Mass customization is so pervasive in today’s industry that choice is almost a business requisite, particularly among younger customers.
“Generation Y is the customize-me generation,” says Kara Nielsen, trendologist with the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco. “Just as they can decide the look of their iPod or sneakers, they want to customize their food.”
Sauces and dips provide a smart way to do that, “especially in the quick-service world,” she says. It also allows friends to share menu items but still get their own desired flavors.
Customization may be in the DNA of the Millennials because they came of age during the turn of the century, but having options in terms of sauces and dips is seen as a plus by most consumers, no matter the age.
“Older consumers are looking at these sauces and dip possibilities as increments, while Millennials see this as a … point of entry,” says Kim Cupelli, assistant director of Group 57, the customized culinary solution team at Heinz Corp. in Pittsburgh.
Dips and sauces provide consumers with a low-risk, low-cost way to try something new or different, particularly with bold or spicy flavors.
“If you’re ordering something from the menu, and there’s an unusual dipping sauce, you can try it without investing too much in it,” says Sara Monnette, senior manager for consumer and market research at Technomic, a food industry consulting and research firm.
“Increasingly, consumers have the ability to try a dip or sauce and then decide how much is right for them,” she says.
With restaurants fighting for every consumer dollar, a great core product is important, “but sauces are the key if you want to drive traffic and craving,” Cupelli says. As a result, the past 18 months have seen a big increase in LTOs and new products with featured sauces.
One example is Wendy’s boneless wings, which use high-quality chicken with different flavored sauces. The current lineup includes Honey Barbecue, Sweet and Spicy Asian, and recently introduced Spicy Chipotle.
“One of the ways of keeping the product fresh is by adding a new sauce, which adds a unique flavor,” says Denny Lynch, senior vice president of communications at Wendy’s. The company typically works for months with its suppliers to research and develop its sauce recipes.
Wendy’s also features boneless chicken nuggets with several dipping sauces.
Rolling out a new sauce is a fairly inexpensive way to create additional taste profiles, unless the new flavor fizzles. “That’s why research and testing are so important,” Lynch says. “You don’t want to be left with a lot of product on your hands.”
Some restaurants serve wings with more than a half- dozen flavored sauces, and they also feature a number of dips, mostly ranch or blue cheese dressing, that allow customers to further customize their food.
Chicken tenders, strips, and fingers are also popular dipping foods, and the number of dips available varies dramatically among brands.
In fact, chicken is the most popular core product for sauces and dips at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants. The Foodservice Research Institute’s MenuMine, which tracks menu items from more than 625 restaurant chains, found that chicken was at the heart of six of the top 10 fast-feeder menu items that feature sauces or dips.
Joe Brady, the Foodservice Research Institute’s managing director, says the use of a batter or breading is a major factor in the use of a dipping sauce, and chicken just works best. Very few restaurants use breading or batter with beef or pork, although some do with seafood.