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The Key to Finding ‘Hidden Opportunities’ in Foodservice – on the Menu and Beyond

Consumer Insights, Food Trends, Ingredient Trends, Menu Trends, Sales Effectiveness
Finding Hidden Opportunities

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Knowing the latest food trends is one thing, but how does a restaurant owner or foodservice operator get their customers to try the latest flavors and menu items?

It’s as simple (and as challenging) as the advice you give when trying to convince your kids to eat their vegetables: Try them, and you just might like them.

It turns out there are a lot of foods that consumers tend to quickly grow to love as soon as they become aware of them and try them for the first time. Problem is, they just haven’t discovered them yet. 

In 2023, perhaps more than ever before, having success in introducing new foods and flavors that both meet consumers’ changing tastes and allow them to push the boundaries of what they say they like is the key to evolving an innovative menu that will keep customers coming back.

Datassential and Chef Charlie Baggs brought these insights to life at the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association’s (IFMA) COEX conference. Here are some key highlights:

Hidden Opportunities

To find hidden menu opportunities, you need to snuff out the foods, flavors and ingredients that consumers tend to try when they hear about them, and tend to like when they try them. 

If a food or ingredient has both a high trial conversion rate (they hear about it and then try it), and a high affinity conversion rate (they try it and like it), these are safe bets. 

Datassential can identify these likely winners easily through an analysis of our consumer preferences database, which tracks consumer interest for over 4,000 foods, beverages, and ingredients.

Take carne asada as an example. Plenty of consumers are willing to try the Latin grilled steak dish when they find out about it, and a majority say they love it or like it when they try it. But 40% of consumers are still unfamiliar with the dish, providing a huge opportunity for the right operator to put it on the menu.

But it’s not just about awareness – the key is that consumers must be interested in them once they hear about them. Items like prickly pear, lavender and horseradish are known by a majority of consumers, but tried by far less. 

So what are some examples of foods and ingredients in the “sweet spot” that consumers will likely love or like once they try it? Elote, burnt ends and barbacoa all tend to score high in consumer affinity once people try it, but there are many consumers that aren’t yet aware of them.

A Growing Latin Appetite

See a theme in the dishes and flavors that are considered “hidden opportunities”? They’re largely Latin foods, which continue to pull ahead in terms of consumers’ preferred cuisines – particularly in young people. While Italian cuisine is still America’s favorite, 45% of Gen Z consumers say they’d choose Latin food if they could only eat one cuisine for the rest of their lives. 

And while Italian food has declined on menus, Latin flavors – and the desire for them – is only growing stronger. In fact, 3 of the 10 flavors that Datassential predicts will be everywhere this year – birria, mangonada and salsa macha – are Latin flavors. 

Cuisines Made for Restaurants

Asian food is also a sweet spot for growth. Asian cuisines are the most desired away-from-home (at restaurant or retail) by consumers; Japanese and Korean top the list. 

Asian food of all types, from Indian to Japanese, will be gaining ground in the years to come as consumers increase both their interest and trial. (The three ingredients/flavors Datassential named as ones to watch in the future are cherry blossom, ube and yuzu.)

Overall, a recent Datassential survey revealed that younger generations continue to seek out global flavors beyond the standards of Chinese, Mexican and Italian: 58% of Gen Z consumers and 48% of Millennials said they ate a globally influenced dish within the past week, compared with 19% of Boomers.

The Big Picture

As foodservice operators know all too well, it’s not just innovative food and exciting menus that keep customers coming back. It’s about customer service and a number of other factors as well, including, increasingly, sustainability

A majority of consumers – 70% – say it’s important that the food they eat is grown on farms using sustainable practices. And while regenerative agriculture – another one of our 2023 trends – may be new to consumers, most of them agree with the practice. 

While adding new and exciting items to the menu, it’s key to also think sustainability – whether it’s through food purchases or decisions on take-out containers – consumers want what’s best for the environment. 

One-fifth (21%) of consumers will go out of their way to seek out a sustainable place when deciding where to eat. And if a restaurant, for example, featured local ingredients in their dishes, 24% of consumers say they would pay more to dine there. 

But much like the hidden opportunities above, this is also a critical one not to be missed: 38% of operators make sustainability efforts, but don’t promote them to customers. So whether it’s a new ingredient or a massive change toward being more environmentally friendly, the biggest hurdle is letting consumers know, and they’ll be sure to reward you.


Megan Lynberg is the Vice President of Sales at Datassential.

If you would like to learn more about Datassential’s suite of food and beverage intelligence solutions, reach out to us here.