Unofficial Business: Cinnabon to Chick-fil-A: The flavor chase is on

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A lot of us have become wild and crazy when it comes to food. Comfort dishes aren’t enough anymore. We want our taste buds to be surprised.

We have become foodies – as pompous as that sounds. Even on a budget. Even when we are rushing to eat on our lunch breaks (if you are lucky enough to get one of those).

The craving for flavoring is pressuring restaurants, and not just the high-end ones. The push is evident from mall food courts to the Golden Arches, donut shops and Chick-fil-As to Moe’s Southwest Grill and ice cream parlors. And I’m wondering how far all this taste explosion can go.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I visited with executive chefs from a handful of pretty big Atlanta-based chains, including Cinnabon, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Schlotzsky’s, McAlister’s Deli and Carvel Ice Cream. Each has their own test kitchen lined up side-by-side in the funky new headquarters (it has indoor playground swings) of their parent, Focus Brands, in Sandy Springs.

They invited me in and served me concoctions they’ve been working on or at least toying with, like a lobster sandwich from the chef for McAlister’s and the Moe’s chefs’ experiments with a sort of fried avocado with fixings in a lettuce wrap.

But what locked in my mind was the churro from Cinnabon. You know, it’s one of those sugarcoated dough pastries. Only, the chef had dressed it with bacon bits, included a gooey cinnamon interior and, for dipping, a chocolate sauce with cayenne pepper and a ginger-flavored dulce de leche sauce.

Sound gross? Tasted good.

What has become of us?

That particular combination isn’t being rolled out at any Cinnabons. But it shows where the chain chefs’ heads are as the industry rushes to keep up with our fickle tastes.

Younger adults grew up in a world of sensory overload, which includes food. That’s what you get with fancy food markets, organic offerings, artisanal creations, full-time cooking networks and social media that is an incessant bullhorn for the new and the hot.

“We are really a trend society today,” said Focus Brands CEO Steve DeSutter, a former senior exec at Burger King.

I was surprised when he told me the percentage of the U.S. consumer budgets spent on eating out – just over 5 percent — is virtually unchanged for years. Which suggests that if you are in the restaurant business and you want to grow, you need to figure out how to woo away your rivals’ diners.

Dulce de who?

Maybe that takes a little ginger dulce de leche sauce.

What Cinnabon executive chef Jennifer Holwill told me she’s looking for “buzz worthiness.”

In addition to coming up with foods and flavors that have broad appeal, the chain now wants to be a trendsetter. It wants to serve stuff millennials will post photos of or tweet about.

“It can’t be ordinary,” she said.

Of course, there’s risk in being different. A few years ago, Cinnabon experimented with what it called a Pizzabon, an unusual twist for a chain known for mall locations that lather cinnamon rolls with frosting. It didn’t go over so well.

So sometimes chains go wild around the edges. They add peppy new sauces or toppings as options for customer favorites. Or they trot out limited offerings, like the McAlister’s chef hopes to do with the lobster sandwich.

Maira Morales, executive chef for Schlotzsky’s, told me she develops 30 to 50 new products a month. The vast majority never become regular menu items. It can take a year or more to roll out items that do make the cut.

McDonald’s has sped up that process to a matter of months, I’ve read. The challenge for many brands is not only coming up with new items with flavors that will intrigue us, but also getting franchisees to make the stuff, especially when they may have to do it hundreds of times a day.

Not every restaurant chain wants to shake things up. I recently wrote about how the family that owns The Varsity, Atlanta's iconic chili dog palace, is considering new locations, but not dramatic menu changes. And Waffle House recently opened a drive-thru, it's only one in the 1,800-restaurant chain, but it doesn't add lots of new dishes.

Plenty of consumers want to stick with what they know best.

Chick-fil-A is still hearing from consumers over the chain's decision to eliminate the carrot and raisin salad (which the chain made a farewell video for) and, more recently, coleslaw (which had been on the menu since 1946).

Twiggy options

Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A recently launched more twiggy (ie. nutritious) options, including a “Superfood Side” developed by Atlanta-based chef Ford Fry with “hand-chopped kale and Broccolini, tossed in a sweet and tangy maple vinaigrette dressing and topped with flavorful dried sour cherries.” (It’s also served with roasted walnuts, almonds and pecans).

The flavor fixation includes what we sip. That – and the interest in buying local – has fed the rise of craft brewers (including a local evangelical pastor/brewer who told me one of the toughest parts of his business is keeping up with the insatiable desire of customers to try something new).

Schlotzsky’s, by the way, is considering testing craft beer offerings at a corporate store this summer.

Consulting outfit Technomic has a phrase to describe the ramifications of this food flavor rush: “innovation desensitization.”

“It increasingly takes more to break through the noise to really wow consumers with something they consider unique,” said Kelly Weikel, Technomic’s director of consumer insights.

I asked what she ate recently that broke through the noise. She mentioned a hot dog topped with ramen noodles, kimchi and a spicy sauce.

She didn’t say if she posted a photo.

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