days, when Chicago-area restaurant-rating lists didn’t include Wow Bao, the company would respond by saying, “It sure is tough being No. 51,” to playfully get their name out to the public.

To learn more about ethnic cuisine in restaurants, read the National Restaurant Association's Global Palates: Ethnic Cuisines and Flavors in America study.  

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