These days, when someone mentions “secret sauce,” they probably mean a trade secret — that special insider knowledge that really makes a business tick. But of course, the term has extra significance in restaurants, where a chef’s bright idea — even an accidental discovery — can bestow culinary immortality on a formerly little-known establishment.
Consider Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, opened in 1945 by Thornton Prince. As the legend goes, Prince’s girlfriend spiked his chicken with cayenne to punish him for two-timing her, which only inspired him to start serving a tongue-torching chicken dish at his Nashville restaurant. Its appeal has spread, and over the past year, Technomic has pegged Nashville hot sauce as the fastest-growing flavour in Canada.
Swiss Chalet is the latest to join the party with a Nashville Hot Crispy Chicken Sandwich and Chicken Tenders, and even a Nashville Hot Crispy Chicken Ice Cream Sandwich. Among other variations, “Boston Pizza recently launched a limited-time Nashville Hot Chicken Pizza featuring the spicy sauce. And for a plant-based option, CRAFT Beer Market rolled out a Nashville Hot Cauliflower,” says Technomic associate editor Katie Belflower.
Perhaps the quintessential “secret sauce” is McDonald’s Big Mac Special Sauce, which was originally formulated in 1967 by franchise owner Jim Delligatti to accompany the first iteration of the company’s famous double burger. As the Big Mac rolled out across the continent over the next few years, different versions of the Special Sauce were used, but by 1972 the recipe was standardized, and in 1974, a popular advertising jingle naming the burger’s ingredients made “Special Sauce” a household phrase. In 1991, a slightly different formulation was introduced, but since 2004, McDonald’s has returned to its tried, true and beloved recipe.
Almost as iconic is Frank’s RedHot, now a McCormick & Company brand. The Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce was introduced in 1920. It reached new heights in 1964, when Teressa Bellissimo, co-owner of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., used it to fire up a plate of chicken wings. And thus, the Buffalo wing was born.
Leading up to Super Bowl LVI in 2022, Frank’s RedHot ran a promotional tie-in asking fans whether they preferred their wings spicy or sweet, in partnership with sports star Chuba Hubbard of the Carolina Panthers. It was close: 46 per cent voted spicy and 44 per cent chose sweet.
You Could Bottle That
Signature sauces have been doing extra duty over the past two years. They’re an inexpensive way to diversify menus, especially with the pandemic focus on handheld comfort foods such as fried chicken and burgers. They also provide an extra revenue stream through retail sales of take-home bottled sauces and packaged mixes. While customers have been avoiding dining-room visits, retail sauces have been keeping them close to the brands they love.
“This avenue adds an additional opportunity for operators to expand their brand reach, especially as consumers increasingly turn to retail for their meal solutions given inflated pricing at the restaurant level,” says Belflower.
Nando’s Piri Piri line, St. Hubert and Swiss Chalet are long-established players in the retail market. Last March, Chick-fil-A launched eight-ounce containers of its sweet-and-sour Chick-fil-A Sauce for purchase at restaurants in Canada and included with catering orders of Spicy Chick-n-Strips or Nuggets. The most popular of its sauces, it was created in the early 1980s by a former owner-operator named Hugh Fleming, who needed a quick menu addition to accompany a large corporate order of chicken nuggets at his Fredericksburg, Va. store.
Fleming dusted off a honey-mustard dressing recipe, and was taken by surprise when it was a big hit with his customers. But then an employee accidentally mixed in some barbecue sauce, and the demand became almost too much to handle. Fleming retired in 2007, but his Chick-fil-A sauce is still going strong.
Sweet-and-sour, savoury-smoky, sweet-savoury and just plain hot flavours are right on trend these days. On Technomic’s list of fastest-growing sauces over the past year, along with Nashville hot (up 48.1 per cent), are chipotle sauce (up 16.7 per cent) and chipotle-barbecue sauce (up 16.7 per cent).
“We’re seeing spicy, bold sauces increasing on menus,” says Belflower. “We’re also seeing a lot of global influences in sauces, with French (up 47.4 per cent), Jamaican (up 21.1 per cent) and East Asian yuzu (up 18.2 per cent) being among the fastest-growing flavours in sauces over the last year.”
These trends are popping up everywhere: KFC Canada’s new Kentucky Scorcher chicken sandwich is doused with signature Scorcher sauce, based on Carolina Reaper peppers, and spicy mayonnaise. “We tested dozens of hot sauces and peppers to ensure a balanced combination of spice and flavour, and the Scorcher sauce brought tears to our eyes,” says Ira Dubinsky, Brand and Innovation Director for KFC Canada, when the sandwich was launched. (To underscore just how hot the Scorcher is, KFC was offering free milk with every sandwich when it debuted.)
Popeyes recently unveiled a limited-edition Buffalo Ranch Chicken Sandwich featuring a new sauce that combines creamy buttermilk ranch with a “zesty and buttery” Buffalo sauce. Subway has introduced signature sandwiches showcasing its existing Smoky Honey Mustard sauce, its classic chipotle sauce and a new Peppercorn Ranch Sauce; a Sweet & Smoky BBQ Sauce and a Green Goddess Dressing are coming later in 2022. Tim Hortons is promoting Loaded Wraps in Habanero Chicken and Cilantro-Lime Chicken flavours. Burger King’s Maple-Whisky BBQ King (a double cheeseburger) uses a unique maple-whisky sauce.
Trendy sauces are a cost-effective way to vary menu offerings. “We are seeing this especially on sandwiches and pizza. For example, Panago Pizza launched the Hot Honey Brooklyn Pepperoni Pizza, featuring layers of pepperoni, mozzarella and cheddar, topped with a hot honey drizzle. This strategy could work for the 21 per cent of consumers who agree that they prefer to try new pizzas with one or two unique ingredients instead of a whole pizza build that is unique,” says Belflower.
“Spicy sauces will continue to grow on menus as customers seek out bold, exciting flavours,” she says. “Flavour combinations will also become more unique as operators seek out ways to differentiate themselves.”
By Sarah B Hood