The drive for novel condiments continues, but operators steer clear of saucy impertinence.
This article first appeared in the 15 May 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor
When it comes to flavor trends, condiments are early adopters, leading the front line and flaunting the newest ingredients, combinations and ethnic cuisines. Whether served tentatively on the side or boldly incorporated into a dish, condiments such as dipping sauces, spreads and relishes invite consumers to evaluate and enjoy contenders for the next big flavor sensation. And amid all the interest and buzz, their popularity continues to grow.
"There's a high demand from customers for condiments," says Chef de Cuisine Matt Hellyar, who prepares vibrant green compound butters, shallot marmalades and house-made ketchup to complement items on his upscale, New American menu at Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, D.C.
With their versatility of form, condiments are frequently used as brand differentiators. Take last year's popular Mojito Burrito campaign from Seattle-based Taco Del Mar. By incorporating a Latin American lime-and-cilantro simmering sauce called mojito, the chain capitalized on the popularity of the cocktail of the same name, making its burritos stand apart from others in the marketplace.
For Atlanta-based Raving Brands' Boneheads, the bet is on a lemon-based hot sauce made with small, African piri piri peppers. Chiles also factor into a proprietary hot sauce served by St. Augustine, Fla.-based Coastal Restaurant Group at its South Beach Grill and JT's Seafood Shack concepts. Corporate Chef John Doering makes a sauce incorporating local datil peppers.
EVOS, a health-conscious quick-service concept headquartered in Tampa, Fla., offers oven-baked fries with ketchups in flavors such as Garlic Gravity and Cayenne Firewalker. They are served from a condiment station branded the Ketchup Karma Bar.
"The whole purpose is to have some fun," says Dino Lambridis, co-owner of the four-unit chain. "Every restaurant should do something original that makes it stand out."
Bob Davis, corporate executive chef for Columbus, Ohio-based casual chain Max & Erma's, knows he has to compete with the crowd of specialty condiments available in the retail sector.
"The expectation of the guest is that we have to do better than they can do at home. If they can get the flavors at the grocery store and do it at home, then I've lost my value proposition," he says.
To keep his edge, Davis incorporates condiments into the cooking process. "I'm making sure that each menu item is holistic in itself. The sauce is a component of the dish rather than an afterthought. Ten years ago, we would have put it on the side," he explains.
He marinates chicken wings in freshly made jerk barbecue sauce and tosses chicken in sauce before serving. Davis also sees the value in offering fresh sauces when appropriate. For the jerk barbecue sauce, cooks sauté poblano and jalapeño peppers with red bell peppers on location, then blends vegetables with a proprietary, purchased jerk paste.
Freshness, quality and personal flair inspire many independent operators to make condiments from scratch. Matt Gennuso, chef of Chez Pascal in Providence, R.I., serves local-brand hot dogs from a cart. As the cart is a warm-weather addition to the upscale restaurant he owns with his wife, it's only natural that he offers seasonal, house-made condiments such as rhubarb relish, Vidalia-onion relish, smoked-tomato ketchup and spicy brown mustard. The attention he devotes to the humble hot dog helps draw business to Chez Pascal.
Yet he acknowledges a drawback. "People don't realize how much time it takes to make condiments," Gennuso says. He also notes that house-made versions still need to be augmented with classic branded condiments as well.
Like Gennuso and his hot dog cart, casual restaurant Duck Fat in Portland, Maine, offers a variety of house-made condiments to complement its rich, duck-fat-fried fries. So far, varieties include duck gravy as well as house-made mayonnaises (including curry, malt vinegar and garlic flavors), which have stirred enough interest to encourage repeat business. "We have a great group of regulars who like to try different condiments every time they come in," says General Manager Matthew Smith.
Ralph Rosenberg, director of operations for Washington, D.C.-based Star Restaurant Group, adheres to a more-the-merrier philosophy with condiments. When a guest asked for hot sauce at now-closed Red Sage, Rosenberg says servers would present a tray with eight hot sauces. "Instead of being afraid to offer them, you should go over the top," he advises.
The trend continues at Star Restaurant‘s concept, Zola, in Washington, D.C. When jumbo crab sticks joined the menu, choice of a proper dipping sauce was debated. Ultimately, two house-made varieties were selected: peanut sauce and roasted-vegetable aïoli.
However, more condiments on any dish is not always better, Rosenberg acknowledges. "Does it need it? We argue about that every day," he says.
Along with the quest for novelty, there also is foot dragging among many diners when faced with change. Classic condiments, such as ketchup, remain must-haves in most operations, be it on the table or served on request.
There are the times when creativity can get the better of any operator. "We used to take too much poetic license with the basics," says Rosenberg, referring to Zola's condiments. "But ketchup was the most interesting thing. We did a chipotle ketchup and a sun-dried tomato ketchup and the more we did, the more people would ask for basic ketchup."
However, there is wiggle room, particularly if subtlety is employed. At Duck Fat, purchased ketchup gets a dash of truffle oil, which hasn't drawn too many complaints from patrons. "That really complements the duck-fat fries," Smith reasons.
While devising his ketchup recipe for Blue Duck Tavern, Hellyar spent a month getting the flavor right. "We had to produce something that's familiar to the palate, but we're giving it a fresh twist," he says.