Don’t do what fast-food restaurants are doing

Going for a stroll through downtown Toronto (my home city), I come across an A&W, a popular Canadian fast food restaurant, proudly flaunting its newest menu item: sriracha burgers. I stop, scratching my head, troubled by this discovery.

For those of you still strictly in the meat and potatoes camp, sriracha is a fiery Thai chili sauce that has only recently become a table name, largely due to the highly adept marketing and distribution tactics of a Huy Fong Foods, Los Angeles-based producer. I’ve known about sriracha’s unique taste for well over a decade as it’s always been a pervasive condiment offering at one of the numerous hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurants throughout the highly multicultural Toronto city center. Within the past five years or so, however, inventive chefs at hip restaurants and the proprietors of food trucks have embraced the sauce as a novel way to spice up their menus. Now it appears as though sriracha has wholly crossed over into mainstream appeal.

This is troubling, for me, because when fast casual and fast food eateries adopt a cuisine trend such as sriracha, that trend loses its novelty thereby threatening the individuality of other “more elegant” establishments.

As a proud Canadian with a keen eye on culinary developments, there are two other recent examples that immediately come to mind: poutine and maple bacon.

Poutine – that is, French fries and cheese curds lathered in hot gravy – is traditionally associated with the French-speaking province of Quebec, and indeed it is still hard to find authentic poutine anywhere else. Sometime within the past three years, though, McDonald’s started offering the dish at locations throughout the country with, frankly, subpar quality levels. Additionally, there are now several franchises dedicated entirely to selling and serving this cuisine. In essence, the poutine market is ‘saturated’, and any new poutine-related launches would be hard-pressed to elicit any reaction but an eye roll.

Maple bacon is a tad easier to understand. What has long been considered an archetypal Canadian food, maple bacon was something added at gourmet restaurants to infuse a sweet-umami blast to a given dish. And then the trend started to creep into the lower tier, popping up like sriracha at popular fast food burger franchises and as a purchasable item at just about every grocery store in the country. The problem was that as maple bacon usage became ubiquitous, quality suffered – cheaper cuts of meat and blander syrup flavoring to name two. As a result, perceptions of this food have forever been altered, and not necessarily for the better.

These are but three cases that I’ve observed as a Torontonian. Undoubtedly you’ll be able to apply your own region-specific examples. Aioli is rebranded mayonnaise. Sweet potato fries used to be a novelty; now they’re swappable at any old pub. And so on.

The message here is that if you want to continue to excite and delight with your F&B offerings, you have to stay ahead of the adoption curve. Sriracha is no longer a ‘bold new flavor’. The trend is done; move on. Why bother adding poutine to the menu when it’s already available at your five closest competitors?

Of course, there is something to be said about the classics and staying true to form with their execution. That is, if you have outstanding ingredient quality and superior cooking methods then offering poutine or a maple bacon burger won’t count against you. But they certainly won’t make for a good marketing push either.

In order to be unique in the world of F&B, you actually have to be just that: unique! If a fast food chain with over 800 locations is now marketing sriracha to its customers, how would it benefit your restaurant by following suit? Would you honestly consider your outlet’s poutine creation to be exceptional when the French fry dish is also available at every McDonald’s for a hundred kilometers in all directions?

As hoteliers, it’s our job to be food leaders, entrepreneurs and inventors. The challenge for your executive chef and culinary team is to be aware of when a food craze is petering out, and then adjust accordingly. It’s a perpetual game of cat and mouse to stay ahead of the curve, but that’s also part of the fun of it.