One of the biggest trends to emerge in the foodservice industry over the past few years has been the rise of global cuisine. As American millennials and Gen Z diners are becoming a larger part of the country’s economy, appealing to this well-traveled generation is a must for restaurants. Not only do these discerning eaters have experience with a wide variety of global foods, but they embrace meal periods as opportunities for new flavor experiences.
This has given restaurants more opportunities than ever before to explore the rich ingredients, techniques, and flavors of other cultures and to bring bold new dishes to prominence in the American culinary landscape.
But these younger diners have also been driving another trend: snacking. Many millennial and Gen-Z diners don’t divide their meals into three traditional dayparts like previous generations. Instead, many prefer to snack on more frequent, smaller portions throughout the day. As Mintel reported in 2017, although the number of people who said they eat snacks stayed the same, the number of people who said they snack two or three times a day increased from 50 to 55 percent in just two years.
Additionally, there are health benefits to eating more frequent, smaller snacks, and as health-conscious generations, millennials and their Gen Z counterparts are looking for foods that are rich in nutritional value and that provide energy throughout the day. Mintel also reported that 33 percent of diners feel they are snacking on healthier foods than they did the year before. Diners now often search for foods that are not only considered “lighter” fare, but they also want foods that provide functional benefits. Snack foods rich in a protein like pork, for example, can provide both a tasty treat and one that sustains diners throughout the day.
In fact, the NPD Group reported in “Snack Foods Are Increasingly Consumed at Main Meals” in 2017, that it’s because millennials and Gen-Z diners are more health-conscious, are often found in solo households, and they crave convenience that snacking is growing as a trend across the U.S. as a whole. “A lot of people are constantly on the go, and they are dining in a way that will sustain them throughout the day,” says James Canter, executive chef, owner, and operator of Guerilla Gourmet. “But they still want unique dishes.”
Because today’s diners are embracing these bold global flavors, they are not likely to be enticed by something they consider boring or bland. Mintel also reported that 70 percent of American diners now feel that anything can be considered a snack. This means that with proper portioning and marketing, restaurants are free to explore virtually any food in snack form. And because so many diners want to try the bold new dishes coming to the U.S. on the heels of the global food trend, operators can increase the odds that consumers will choose their restaurants for their next snack by combining the best of both of these trends.
While this is a departure from the way restaurants have typically operated by expanding their snack-sized menu offerings with bold flavors, they are in prime position to not only attract these diners for their next snacking occasion, but also to keep them coming back for more with their diverse global offerings. Combining these trends also allows these diners to try unfamiliar foods in a less risky way. While a typical entrée may cost somewhere between $12 and $25, depending on the restaurant, snacks allow guests to try flavors and ingredients they don’t know for a fraction of the cost, making them more likely to try new dishes. This makes the food less of a commitment, and smaller, portable portions allow them to share with friends, Canter says.
The trick to a successful global snacking program, however, is that new dishes must still work within the restaurant’s concept. Though many consumers want to try new dishes, they must also be comfortable with what they see on the menu. But Canter says that this should not keep chefs and restaurant owners from embracing the global snacking trend.
“There are a lot of misconceptions in how approachable global snacking is,” he says. “The names of some of these dishes and ingredients may seem alien to people who don’t have access to a lot of knowledge about these diverse cuisines. They may not understand what shawarma is, but if you describe it as highly spiced chunks of meat served on pita bread with accoutrements, they get it. Vernacular is king.”
Another strategy Canter suggests is tying more exotic ingredients to the local culture with mashups. “Here in Texas there is a large presence of Vietnamese culture on our coast,” he says. “What I do is combine Tex-Mex with Vietnamese, Cajun, and Creole influences, like Bahn Mi with smoked brisket, or I’ll mix the ultimate Japanese comfort food—ramen—with Texas barbecue.”
Another tactic is to use a protein commonly found in American cuisine that is also commonly consumed across many cultures, like pork. For example, Canter says that when he was working with Smithfield, he put new twists on classic dishes by using pork. For example, his twist on Cuban Ropa Vieja was to use pork in a sofrito and serve it with plantain taco shells. And because a taco is a portable format, it goes well on snacking menus to attract new diners.
“Pork is a go-to protein that reaches across so many cultures,” he says. “It lends itself well to so many cuisines and can be used in almost any type of dish to translate these foods to a broader audience that may be less familiar with more traditional preparations.”
With so many options for ways to incorporate global snacks, restaurants can embrace almost any food and update it in a portable format or snack-sized serving to attract new diners. The only real limit is what fits within a specific restaurant’s concept and what can be translated to the restaurant’s audience, Canter says. “There really aren’t too many rules for putting twists on global cuisine, as long as the final conceptualization of the dish is understandable and makes sense.”