Bringing Ethnic Flavors to QSRs

June 24, 2008

11 Min Read
Bringing Ethnic Flavors to QSRs

Fast food is as American as apple pie. Or is it? At first glance, peering up at the menu board in line at almost any fast-food chain, global and ethnic influences probably wont jump right out at you. Many consumers never venture past burgers, french fries and sodas.

But dig just a little deeper, and you might be surprised. A whole world of subtleand not-so-subtleethnic influences is cropping up on quick-service restaurant (QSR) menus.

Worldwide innovation

Ethnic influences are rather subtle at McDonalds, but theyre present nonetheless. Dan Coudraut, director of culinary innovation, McDonalds Corporation, Oak Brook, IL, explains that to add an item to the menu, the ingredient and concept must make sense and be familiar and relevant to our customer. They are gauging valueand especially dont want anything too polarizing.

One recent example of an ingredient that did not make it, but the overall concept did, is when they tried toasted pumpkin seeds on the Southwest Salad. Consumers didnt know what they were ... it was too much of a stretch, Coudraut concedes. The salad features cilantro-chili tortilla chips, a blend of poblano peppers, roasted tomatoes, fire-roasted corn, black beans and cilantro-lime chicken. Other globally influenced McDonalds menu items launched domestically include the Asian Salad, featuring orange-glazed chicken, snow peas, edamame, mandarin oranges, greens and toasted almonds served with low-fat sesame-ginger dressing, and the Chipotle BBQ Snack Wrap, with its smoky, sweet sauce.

Do these global ideas also work in other countries? We have to flex with the market, says Coudraut. Take the snack wrap. The beauty of it is that it can morph into any regions flavor profile. While the United States might appreciate honey mustard, chipotle barbecue or ranch as a dipping sauce, in Japan miso is perfect. Likewise, while the tortilla is mainstream here, he notes, in Germany its considered innovative.

American ethnic fare

Many ethnic concepts require Americanization to make it in QSR. We have identified ethnic solutions that are viable and that consumers are actively seeking, says Christian Kit Kiefer, corporate executive chef and director of culinary services, Schwans Food Service, Inc., Marshall, MN. We have discovered through testing that it is an American ethnic that they are looking for. Unlike fine dining, where customers may want steep Asian flavors such as fish sauce and cumin seed, while studying specific demographic trends in multi-unit chains, whether fried chicken or burger, we learned that most consumers want to dip their toes in to test the waters. What we have done in response is taken ethnic platforms and/or vehicles, such as a carrier or sauce, and marry it with American flavors we know consumers are interested in.

Recent items developed by Schwans for QSRs include Caramel Apple Bites (apple-pie filling and caramel rolled in a pot sticker wrapper, then breaded and fried) and a bacon-cheeseburger-stuffed egg roll. Though they have ingredients with worldly origins, the products are not marketed as such.

A recent peek at the Jack in the Box menu revealed several global options, including traditional egg rolls (with cabbage, carrot shreds, onion, celery and pork), tacos, a couple of chicken fajita pitas and stuffed jalapeños.

Universal trend tracking

In todays culture, ethnic eating is becoming increasingly difficult to define.... Once considered exotic, risotto, hummus, green tea and chipotle chiles are now commonplace, writes Eleanor Hanson, cofounder, FoodWatch, Edina, MN, in the Feb. 2007 issue of the companys newsletter. Furthermore, ethnic fusion has spawned many unlikely pairings: Tex Mex egg rolls, mango tandoori chicken pizza, and Parmesan-crusted Sicilian quesadillas, to name a few. One of the new trends we have been watching is the West Coast independent QSR chains. Many of them are featuring global street food and they are moving into our economy and our culture.

Some cutting-edge ethnic street foods currently seen in independent one-off or small, regional fast-food operations include noodle dishes (soba, ramen, pad Thai), soy saucebased dipping sauces and marinades, kebobs and satay, chaat (various savory Southeast Asian snacks), hummus, baba ghanouj, empanadas, and pho.

