“Flat what?” That’s what everyone was asking when Starbucks introduced the flat white to its menu in January. “Starbucks is introducing a new drink to its menu that you’ve probably never heard of,” said ABC News. “Starbucks to serve a coffee Americans know little about,” announced CNN. “The first time I order a flat white, I have no idea what I’ve just asked for,” wrote Fast Company.
To many observers, the flat white seemingly came out of nowhere. But, like most trends (and fads), from kale to sriracha, the flat white wasn’t an overnight sensation — in fact, it has been appearing on international coffeehouse menus for years. At Datassential, we saw it pop up over and over again in International Concepts, our monthly trendspotting report that tracks international chain trends and menus. You’ll find it on the menu at U.K.-based Costa Coffee, the second largest coffeehouse chain in the world (after Starbucks); at South Korean Caffebene, which today has more than 1,800 cafes in a dozen countries (including 120 in the U.S.); even at McDonald’s restaurants in Australia (which is often cited as the home country of the flat white, though this is much disputed).
But if nobody in the U.S. knows what a flat white is, why put it on U.S. menus? At Datassential, we track a trend’s lifecycle using the Menu Adoption Cycle, or MAC. Trends follow a predictable pattern — starting at fine dining and ethnic independent restaurants in Inception, moving to casual independents and fast casuals in Adoption, becoming more mainstream in Proliferation, and reaching full maturity in Ubiquity. For years, the American consumer appetite leaned towards safe, mainstream foods — foods in the Proliferation stage of the MAC. But that’s changing, and now consumers are shifting their focus one stage earlier, to Adoption, seeking out more ethnic foods and adventurous dining options. In fact, some trend-aware U.S. consumers were already well aware of the flat white; we tested the drink with consumers last November, before Starbucks had announced it was adding it to the menu. At the time 16% of U.S. consumers were “very interested” in trying the drink, while one in 10 already had.
As consumers become more adventurous and food-aware, with more information available to them and more opportunities to try new foods, the trend cycle is moving faster. While it used to take 12 years to move through the MAC, in recent years that timeline has compressed — in half. Today restaurants and food companies have to move faster and adopt new trends earlier not only to be certain that they are meeting customer needs, but to ensure that their brand is perceived as fresh and innovative. And customers are increasingly accustomed to going out of their way for a signature dish or experience that they can’t get anywhere else, whether it’s a cronut, the “perfect” fried chicken sandwich, the biscuit everyone is talking about, or the latest international coffee trend.
Now many restaurants and food brands are increasingly looking to global flavors to spice up the menu — literally, when it comes to flavors like sriracha and harissa. But a number of the top-growing dishes, flavors, and ingredients in recent years have been inspired by or directly imported from countries around the world — think Asian-inspired dishes like ramen and bao, international cheeses like burrata and cotija, and carriers like naan or roti. So which global flavors could start showing up next on U.S. menus? Here are just a few of the international trends that are readily available on international chain menus and could make the leap to the U.S.:
- Peri Peri – This spicy sauce/marinade is the flavor of choice at many chicken-focused restaurant chains around the world, including Nando’s, a South Africa-based chain with over 1,000 global locations. The chain recently announced plans to expand beyond its 20 U.S. restaurants in the Washington, DC, area (three are currently slated for Chicago this year).
- Cortados and babyccinos – Could these coffee drinks be the next flat white? The Spanish cortado, an espresso cut with a small amount of steamed milk, is rarely seen outside of Miami in the U.S., but is widely available overseas. You’ll also find the babycino/babyccino on many international coffeehouse menus — similar to a “steamer” in the U.S., the babyccino is predominantly marketed to children, featuring steamed milk and sometimes a flavoring, often topped with some chocolate or cinnamon.
- Molletes – This breakfast dish of beans and cheese on open-faced rolls is a default breakfast option at many chains in Mexico, and could be the answer to on-trend eggs benedict at Latin-inspired QSRs and fast casuals focusing on breakfast innovation in the U.S.
- Vada pav – The vada pav, a deep-fried potato patty sandwich, is an easily-customizable staple of Mumbai street food stalls and Indian chains like Jumboking and Goli Vada Pav No. 1 — could an interest in international street foods translate this dish for U.S. menus?
- International pizza – Pizza chains are often one of the most successful U.S. restaurant exports to other countries, where they can be easily customized for the local market. But as American consumers seek out new flavors and become accustomed to more unusual pizza varieties through flatbreads, U.S. chains may begin putting overseas successes on American menus — Pizza Hut‘s new menu features flavors and ingredients like ginger, curry, sriracha, and Peruvian cherry pepper.
As international markets become increasingly important for major chains, expect to see more examples of dishes that sell well overseas to make the leap to U.S. menus. Many McDonald’s outlets across Asia, for instance, offer flavor packets to season fries and chicken nuggets, and now the chain is testing the concept in the U.S. — in fact, McDonald’s expanded the concept to new markets just last month. And noteworthy international introductions often become big news in the U.S., from the honey butter french fries introduced at McDonald’s South Korea to sandwiches made from pizza dough as the carrier (Subwiches) available at Domino’s over 800 locations throughout India.
Which means we could see broccoli donuts (Dunkin Donuts South Korea), foie gras sandwiches (Starbucks France), or charcoal black burgers (Burger King Singapore) on U.S. menus any day now.
Maeve Webster is the senior director of Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry. For more information about subscribing to Datassential’s International Concepts monthly trendspotting report, contact Webster at [email protected] or 312-655-0596.
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