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July 13, 2007 / Tony

Anything new at your neighborhood chain restaurant?

The NY Times has an intriguing article about how chain restaurants try to anticipate what new food items their customers will want to eat.  You should read it; it paints a nice picture of how a small part of the restaurant industry works. 

Two quotes particularly interested me:

Every food company and restaurant, large or small, profits through its ability to predict customer desire. Get it right — realize, say, that people are ready for Italian-inspired coffee — and you become Starbucks.

Get it wrong, though, and customers disappear, along with revenues. As a result, chains and large food manufacturers dance a sometimes awkward tango with novelty. Flavors that would evoke yawns in acclaimed restaurants in Chicago or Los Angeles must be approached with caution by chains. While a chef in Manhattan might discover a new ingredient in the morning and have it on the menu by dinnertime, a corporate executive faced with the same ingredient will react with a lengthy regime of recipe development and test-marketing.

This process used to mean that it took years for the discoveries of a few elite tastemakers to make their way into the mainstream. But executives at food companies say they no longer have that kind of time. Interest in new flavors has accelerated, they say, as the country’s racial and ethnic makeup becomes more varied and as new ingredients and combinations appear on television. As a result, their efforts to keep up have accelerated, too.

and

For the most part, however, [The Atlanta Bread Company] has focused less on ethnic dishes and more on sauces and spreads that can make a sandwich seem more sophisticated. For example, it puts a sun-dried tomato topping on its turkey sandwich, served on ciabatta. “They still want their chicken salad, they still want their turkey, but they want sun-dried-tomato spread and pesto.”

What I think we are seeing in these two quotes is the uneasy tension in our nation’s palate between the “new” and the familiar.*  It seems clear that America is receptive to new flavors but being “new” isn’t enough to guarantee success.  Instead, there must be some other factor that moves people to try and accept a new food.  But what is this x-factor?  Is it Emeril LaGasse shouting about it on his ghastly Food Network show?  Is it a recipe that begins to sweep the nation?  Is it an influx of immigrants?  Or is it just hanging around long enough that people begin to see it as not unfamiliar? 

I don’t really know.  But what I do think is that people are much more likely to try a new ingredient if it is coupled with something familiar.  That’s where the second quote is so insightful.  Americans are not willing to give up their cherished foods (and why should they?).  But they are willing to try new variations and twists on it.  I can’t foresee any future where Americans don’t’ eat chicken salad but I can see a future where chicken salad is flavored with wasabi or mixed with tofu or spiced with schimi or tossed with some new exotic vegetable.  And once Americans are familiar with the new flavors in their tried and true dishes, they will be much more likely to try them in new and more exciting settings.  And if they do that, it is fair to say that America has embraced a new flavor.  Although, at that point, the flavor really isn’t so new anymore.  If everyone is eating it, then it isn’t on the cutting edge anymore.  And hence, the quest for the next great food fad will start again.  It’s sort of funny I suppose-the name of the game is to find something new and exotic that you can turn into something familiar and boring. 

*Of course, we are talking here about chain restaurants and average American Joes and Janes.  I am certainly not addressing whether Wolfgang Puck or Thomas Keller or any other celebrity chef can get away with using a new and novel food item in their menus.  What I am addressing is how what was novel becomes mainstream. 

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