Creation Trends: Flashes in the pan

Dec. 15, 2003
How to tell the difference between what's sizzlin' and what's fizzlin'
By Marc Halperin, Contributing Editor

To the list of public-opinion pulse-takers already crowded with pollsters, pundits, political strategists, market research gurus and mall interceptors, go ahead and add your local executive chef.

Yep, those folks under the toques presiding over a hot, hectic kitchen may think and talk like artists, but they're also businesspeople who can't allow their creative impulses to bound around unchecked. They always have to consider the realities of the marketplace, which means they're continually checking to see which of their inspirations is clicking and which is best consigned to the "nice ideas" drawer.

You see, each time a chef tries out a new special, he or she receives immediate feedback from the consumer. It's not the kind of formal research those who obsess over margins of error put a lot of stock in, but it is research all the same. And if you want an early read on food trends before they go mainstream, it's research of a particularly insightful kind. Chefs, after all, are the "early adopters" of the culinary world -- the first to unearth, import, and test new ingredients and new ingredient combinations. And, of course, they also devise new culinary concoctions, many of which ultimately trickle into the rest of the world.

A culinary atlas

For a dozen years now, we at the Center for Culinary Development (CCD) have looked to our Chefs' Council, comprised of 80 of the nation's most prominent chefs, to help us identify emerging food trends. Through the years, we've devised and validated a technique for determining which trends are, in current marketing parlance, "gaining traction," and which are simply flashes in the pan. We call it "Trend Mapping," and for those whose job it is to stay abreast of what's hot , or soon to be -- in the food world it's a remarkably useful tool. It obviously helps that CCD is located in San Francisco, where so many food-related trends are born.

Trend Mapping is guided by the premise that major food trends pass through five distinct stages on their way to the mainstream:

* First, the ingredient, dish and/or cooking technique appears at upscale dining establishments and popular independent San Francisco restaurants blessed with creative chefs and diners with adventurous palates. These are places where good ideas can get a sympathetic airing with an eager audience. Think about it: Do you remember the first time you tried roasted garlic? It was probably at just such a place.

* Next, it's featured in specialty consumer-oriented food publications, such as Gourmet, Food & Wine and Bon Appetit.

* In stage 3, the item in question begins to appear in mainstream chain restaurants , Applebee's, say, or Chili's -- as well as gourmet retail stores such as Williams-Sonoma.

* In stage 4, the women's magazines and family-oriented publications , Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens -- pick up the buzz.

* Finally, the trend makes its way to quick-service restaurant menus, and to grocery store shelves.

Through CCD's Trend Mapping process, we can identify where virtually any trend is in the cycle, how far it is likely to go, and how fast it will get there.

Peppering the menu

Consider the example of chipotle. A decade ago, perhaps only one in 10,000 of us had heard of -- or could pronounce -- this now ubiquitous chile. Today, chipotle is a fixture in everything from quick service restaurant chicken sandwiches to mainstream mayonnaise. So how did this formerly obscure ingredient evolve from curiosity to constant presence?

As best we can determine, the foundation was laid in restaurants such as Jeff Saad's Sweet Heat in San Francisco around 1993 or so. Jeff's menu in those days featured several chipotle dipping sauces, which proved unusually popular with his regulars. Because other creative restaurateurs were fiddling with chipotle at about the same time, the foodie magazines, with their nose for news, began to take notice. Between 1993 and 1999, the number of recipes featuring chipotle in those publications grew from one per year to as many as 23. During the same period, cookbooks featuring chipotle, some with titles such as "Sweet Heat," found favor among those in the culinary know.

Not long after, chains such as Chevy's Fresh Mex began featuring "smoked bacon chipotle" sauces. By 2002, Better Homes and Gardens had provided its readership with 74 different recipes with chipotle-based ingredients in them. That same year, Jack in the Box and Subway were offering chipotle chicken sandwiches. Today, one can wander through local grocery store aisles and toss French's GourMayo Chipotle Chili or any number of chipotle-based dipping and barbecue sauces into his cart.

We've performed similar analyses of other once-trendy, now ubiquitous foodstuffs, including the Caesar salad, the latte, salsa and pesto, and the pattern of penetration is almost always identical. Meanwhile, we're keeping a close eye on such burgeoning phenomena as artisan cheeses and herb-infused desserts to see whether they'll eventually gain mass acceptance.

Of course, not every great idea that comes tumbling out of a brilliant chef's kitchen will catch on with consumers the way chipotle or pesto have. Tall desserts, boutique pasta shapes and so-called extreme foods featuring searing-hot spice concentrations, all of which were generating much attention not long ago, seem to have run their course.

Still, if your goal is to get wind of a great new trend before it's caught fire, it pays to keep a close eye on what leading chefs are up to, and to bear in mind that the next big thing always starts out small.

As culinary director and partner at San Francisco's Center for Culinary Development and as a trained chef, Marc Halperin assists food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research. E-mail him at [email protected].

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