Hanson suggests we be on the lookout for portable Indian and vegetarian food, as well as Vietnamese bánh mì, a sandwich typically with pickled carrots and daikon radish, onions, cilantro, cucumber and meat, such as pork, chicken or meatballs, often dressed with Asian-style chili sauce, like sriracha. She says Southeast Asian ingredients, such as lemongrass, wasabi, hoisin, miso, cilantro and coriander, ponzu, and ginger, are becoming popular.


National and international QSR chains can often gain inspiration from independent fast-food eateries, such as Jhan Thong in San Rafael, CA, a grab-and-go Thai restaurant that has been in business for 20 years (with a second location in Santa Rosa, CA). It serves combo plates that allow patrons to choose from several optionsnot unlike the Chinese chain, Panda Expressas well as items like black bean eggplant, crispy spring rolls and pad Thai.

Seattle has its own micro-Asian trend: teriyaki restaurants (over 500 in Washington State with 300 around Seattle). These simple, inexpensive restaurants highlight glazed, grilled proteins and vegetables and are perceived as a healthy alternative to fast food.

Of particular interest is that many of the ethnic street foods and ingredients seem to be popping up in QSRs before appearing anywhere else, says Hanson. QSRs are influencing restaurants in a bubble-up fashion. After Chipotle menued barbacoa beef (slow simmered and shredded beef) it began showing up on upscale menus. Barbacoa is now considered a mainstream Mexican ingredient.

To help find the next potentially big thing in QSRland, cast your eyes on these bold, flavorful cuisines: Brazilian, Indian, Moroccan and Vietnamese. Look for signs of regionality and reinvention of Mexican and South American, Mediterranean, Asian and Middle Eastern foods, and techniques and flavor profiles in such items as okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pan-fried cakes with various regional ingredients), saganaki (Greek fried cheese), mojito (with its combination of sweet, citrus and mint) and chermoula (an all-purpose Mediterranean and North African marinade often with garlic, coriander, lemon juice and various other herbs and spices).

Starbucks found success with green-tea lattes and blended drinks. It has menued a Latin-influenced dulce de leche latte, partnered with a pastry-crust mango-pineapple empanadaa sweet rendition of a traditionally savory snack. Pinkberry, a dessert chain with units in California and New York, menus a green-tea frozen yogurt.

Creations Dessert House in San Francisco serves mango glutinous rice balls (mochi), an item likely ready for wider appeal as evidenced by the appearance of mochi ice cream in the frozen-food section of grocers these days. Pinkberry also carries mochi.

Some Indian chains to check out include MasalaWok, a casual Indian diner with a Chinese twist, with three locations in Texas and one in Virginia. Dishes at the chain include spinach masala served with paneer (vegetarian cheese) and rice with potato, lamb, chicken or shrimp curries.

The Spice Hut, the Indian fast food experience with four San Francisco locations, menus paratha (stuffed flatbread), biriyani (rice with spiced meat and/or vegetables), kebobs, paneer and vegetable cakes, tandoori shrimp, onion kulcha flatbread, and dosa (crispy rice cakes).

Look for reinvention or new twists on mainstream favorites like lasagna (along the lines of Pizza Huts Tuscani pastas), fish tacos, egg rolls and sushi. Also keep your eyes on local, organic, green and sustainable influences on global cuisines, and more American influences seeping abroad.

Global kings and angry Whoppers

In addition to the obvious draw for product developers working with international QSR clients, domestic R&D can benefit from keeping an eye on whats happening overseas to get some ideas for domestic expansionand sometimes these ideas are one in the same.


Pepper Jack cheese is a brand-new ingredient internationally, says Kevin Anderson, director of global product development, Burger King Brands, Inc., Miami. In May, we launched the new Indiana Jones Indy Double Whopper featuring pepper Jack, bacon and spicy sauce. The international name for the burger is the Adventure Whopper.

We are an American restaurant chain, and consumers go to Burger King throughout the world to have an American experience, continues Anderson, noting that 60% to 70% of the menu represents this core concept, with the Whopper, double cheeseburger and fries with American condiments, like ketchup, pickles and mayonnaise. But to supplement that core, we might do 20% to 25% of regionally influenced menu items reflecting local flavors, he says. For example, a teriyaki burger in Asia, English breakfast in the United Kingdom, a special menu for Ramadan in the Middle East. He notes that, in Thailand, consumers prefer dark meat to white.

