Restaurants seem to be in a funk. Declining sales are often blamed on the economy. But are there other factors at work? Of course, hospitality and ambiance are important, along with other factors (e.g. affordability). Looking deeper limited menu options may be a major issue. Visit most restaurants in the United States, especially in the casual segment, and in nearly all cases you’ll be limited to one of the following menu options:
These are all beloved American favorites, and will likely remain so. But too many brands offer the same thing, and increasingly new Fast Casual Brands have offered the same options, taking market share from Casual Brands in the process. Compounding these challenges, increasingly sophisticated diners and younger groups such as Millennials and Generation Z are looking for something new.
Meanwhile, Americans are traveling to countries around the world, and much further afield than ever before. As a result, they’ve become familiar with dining options they often can’t find at home, even in major cities. Some of the most innovative, healthy, affordable and tasty dining options are the streets food found in other countries. This is especially true in a number of major cities in Asia, including Bangkok, Penang, and Singapore. Extensive varieties of foods can be found from street-side food carts or bazaars like Singapore’s “Hawker Food Courts”.
These cuisines are especially interesting as new menu options for American Eateries, as they are less familiar to most Americans than foods originating from Europe, Latin America, and other regions of the world. A sampling of these dining options can be found in this article.
Restaurateurs may argue that these foods are too unfamiliar for American Palates. But for every diner that won’t try something new, there’s another that’s seen these foods on TV or YouTube and wants a break from the usual. Consider also that cuisines we consider mainstream today (e.g. Sushi, Indian) were unknown to most Americans just 20 – 30 years ago. Today, they are popular options.
Many Americans have been made aware of other cuisines from entertainers like Anthony Bourdain in series such as “The Layover”, “Parts Unknown”, and “No Reservations”. Here’s one example.
Chiang Mai’s Cowboy Hat Lady
Even a chef as famous as Anthony Bourdain admits he was unaware of Asia’s fantastic street food until recently. Now Bourdain plans a $60 Million, 100 Stall Food Market in New York, modeled on the foods he’s sampled in Asia and other places around the world.
Of course the irony, especially for those accustomed to eating street food around the world, is how Bourdain will capitalize on new cuisine options to create a very upscale, expensive dining option, when these foods in overseas’ street markets and stalls are among the most creative, yet “democratic” and affordable food options. Compare Bourdain’s planned upscale food center with the following:
Singapore’s Maxwell Food Centre (see what you can eat for $20 SGD or $14 USD)
Even with higher labor costs in the United States, it’s unfortunate that purveyors like Bourdain may be successful in making the same foods here a high-end dining option when they are a natural fit for casual eateries.
There are countless cuisines and original foods found all over the world. Here I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s available in part of Asia. South Asia (Indian, Pakistan), the Middle East, Africa, and Latin/South America all have unique foods to offer. Many of them very affordable and, with increased exposure, items that Americans will be eager to try. Outside of places like California, nobody had even heard of Sriracha. Overnight it’s everywhere. All it took was some innovation and effort.
America’s Casual Food Restaurants should push for more menu innovation. It may just be one factor that helps re-invigorate the Restaurant Industry.