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This Ham Breakfast Torta uses well-known ingredients to make the dish more familiar to diners.

The Secret to Selling Ethnic Dishes

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This strategy makes it easy to include unfamiliar items on menus and make sure they sell.
By Peggy Carouthers February 01, 2018 Sponsored by Smithfield Farmland

Consumers have come to expect bold flavors and ethnically inspired dishes on virtually all menus, despite traditional concept or daypart distinctions. Yet while many consumers want options, some have been reluctant to try unfamiliar ethnic fare, as spending $15–$20 for an unknown meal makes it riskier to try. As a result, some restaurants have also been reluctant to dive into the global food craze. Ingredients and spices are expensive if customers won’t order the dishes they create. Others may think that the craze will be short-lived, but there are no signs that the trend toward more global palates will slow anytime soon, and concepts that do not engage with the trend risk falling behind.

One reason that the global food trend is here to stay is that it serves an important cultural role in an increasingly open and mobile society, says Chef Thomas Kim at The Rabbit Hole in Minneapolis.

“Ethnic cuisine is relevant and important to the whole culinary landscape due to the fact that food is relatable, and it’s easier for people to understand or see aspects of different cultures through food,” he says. “When restaurants explore global food, they help open communication between cultures.”

But there are significant concerns that come with this shift toward a more diverse palate. Not only do restaurants worry about the budgetary impact of expanding menus to include global fare, but cooking with unfamiliar ingredients and techniques also seems risky. Additionally, as the U.S. grows more diverse in both taste and demographics, it has become more sensitive to how borrowing and adapting elements from other cultures can be perceived as appropriation if not done respectfully, Kim says.

“I think there is some hesitancy from bigger operators because there are some aspects of appropriation that people are afraid of,” he says. “But when this exploration is done with respect to the culture and ingredients, I don’t think taking flavors and ingredients and putting your own spin on it is a bad thing—if you educate yourself about the culture and ingredients.”

The biggest barrier to restaurants participating in cross-cultural exploration, however, is getting consumers on board and selling this unfamiliar food. Restaurants must not only convince customers of the value of the dish, but also that it’s safe for them to try it. So how can restaurants offer bold, unique dishes while making them approachable to better serve both ends of the consumer bravery spectrum? 

First, Kim says it’s critical to understand that today’s diners are more open to new dishes than in the past, and this should relieve some fears. “Younger generations, like millennials, grew up in an interconnected community,” he says. “Today, people are used to seeing ingredients from regions you would never have seen before.”

Even with this openness, however, it’s important to make dishes appear accessible on the menu. One of the biggest barriers consumers face when ordering unknown ethnic fare is the unfamiliarity of the names of the dishes, as well as those of the ingredients. Not only are the dishes sometimes hard to pronounce, but if consumers don’t understand what a dish is, they may feel like they are behind on the trend and reluctant to order. Restaurants, however, can mitigate this risk by choosing more familiar terms for the menu when new global dishes are first introduced.

“There are opportunities in education and verbiage,” Kim says. “A lot of times people say 'côte du boeuf,' and it sounds too fancy, but if you say ‘steak,’ you make it more approachable and remove what people don’t understand. No one wants to go out and feel stupid, so it’s important to make food relatable, especially when it comes to other languages.” 

For example, Kim says, instead of calling a Korean-inspired dish “bibimbap,” simply calling it a rice bowl on the menu will make it more familiar and entice customers because they know what to expect. Once a restaurant’s customer base grows more familiar with these terms, it may then be possible to introduce more authentic terms or even bolder flavors.

“I tend to be more approachable in how I describe dishes on the menu at the start, and then we can educate people further as customers return and start to change the menu to reflect more exotic dishes and techniques,” Kim says. “Then people will feel more confident ordering new items.”

It’s also important to educate servers on unfamiliar dishes so that they can explain them to customers. This can help build trust with diners, as well as make food seem less exotic, and make guests feel empowered, Kim says. In order to educate his staff, he takes his employees out to eat at places they have never been before and encourages them to try new dishes.

“I always ask them to order something they have never tried, and because I’ll buy, they are not financially bound and are less hindered by risk,” Kim says. “There have been times where it didn’t go in the direction that I had hoped, but no one has ever come from a dining experience without some kind of education, even if that’s ‘I can never eat raw squid.’ It removes the veil of the unknown, and my staff can speak to people about different foods from experience.”

Another strong tactic to encourage consumers to order lesser-known foods can be to offer a familiar base for the dish. For example, Kim says that curried goat is a harder sell than curried chicken. Finding a well-known protein that is authentically part of another culture’s food landscape can entice wary customers to try a dish while introducing customers to new flavors and techniques. Pork, for example, is a natural fit for global cuisine, because not only is it familiar to American consumers, but it is also found in dishes from many cultures. The cuts of meat selected are also important. Many people would gravitate to a loin before they would a tail. Pairing a familiar type of protein with bold sauces and spices can elevate dishes while also making them approachable.

“Customers are starting to look for more unique twists, so instead of doing just a grilled pork loin or pork chop, why not take that chop and present it differently with spices and sides?” Kim says. “It’s a familiar cut and protein, and people may not make it for themselves because they don’t have the skill or the ingredients, but they are more willing to try it.”

That said, Kim also notes that offal—the parts of an animal that would traditionally be thrown away—are also now ripe for exploration with the snout-to-tail movement, so brave chefs should not necessarily shy away from pig’s tail or pig’s trotter, he says. Some consumers will try these items, particularly if they are interested in environmental sustainability.

In fact, pairing ethnic dishes with other industry trends, such as sustainability, healthy food, breakfast, and portability, can make consumers more likely to try dishes, too. For example, a handheld Mexican breakfast wrap featuring pork as a base offers convenience, familiarity, and a unique flavor profile that makes it interesting enough to attract consumer attention.

Though trying new cuisines can be scary to customers and restaurant operators, there are ways to get all parties excited about global fare. By using smarter strategies, restaurants leaders can feel confident about offering ethnic cuisine, and customers can feel confident ordering it. Restaurants that offer more of these items are not only following a trend that will have a place in American culture for a long time, but they are also helping the U.S. bridge cultural divides.

“Exploring global flavors is important because in being able to use ingredients from other cultures, you have to learn about them,” Kim says. “It humanizes people and brings everyone to the table, so to speak.”