By Kristin Menas
As chefs experiment with new ways to surprise diners, they should look no further than the sauces and dressings adorning their dishes. By continually creating unique and bold sauces, operators are able to appeal to consumers’ shifting preferences and set their menus apart from competitors.
Overall, 42 per cent of diners prefer that restaurants carry a mix of sauces, ranging from the well known to the inventive. As a result, we are seeing more emphasis placed on the flavours and preparations of sauces and dressings, resulting in new varieties that incorporate emerging ethnic influences, alcohol infusions, customizability and creative name callouts on menus. Here we will take a closer look at some of these popular sauce trends currently impacting menus.
Global cuisines are influencing nearly all aspects of the menu, especially sauces. Operators are imparting ethnic-inspired flavours and preparations into dishes using dressings and sauces as vehicles for innovation. Technomic MenuMonitor data shows that global varieties are appearing among both the leading and fastest-growing sauces on Canadian menus. As diners become increasingly familiar with particular ethnic cuisines, however, operators are reaching out to new areas of the world for culinary inspiration.
Asia has been a hotbed of inspiration for the Canadian restaurant industry as of late. Looking at the leading types of sauces, both sweet-and-sour and red curry are among the top five varieties on menus. Additionally, chili oil, sriracha and curry are three of the fastest-growing sauces. But, as diners become increasingly familiar with classic Asian ingredients, operators will need to get more creative with the types of Asian flavours they choose to spotlight in dishes. As a result, we will begin to see emerging Asian cuisines and regionally specific flavours inspire sauce experimentation. Asian authenticity will be key as trend-forward tastes such as Filipino banana ketchup, Taiwanese nam pla fish sauce and Japanese tamari make their mark on menus.
Latin fare is also inspiring sauce creativity. Beyond well-known Mexican flavours, emerging sauces common to both South and Central American cuisines are bringing excitement to menus. Looking at fastest-growing sauce varieties, chimichurri mentions are up 90 per cent on Canadian menus in the latest year-over-year period. As we observe the growing popularity of chimichurri, this may act as a gateway for other less familiar Latin sauces to enter the scene, such as Venezuelan guasacaca and Bolivian llajwa hot sauce. Further, salsa has increased by 7.1 per cent overall on menus in the most recent year-over-year period. Operators looking to further differentiate their menus may consider looking beyond Mexican-inspired salsas to other salsa-like options, ranging from Peruvian salsa criolla to Colombian aji.
In recent months, many restaurant menus have been spotlighting alcohol-infused sauces, topping everything from grilled meats to pastas to desserts. In fact, alcohol-based sauces are up 18.6 per cent on Canadian menus since 2015, according to MenuMonitor. Operators are utilizing a variety of spirits in housemade sauces, ranging from whiskey to beer to wine, to create specialty dishes with unique flavour combinations. Some popular iterations of this trend include bourbon-infused barbecue sauce, champagne vinaigrette and beer-based cheese sauces. However, operators looking to go above and beyond with this trend may want to turn to other trendy types of alcohol for inspiration. Sauces made with alcohol varieties like rum, tequila or cider may stand out more than those spiked with oft-used bourbon, red wine or ale.
Further, the previously mentioned ethnic inspirations trend can also inspire creativity within boozy sauces. Emerging exotic spirits from around the world are a relatively untapped resource for sauce development ideas. Spirits like Brazilian cachaca, Mexican mezcal, Chinese baiju and South American pisco are all picking up steam on adult beverage menus, indicating a possibility for experimentation within food and sauce preparations.
Spiked sauces are also an opportunity to appeal to consumer preference for locally sourced ingredients by using and calling out alcohol from distilleries, cideries and breweries in Canada. Overall, 62 per cent of consumers say that when they see the term “local” on a menu, it enhances their opinion of an item’s flavour. Highlighting the source not only impacts diners’ flavour perceptions, but it also shows support for local alcohol producers and creates further differentiation on the menu.
Choose your own adventure
Customization is still very important to consumers. Offering customizable flavour options, especially through sauces, is key to reaching a broad audience with wide-ranging preferences. When it comes to sauces specifically, roughly four out of 10 consumers find it important that they can customize or choose from a variety of sauces or condiments at both limited-service and full-service restaurants. Further, younger diners, aged 18–34, who drive much of this interest in sauce variety, are also more likely than their counterparts to pay for customization.
Operators with the capability to do so may want to consider offering sauce customization options, allowing customers to craft their preferred flavours, especially for items like pizzas, sandwiches and salads. Offering sauces that range from well-executed classics to bold and nontraditional varieties creates a menu that can easily adapt to traditional diners, adventurous diners and everyone in-between.
Saucy name callouts
What’s in a name? Well, according to consumer data, 40 per cent of diners overall, compared to 50 per cent of diners aged 18–34, agree that a sauce with a unique or flavourful name can pique their interest in ordering a particular item. As a result, increasing focus on sauce name creation is becoming key to sparking initial interest, especially among younger consumers looking for a signature menu item. Operators should consider spotlighting the originality of their sauce creations by putting thought into a name that will make an item stand out on the menu. Calling out attributes of the sauce within a name, such as the use of natural ingredients, unique flavour combinations or authentic ethnic spices, can make a dish particularly appealing as well.
Sauces are an essential way to impart flavours on a menu offering. To stay ahead of the curve, operators will need to place more emphasis on sauces as a way to distinguish their menus as original, flavourful and on trend. Expect to see sauce innovation that incorporates a growing concern for variety and customization, as well as draws inspiration from emerging ethnic cuisines and trendy global spirits.
About the author:
Kristin Menas is the Associate Editor, Canada & Adult Beverage at Technomic Inc. in Chicago. Technomic provides clients with the facts, insights and consulting support they need to enhance their business strategies, decisions and results. Its services include publications and digital products, as well as proprietary studies and ongoing research on all aspects of the food industry. Visit technomic.com.