Canada’s foodservice scene reflects global flavours, menus and influences

Two Vegetable wraps stack on top of each other
Photo credit: Alexandros Kriticos

By Morag McKenzie

Canadahas established itself as one of the most multicultural countries in the world. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that our foodservice scene reflects these same global flavours, menus and influences. Three of the most popular cuisines at the moment — Mexican, Lebanese and Korean — offer guests an exciting and exotic blend of spices, colours, flavours and experiences.

Mexican: An established favourite

According to Vince Sgabellone, foodservice industry analyst at Circana, overall growth in Mexican cuisine outpaced that of Canadian restaurant growth in 2023, driven by an increase in the both the number of outlets and the number of non-Mexican restaurants featuring traditional Mexican dishes on their menus.

Technomic’s Ignite menu data, Q3 2022-Q3 2023, also shows an increase in the popularity of Mexican cuisine. “Some of the fastest- growing dishes with Mexican flavours over the last year include customizable options such as fish/ shellfish bowls (up 13 per cent), chicken bowls (up seven per cent) and veggie bowls (up six per cent),” states Katie Belflower, associate editor at Technomic, adding, “another trend we’re seeing is the rise of breakfast bowls (up 22 per cent) paired with Mexican flavours.”

The data also shows that some of the fastest-growing Mexican ingredients include birria (up 32 per cent), cilantro lime aioli (up 30 per cent) and avocado crema (up 28 per cent).

Much of the growth in Mexican cuisine is driven by quick-service restaurants (QSRs), which grew 14 per cent in 2023. One chain seeing continued strong growth is Taco Time (owned by MTY Group). Started in 1978 in Lethbridge Alta., it has grown to 130 locations, mainly in Western Canada. “We plan to expand 12 to 14 locations a year with 80 per cent of this growth coming from within the brand,” states Wendy Derzai, VP Taco Time & Extreme Pita Canada.  She adds, “Our preference is street-front locations with strong delivery and drive-through opportunities.”

Taco Time takes a unique approach to its business as all key menu items are freshly made, in-house. This includes its three signature hot sauces, salad bowls, empanadas and guacamole (made from fresh avocados).

While many QSRs and family-style restaurants offer exceptional Mexican cuisine, independent restaurateurs continue to lead innovation as many offer a more authentic and upscale dining experience. Quetzal, a 60-seat Michelin Star restaurant in downtown Toronto, has been honouring Mexican cuisine and its traditions since 2019.  Steven Molnar, executive chef and co-owner says, “I strive to change the general perception surrounding Mexican cuisine by showcasing authentic flavour combinations and seasonal products. All our menu items are cooked over a 28-foot wood-burning oven which creates a very unique dining and menu experience.”

Questzel offers both curated and à la carte menus. “Our curated menu (from $120) is based on our à la carte menu and customized to each guest’s preferences. Over 80 per cent of our guest choose this six to eight-course option. While our menu offers authentic Mexican cuisine, we also utilize local and in-season ingredients, including our very popular Newfoundland Scallops ($39) with green garlic butter, popcorn and tajin.”

Lebanese Cuisine continues Strong Growth

Lebanese cuisine is much more than just shawarmas and falafels. “Revenues from shawarmas — the traditional Lebanese sandwich are up 20 per cent in 2023,” explains Sgabellone. “Both independents and small chains are flourishing in these segments.”

According to Technomic data, dishes with Lebanese flavours showing growth over the past year include veggie bowls (13 per cent increase) and chicken sandwiches
(up 15 per cent).”  

Amal, a fine-dining Michelin Star restaurant located in the Yorkville area of Toronto offers authentic Lebanese cuisine prepared and presented in an approachable and modern style. Created by Charles Khaboudh, owner of INK Entertainment in August 2020, the 148-seat (plus 60-seat patio) introduces Lebanese food to people from all cultures. 

“Lebanese food is very beautiful and colourful. Authenticity, freshness and presentation play a key role in everything we do. An example is our very popular Fattoush salad ($21), which features fresh green, white and red micro herbs and vegetables topped with purple Sumac vinaigrette,” explains executive chef Rony Ghaleb

“Almost all our items are shareable as our food creates a bond with our guests and their family and friends. Most guests start with a shared selection Mezze (small dishes). Amal’s hummus with pomegranate and roasted pine nuts, ($14) and roasted cauliflower with green tahini, Hawaii spice and feta are two of our most popular,” says general manager Johnny Abou-Jaoude.

The QSR and fast-casual markets have also embraced Lebanese cuisine. Mezza Lebanese Kitchen is one of the largest and fastest- growing Lebanese restaurant chains in Canada.  Started by the Nahas family in Halifax in 1990, sons Tony and Peter have grown it to 20 locations throughout the Maritimes and are now expanding to
Western Canada.

Mezza targets the flavour-curious Canadian who is looking for a quick, fresh, healthy and delicious lunch or supper. “Mezza prepares all its sauces and meats using authentic, proprietary spices, sauces and blends that are generations old; a unique differentiator,” explains Peter Nahas, VP of Business Development and Franchising.

The most popular menu items include Chicken Shawarma Plate ($14.99 to $18.99), wraps ($9.29 to $13.69) and the Sriracha Chicken Protein Bowl ($9.99 to $15.99). “Every plate includes pita bread to ensure authenticity to Lebanese culture and cuisine,” adds Naha

Korean Cuisine on The Rise

Distinct from the many popular Asian cuisines, Korean food features unique spices, marinades and ingredients.

Koryo Korean Barbeque was established in 1998 in Calgary, Alta and features authentic Korean-style barbecue, bibimbap, Udon soups and Korean sandwiches. There are currently nine locations with plans to expand to Ontario, Quebec and Western Canada.

While its initial focus was mall locations, the brand is now exploring opening its first street-front location.  “There is tremendous opportunity to grow Korean cuisine in Canada.  All our products are cooked to order and barbecue combinations include choice of two to four sides,” says Jeff Roop, senior directior of Operations, MTY Group, the parent company of Koryo, adding, popular sides include kimchi-fermented cabbage, sweet potato glass noodles and garlic-glazed potatoes.

“Korean dishes growing over the last year include beef bowls (up five per cent) and pork dishes (up eight per cent). Some of the fastest-growing ingredients include zucchini (up 38 per cent ) — often appearing in bibimbap — and pork belly (up 20 per cent),” says Belflower.

Embracing the Cuisine

Introducing a new global cuisine to customers who are not familiar with its flavours, or even menu names, can be challenging. Training your front-of-house staff to understand and embrace each dish and communicate and engage with customers is key to its success.

Amal’s GM and executive chef, both of Lebanese descent, intricately understand the cuisine’s unique culture “However, our staff are not Lebanese, so we put all through a very strict seven-to-10-day training regime so they are able to share the Lebanese culture and cuisine with our guests.  All staff also do complete tastings so they understand each menu items’ unique flavours,” says Abou-Jaoude.

Quetzal’s Molnar agrees. “Our Mexican woodburning oven dining experience is very unique for our staff and guests.  We divide our kitchen into four main stations and move our teams through each starting with cold preparation. The wood-burning oven requires on-going care to produce consistently great food.”

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