Canadian Diners and Chefs are Embracing Global Influences and Cuisines


In a multi-cultural country such as Canada, it’s no surprise that our foodservice industry continues to be shaped and influenced by cuisines and cultures from around the world.

As Vince Sgabellone, industry analyst, Canada Foodservice, The NPD Group explains, several macro trends continue to drive the growth of global cuisine, including immigration, global travel and demographics. “Food exploration is skewed slightly to younger cohorts, who tend to be more adventurous,” he shares. “Locally, they have had more exposure to global cuisines than the generations before.” And, he adds, “The immigrant population also tends to be younger than the aging non-immigrant population. This will influence long-term dining trends across all segments of the market.”

“Ethnic foods are on trend as dishes are a reflection of regional geography, climate, agriculture and culture,” agrees Jeff Young, principal of Toronto-based Jeff Young Franchise Advisory & Consultancy Services. “Canada is a very ethnically diverse market and Canadians are ‘cuisine curious’ and willing to explore cuisines and flavour profiles from around the world.”

And, with travel significantly disrupted by the pandemic, “This means fewer Canadians will be introduced to global cuisines on vacation,” Sgabellone says of the current environment. “[But] it also means they may be looking for authentic global cuisines in their own neighbourhoods.”

As stated in the Montreal-based Novotaste Corporation’s 2021 Novotaste Flavour Trends Guide, “New flavours meet consumers’ needs for excitement and novelty during the pandemic’s disruptive lockdowns.” The report also notes that “ethnic flavours” have been front-and-centre in flavour forecasts “for four years now,” with Asian and Middle-Eastern flavours continuing to appeal to the millennial cohort.

Inspired Flavour
Going into 2021, a number of industry stakeholders forecast unique takes on comfort foods will be a key trend for the year. Chicago-based Technomic highlighted both quirky mashups and “healthful comfort” as trends that would make their mark. Similarly, Restaurants Canada predicts the rise of “new and innovative and glorious takes on tried-and-tested favourites” — specifically calling out Pad Thai Fries as exemplifying this trend.

These trends represent an evolution of 2020’s comfort-food trend, which saw Canadians turning to indulgent eats as a means of coping with the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic. This and other pandemic conditions fuelled a surge in popular takeout fare such as burgers and fried-chicken offerings.

Another facet of this evolution is menu/recipe fatigue and a desire for exciting food experiences. Many industry experts have pointed to consumers turning to more adventurous dining as a replacement for the excitement usually achieved through travel, which is fuelling interest in bold flavours and more exotic offerings.

Katie Belflower, associate editor, Technomic, notes global ingredients and flavours are being incorporated into staple QSR and casual-dining dishes, such as fries, pizza and chicken sandwiches, as a point of differentiation.

And, as Sgabellone points out, burgers, pizza, chicken sandwiches, breakfast sandwiches and other take-out standards are ideal platforms for unique flavour fusions. “Any of these can easily be modified to accommodate global flavours and, in fact, we’ve seen a lot of that,” says Sgabellone, calling out offerings such as butter-chicken pizza, Korean-barbecue chicken and chorizo breakfast sandwiches.

While the current environment is propelling this trend to new heights, using familiar dishes as a vehicle for bolder flavours is certainly not new. In QSRs, we frequently see new flavours introduced as LTOs. Some recent examples include Wendy’s recently launched Sweet Thai Chili Chicken Sandwich (choice of a classic, spicy or grilled chicken with sweet Thai chili sauce, cucumbers, pickles, lettuce, onion and mayonnaise) and Arby’s Greek Loaded Curly Fries (curly fries topped with gyro meat, tzatziki sauce, tomatoes and red onions), which returned earlier this year.

Looking beyond the quick-serve environment, incorporating global flavour influences can be more of a balancing act in the full-service environment.

“We like to keep our food program within a comfortable range that isn’t so safe that it’s predictable, nor too far out that it’s intimidating to guests,” explains Oliver Lewis, head chef of the newest LOCAL Public Eatery in Calgary. “Rather, we keep innovation at an intersection with classic recipes so that there’s something new, but also something familiar with our offerings…By keeping that balance and consistently delivering on addictive flavours, we’re able to keep an approachability factor, while also building trust and rapport with guests who will continue trying new dishes we introduce.”

For Will Lew, executive chef of Richmond, B.C.’s Bruno, ensuring the restaurant’s evolving local-ingredient-focused menu — which often features unique flavour combinations — remains approachable is all about taking guests on a journey. “It’s amazing how open-minded and adventurous the world is with the vast amount of flavours available…I find the best way to help introduce new flavours is to open up a guest’s palate by creating a meaningful experience,” he shares. “By being as creative as possible, you are able to introduce elements that, on the outside, may be unfamiliar or scary, but once transformed into a dish become suddenly approachable, allowing guests to expand their minds and palates.”

Delivering Authentic Experiences
According to Novotaste, while some consumers prefer fusion dishes that offer a more approachable entry point, others are drawn to traditional takes on global dishes. Going forward, this may even evolve into highlight more regional variances of particular cuisines.

“Global influences have been growing in popularity for some time now, but we may start to see even more specific regional influences as consumers continually seek out unique and exciting flavours,” suggests Belflower.
However, the future landscape will also be shaped by ongoing pandemic conditions.

Through the shakeup of the pandemic, operators featuring the most in-demand international cuisine fared relatively well, Sgabellone notes. “The Asian restaurants were already well established in delivery and were able to pick up a bit of extra share in the early days of the pandemic.” But, as he points out, operators focused on international cuisines “are also well established in food courts, which were effectively shut down until recently.”

Looking ahead, off-premise strategy will remain paramount for these establishments, stresses Young. “As a result of the pandemic, off-premise consumption is at an all-time high and people are fatigued with home-cooked meals and are looking for variety. Comfort food that travels well has done extremely well, so having these offerings available for delivery is important.”

As Canadians’ dietary preferences continue to shift, foods from outside of North America are also well positioned to meet lifestyle needs while meeting the desire for flavour. Young points to Mediterranean fare as a prime example of this. “Cafe Landwer offers its guests authentic Mediterranean food, which is considered a heathy diet compared to traditional North-American food. The menu [also] has a wide array of vegan and gluten-free items, which is on trend and important to many consumers.”

Novotaste also highlights plant-forward eating, functional wellness and global comfort as important macro trends that can go hand-in-hand with global ingredients and cuisines.

And, while a variety of global cuisines have an established presence within the Canadian foodservice landscape, there is certainly room for further growth.

Sgabellone notes that Indian cuisine in particular is under-developed in the QSR segment. However, there has been some movement on this front in recent years, with Greater Toronto Area-based brands Butterchick, Chaska and Butter Chicken Roti setting their sights on franchise growth.

“Indian cuisine is the smallest of the world cuisines we track, so the expansion into QSR may help to make this cuisine more accessible to a food-curious population,” Sgabellone adds.

On the other end of the spectrum, Mexican cuisine has a well-established presence in casual dining — especially QSR. Despite these offerings being well loved by consumers, Sgabellone notes, “This creates an opportunity for FSR operators to elevate the experience beyond the usual fast-food burrito.”

He also points to Mexican as a cuisine poised for growth. “In the QSR space, this is the only sub-segment that added units during the past year. Every other sub-segment of QSR declined in terms of units,” he explains. “Right now, Mexican foods are trending in line with other global cuisines, but it was growing a bit faster prior to the pandemic. And, with the additional growth in units, this may emerge as a growth area on the other side of the recovery.”

By Danielle Schalk

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