Regional Italian might be a mainstay here, but its emerging in other locales, notes Anderson. Chicken Parmesan may seem pedestrian to us, but it is expanding globally, he says. For instance, Asia is considering it. Its a new flavor for them on chicken or on a burger. What we might consider very basic flavor exploration here is still just getting exposed there.

While most of its menu items follow a one-way route from the United States to overseas Burger King destinations, the chains new menu items could travel a reverse pathway. Consider the Angry Whopper, with jalapeños and spicy, fried angry onions, which started in England and then spread across central Europe ... and possibly sometime soon on these shores.

Around the world and back again

Our influence in globalizing food outside of the United States is at least equal toor perhaps greater thanglobal effects in this country. Beyond Happy Meals, Whoppers and shakes, our worldwide introductions of ethnic elements, whether emerging or mainstream in the QSR arena, are creating a melting pot of influence in far-reaching corners of the world.

In some QSRs, you might not see obvious ethnic influences, but they very well might be there. There may be a touch of hoisin or curry to add complexity to a salad dressing or dipping sauce, but it might not be marketed as globally influenced.

Aside from Chinese, Italian and Mexican chains, we still have quite a ways to go to effectively translate authenticity on consumer-acceptable levels into ethnic-inspired fast-food. Consumers want to go slow when testing new flavor profiles. We will continue to walk a fine line with the objective of delivering innovation and familiarity in the same bite.

At the same time, what we track in the United States as mainstream may be just beginning to emerge abroad as an exciting new ingredient in the global product-development pantry.

Kathleen Kennedy, CRC, is president and chief innovation officer for Sage Culinary Catalysts, Issaquah, WA, a menu development consultancy and consortium specializing in recipe, formula, limited-time-offer and menu development from ideation through commercialization and execution, as well as trend tracking, custom training programs and food communications. She has 20+ years food industry experience, ranging from culinary R&D at multi-unit chain restaurants, innovation for major branded and private-label food manufacturers, executive chef for catering, hotels and fine dining, to heading up a food communications and PR group at an international agency. For more information, log onto sageculinary.com .

Global Flavors on the American Menu

According to FoodCast, a proprietary trend forecasting tool from Gilroy Foods®, some of the freshest global food trends in the United States, like Thai food and North African meze, can serve as inspiration for quick-service.

Over the past two years, there has been a 31% increase in Thai-inspired menu items, notes Datassential, Los Angeles. Nearly half of this growth (47%) is happening in casual dining, and the trend is ripe for quick-service.

  • Foods like chicken, tofu and bananas on a stick;

  • Noodle and rice bowlsThailands quintessential fast foodare making headway on stateside QSR menus;

  • Spice up coleslaw with chiles, cilantro, lemongrass and roasted peanuts;

  • A little red curry paste and coconut milk go a long way toward making a mayonnaise or mustard decidedly Thai;

  • Take chicken wings from Buffalo to Bangkok with a sweet-and-spicy glaze rich in ginger, tamarind and chiles.

Another emerging flavor trend is North African cuisine, of which Moroccan cuisine is the most familiar to the American palate. Key Moroccan flavor components include olives, citrus, mint, cinnamon, cumin, beef, lamb and couscous.

  • Rub kebabs with chermoula, an herbal seasoning paste;

  • Make a Moroccan meatball sandwich with a pomegranate glaze instead of traditional marinara;

  • Wrap up fresh cheese and spinach into phyllo dough packets;

  • Serve up hummus spreads flavored with olive oil, lemon juice and plenty of roasted garlic.

Take a miniature burger or a grilled chicken strip anywhere in the world with an international condiment. Bold-flavored condiments not only let your customers pick their favorite flavors, they are easy to store and serve.

  • Try a spicy Thai peanut sauce or sweet chile dip;

  • Mediterranean yogurt dips are a fresh and flexible way to add a bit of flare to a sandwich wrap;

  • Smoke is a big winner this summerall it takes is a smoky barbecue sauce to bring the outdoors in.

Courtesy of Gilroy Foods (gilroyfoods.com) and Spicetec (spicetec.com)

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