Condiments provide quick, on-trend flavor fixes for chain menus.
This article first appeared in the 15 July 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor
Ketchup. Mayonnaise. Mustard. These kings of the condiment station once covered nearly every saucy need a diner might have.
But with chains looking to satisfy increasingly savvy palates, condiments' Big Three are sharing the spotlight with a broad array of flavor boosters. "People are getting accustomed to new tastes and styles," says Kevin Bechtel, senior vice president of research and development for Beaverton, Ore.-based Shari's Restaurant & Pie Bakery, which uses purchased mayonnaise-based pesto sauce on the recently introduced Oh So Pesto Pacific Salmon Sandwich.
Condiments play a role in all industry segments. Quick-service concepts use them to create premium items, something that Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's discovered years ago with "special sauce" for its signature Big Mac. Carpinteria, Calif.-based Carl's Jr. distinguishes its recently added taco salad with scratch-made tomato salsa. Fast-casual and casual-dining chains do the same, as with Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Red Robin Gourmet Burgers' taco salad spiced with signature Chili Chili salsa or the proprietary honey mustard with which Ridgeland, Miss.-based McAlister's Deli dresses its sandwiches.
Some chains choose to define themselves not only by the meat of the matter but also by the sauce. This can lead to unbridled condiment competition. At Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, 14 signature wing sauces (and counting)-ranging from Parmesan Garlic to Honey BBQ-are so much the menu's focus that guests often request them as a dipping sauce for french fries.
"It is a point of differentiation for us. We're constantly in development to create menu items with signature sauces," says Kathy Benning, senior vice president of marketing and brand development. The variety of sauces "allows our guests to customize their meals," she says. Bottled sauces also are sold for home use, extending the brand's reach while generating additional revenue.
Great flavor is important, but a good name helps too. Taco Del Mar's new Mojito Burrito with lime-cilantro sauce is the Seattle-based chain's most successful introduction. Paul Curhan, vice president of marketing and advertising, says the company took advantage of the widespread popularity of the rum-and-mint cocktail when naming the new item, even though its sauce bears no flavor resemblance to the cocktail. Curhan maintains that it is a derivative of a green simmering sauce in Latin America also called mojito.
With burritos dressed up like cocktails in advertisements-though not at stores-the new sauce has caught the public's eye. "No one else has anything like it," says Curhan. With guests asking for the mojito sauce on tacos, taco salads and with chips, its run has been extended.
Developing proprietary sauces with manufacturers requires close working relationships. "Set expectations up front," advises Buffalo Wild Wings' Benning. Curhan agrees and advises chains to develop clear flavor profiles before approaching vendors. He also cautions that the hardest aspect of creating a sauce is making a product that can be duplicated on a large scale. "You need to be involved in the process so there are no surprises," he says.
Buy Right While prepared products can update a menu, operators say crossover applications should be considered. "I have 18 different sandwiches," Shari's Bechtel says. "I can't have 18 sauces."
The purchased pesto sauce Shari's uses on the salmon sandwich also is warmed without breaking and drizzled over salmon for Pesto Salmon Pasta Alfredo. "I look for a sauce that has a broad appeal and multiple applications," he explains, noting that he is working on a turkey pesto sandwich.
Some condiments can't be made in house. Others, such as those used by Solon, Ohio-based Claddagh Irish Pub, can't be purchased domestically either.
"We import products," says Greg Jones, director of operations for Claddagh, a casual-dining concept built around providing an authentic Irish pub experience. "People recognize that we carry a true malt vinegar," he says. The vinegar Claddagh imports from Ireland-along with brown sauce and bramble jelly-has distinctive Irish flavors not easily duplicated. "We do bring that piece of Ireland to our menu," Jones says.