The brand surveys customers in its loyalty programs, asking how they’d respond to lighter dishes with less heavy sauces before rolling out. Based on their feedback, he says, “What we’re trying to do is meet consumer demands for bolder flavors, slightly different ingredients, and things they perceive as a little bit healthier.”
And yet one of its signature dishes is “fire-grilled, bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin medallions and bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp,” which doesn’t sound low-cholesterol or less fatty. Lin says there must be moderation, given the reality many customers, especially those electing for a sit-down Mexican chain, still want to indulge. “People like it and order it. It’s one of our guilty pleasures,” he says of the dish.
Lin says Abuelo’s is walking a fine line between comfort food that many people crave and healthier alternatives that millennials and others are now seeking. “We clearly have indulgent foods on our menu. If you want to eat a thousand calories of cheese and bacon and cream, that will be available on our menu,” he says.
Many people enter a Mexican eatery with noble intentions and then can’t resist the cheese-filled quesadillas or nachos. “The best thing we can do is offer people choices. We’re here to serve our guests,” he says.
In the future, Lin expects more items on Abuelo’s menu will consist of “a better pedigree in sourcing, more organic, more hormone-free, that train has left the station. A restaurant that doesn’t evolve with consumer tastes and trends, they’ll be left behind,” he says.
And at Cantina Laredo, which has 36 outlets in mostly Southern states from Texas to Florida, with plans to add nine units in 2018, its Dallas-based president Jose Luis Magana says its menu includes several modern and authentic Tex-Mex dishes that derive from the main chef who hails from Monterrey and goes beyond traditional burritos and enchiladas.
But it also includes an increasing number of tapas dishes. These items attract younger diners who gravitate toward shareable plates.
“The tapas items allow our guests to try flavor-filled dishes, without having to take out a second mortgage,” says Bill Watson, director of marketing at Cantina Laredo.
Customers are saying that they prefer to dine on fresh items, Magana says. “Our fish is flown in daily; our produce comes in daily,” he says. The items have to be processed and served that day to ensure freshness. No one likes to dine on yesterday’s salsa.
Moreover, Magana adds his clientele is asking for more nutritious items on the menu, explaining why ahi tuna tacos have been added. “Our customers are asking for healthier items. And we need to deliver,” he says.
Watson adds that the 36 general managers serve as the primary pipeline for tapping consumer preference, whether it is in person, on Yelp or TripAdvisor. If one in five people is a wild card and wants a healthy item, and Cantina Laredo offers it, it overcomes the veto vote, he says. Cantina Laredo menu offers 20 gluten-free items on the menu.
The Mexican chains that ignore these changing dietary trends do so at their own risk. “As people and their dietary preferences evolve, if you don’t adapt, you could hold on to a certain amount of your clientele, but eventually it’ll catch up to you. Even Taco Bell has salads,” Johnson & Wales’ instructor Britt says.