As consumers search for bold flavor, more restaurants explore authentic ethnic cuisine.

Consumers are no longer content to eat only foods that are familiar to them; instead, today’s diners are searching for taste adventures. This puts pressure on restaurants to find new ways to add variety to menus and to engage with global flavors. The benefit, however, is that as more consumers embrace new foods, restaurants are able to use new ingredients and cooking techniques that they may not have been able to sell before.

“The time to explore global cuisine is now,” says Ernest Servantes, a Smithfield pitmaster. “Consumers are much more knowledgeable when it comes to menus nowadays and are more informed due to social media and the Internet. They understand concepts like ‘organic’ and ‘Korean barbecue,’ and they are willing to pay more for these types of foods.”

Today’s diners are also well-traveled and more familiar with ethnic dishes. Due to increased exposure to global fare, many consumers are in search of authentic preparations of these foods in the U.S. This makes it crucial for restaurants to focus on offering these bold new flavors in forms and presentations that match the cultures from which they come. Additionally, with so much of industry focusing on global cuisine in one way or another, it can be challenging for brands to stand out, and simply offering ethnic dishes is no longer enough to do so. This means that restaurants must find underexplored cuisines, dishes, and preparations.

Global barbecue is one way restaurants can check all these boxes. Not only does it still have room to grow on American restaurant menus, but because barbecue is so ubiquitous worldwide, it also provides ample opportunities to explore virtually any flavor combination in an authentic way. With so many forms and distinct flavor profiles, it can be adapted to fit virtually any concept.

Barbecue transcends global borders and takes humans back to historical roots, Servantes says. “Barbecue is so primordial because you’re using wood and fire in ways that they have been used since the dawn of time,” he says. “Every culture in the world has its own version of barbecue, from Africa or South America to Asia, the Middle East, or Europe.”

The innate familiarity consumers have with barbecue, regardless of background, can help restaurants break through traditional barriers and reduce common risks of introducing unfamiliar ingredients and flavors to the menu. While offering new types of dishes requires an often-untested investment in terms of new ingredients, some restaurants are reluctant to add these new foods to the menu in case diners won’t order those items and inventory goes to waste.

That doesn’t mean that restaurants can’t use these less familiar flavors and ingredients, however. Because barbecue is so well-known, it can be a great entry point for many consumers to begin exploring global flavors, because they understand the concept even if they don’t know the ingredients in a specific dish. Additionally, restaurants can use creative menu callouts to explain unfamiliar words to diners. For example, some diners might not know a dishes traditional name, but if the menu calls it “barbecue pork shoulder,” consumers will understand the dish. These techniques can help restaurants build trust with consumers over time so that diners may be inclined to more freely explore these ingredients in later visits.

Specials can also help restaurants introduce consumers to new flavors and ingredients, Servantes says. “We chefs don’t want to plan a whole menu on global barbecue or global cuisine and then turn customers away with it. Keep your brand standards, and then slowly incorporate different kinds of global barbecue into your specials, and if one is a hit, it might become a signature dish on your menu.”

Protein choices are also important in ensuring customers are excited by new global dishes. Not only must the base of the dish be flavorful, but consumers want it to be authentic to the cuisine that’s being served. Choosing popular proteins found commonly in both global cuisine and barbecue can help restaurants appeal to consumers’ sense of adventure, as well as provide comfort to ensure a dish is ordered.

Pork is a strong choice, Servantes says. “In a lot of cuisines, pork, lamb, and chicken are frequently used, but pork is so complementary to so many flavors. It holds up well to flavors and cooking techniques, and it’s inviting. You can go extreme with flavors when you use or pork, or you can go very subtle equally well.”

He says that pork belly is a particularly popular option among diners, and it can be grilled, smoked, or cooked sous vide. Pork chops, loin, and ribs are all also effective proteins for authentic global barbecue dishes, whether exploring Latin American, Southeast Asian, or Mediterranean cuisine.

Even the most creative dishes, however, must fit within a restaurant’s concepts to ensure guests have a cohesive dining experience. Servantes suggests choosing global barbecue that already ties in with a brand’s other offerings. “If you have Southwest flavor, go Mexican, or go with Thai if you work with Asian foods,” he says. “And be careful not to go too extreme. Don’t get a recipe with a name that customers can’t even pronounce, because that makes it hard to persuade them to buy it.”

Another strategy to set apart a restaurant menu is to gain inspiration from other types of foodservice operations and bring that food into full-service. For example, even though food trucks are not full-service, this doesn’t mean that full-service chefs can’t take inspiration from portable street food around the world.

“The cool thing and food trends across the industry right now is that you can not only make food elegant, but you serve street food anywhere, too,” Servantes says. “Street tacos, like Tacos al Pastor, and skewers, like an Argentinian-inspired creation, can still be used in full service.”

Regardless of a restaurant’s concept, global barbecue provides so many diverse options for flavors and formats that any brand can use it to find innovative new options to add to the menu. Though global cuisine does require some education of consumers, Servantes says not to let this get in the way of trying new flavors and ingredients. “Customers now compared to 10 years ago aren’t even customers in the traditional sense; they are foodies. They bring out their phones and take photos of dishes and aren’t as afraid to try new things and new trends as you might think,” he says. “They are not stuck on old normal cuisine, so try something new.” 

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