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Special Report | By Dale Buss

Quick Serve’s Sleeping Tiger
Economic ties to Asia have kept the continent in the headlines for decades, but consumers are just now discovering there’s more to Asian cuisine than eggrolls.
Economic ties to Asia have kept the continent in the headlines for decades, but consumers are just now discovering there’s more to Asian cuisine than eggrolls.

Asian national cuisines new to mainstream American palates are emerging at the heart of the U.S. quick-serve industry lately, acquainting the world’s biggest non-Asian market with zesty new influences ranging from Filipino to Indonesian to Malaysian. At the same time, fresh concepts are extending the playbook of long-popular ethnic cuisines including Korean, Japanese, Indian, and Chinese.

This trend is being driven in part by increasing commercial and tourist ties between America and Asia. Demographic changes also play a huge role, including an explosion in Asian immigration to the U.S. as well as the broader palate of younger Americans.

“They’re looking for bolder and spicier flavors, and something different,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant-research firm. “And they don’t seem to have the stigma that some boomers do.”

The intrinsic sensory appeal and variety of these emerging cuisines are attracting menu developers and consumers.

“It’s fun because Indonesian, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese—Indian, even—are becoming more mainstream,” says Joe Diver, vice president of food and beverage for Red Hawk Casino, which includes the quick-serve Wai Noodle Bar among the facility’s half-dozen restaurants. “Thai is a big favorite as well.

“They appeal to a lot of people because they’re perceived to be not as heavy as traditional American food. And they’re exotic to some extent, with the types of products as well as some of the flavorings, ranging from peculiar spicy ones to lighter flavorings like Thai basil and lemon grass.”

And For example, Chicagoans have been gobbling up the steamed bao buns at Wow Bao, a three-unit quick-serve dim sum concept recently hatched by the Lettuce Entertain You (LEY) Group.

“It’s really a traditional, authentic Chinese product that has been around for thousands of years,” says Geoff Alexander, managing partner of Wow Bao for Chicago-based LEY. “We’re just capturing the attention of people by making it approachable and fun to eat.”

Growing Asian populations in America play an important role in increasing the appeal of the cuisines. A big share of Red Hawk’s gamblers, for instance, are Asian-Americans and immigrants.

In fact U.S. quick-serve and fast-casual chains are selling about 550 items with Asian names or influences, according to market research firm Mintel. Some of the newest include a teriyaki burger that Carl’s Jr. recently added to its all-day menu. And Jack in the Box offers nearly 15 Asian-inspired menu items.

Those don’t even include emerging brands such as Red Mango, a Korean line of tart frozen yogurts that opened its first U.S. location in Los Angeles two years ago and already has about 70 outlets in 14 states. And Wagamama, a popular, London-based brand of modern Japanese ramen bars, opened a handful of locations in Boston and Washington, D.C.

The trend even extends to supermarkets. Mintel reports that sales of ethnic foods have climbed steadily since 2004 and are set to reach a record high of $2.2 billion in 2009. Solid growth of nearly 20 percent is projected for the next five years. And it is Asian and Indian food segments, Mintel says, that are driving the market expansion, with 11 percent and 35 percent growth in grocery sales, respectively, from 2006 through 2008.

One trend the renewed interest in Asian food results in is the growth of regional Asian cuisines that were little known in America before today, including Singaporean and Malaysian. Filipino also is among them; while generations of Filipino immigrants have made the U.S. their home, their cuisine had maintained a low profile.

The flavors of Filipino cuisine are more layered than Chinese cooking. And while there are several regional interpretations within China, there are many more identifiable varieties of Filipino cuisine, largely stemming from the historical isolation of the individual Philippine islands.

That underscores a second aspect of this trend. “There is an increased emphasis on the rich variety of regional cuisines within a country that offer a range of sophisticated and authentic tastes,” says Debbie Carpenter, senior marketing manager for foodservice and industrial for Kikkoman Sales U.SA., which sells soy sauces and other Asian products.

Panda Express, for instance, notes regional Chinese identities in its menu descriptions, such as, “Beef with Broccoli is a Cantonese dish from the Guandong Province on the Southern Coast.”

While regional differences are being explored, some of the emerging brands play down a specific ethnic identity in favor of casting a more generic “Asian” positioning. This allows them to indicate its basic appeal without the risk of falling victim to a veto vote among consumers.

The pan-Asian approach also allows operators to cherry-pick the best and most interesting foods from an array of possibilities. Among the menu items at Red Hawk’s Wai, for example, are traditional Chinese wok dishes but also pho, a Vietnamese soup; udon, a Japanese soup made with rice noodles; and pan cit, a noodle-based wok dish from the Philippines served with basil and nuts.

Although Asian concepts have long been full-service restaurants, brands are turning to the quick-service segment to deliver the new tastes consumers are craving. Sushi and sashimi were early versions of this. Dim sum has been a staple of white-table-cloth Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but it’s a natural for fast food as well. “There’s no mess because the sauce is inside the bun,” said Wow Bao’s Alexander. “You can walk and eat it with one hand.”

Masala Bowl Indian Café is a California-based brand offering bowls of basmati rice and a choice of curry, filled with a variety of stuffings. The best seller is a Tikka Masala bowl, featuring a creamy tomato sauce flavored with dry fenugreek leaves. On the spicy side is Andhra Masala, a south Indian curry made with coconut and chilis.

“Indian food is certainly that next tier of adventure,” says Dean Small, managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, which has a client who is establishing an Indan fast-food concept. “And it’s a challenge that it isn’t as familiar to American as Chinese food or Asian noodles.”

Among the obstacles for would-be Indian brands, he says, are the difficult pronunciations of many ingredients and dishes. In addition brands must provide a high enough level of authenticity, blunt some of the aromas of the cuisine, and deal with U.S. consumers’ preconceived notions about cleanliness.

“But tandoori chicken isn’t that far of a reach for a lot of consumers in the U.S.,” Small says.

Orange Papaya is a Korean fast-casual that is aiming to open a handful of outlets in southern California in the coming months. Its menu features Asian-marinated pork, beef, and chicken dishes in handy wraps.

The Asian quick-serve creating the most excitement is the Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck. The brainstorm of a Filipino entrepreneur, Mark Manguera, Kogi fuses the appeal of Korean-barbecued meat with the handiness of a taco format. Manguera bought a truck from a caterer and last year began parking it all over southern California and dishing out varieties of the meat, which is flavored with slightly tangy Korean “salsa roja,” topped with cilantro, onions, cabbage slaw, and soy-sesame chili then put into a soft corn tortilla.

Kogi Korean BBQ’s success quickly has led to another aspect of the rising Asian tide: fusion.

Charley’s Grilled Subs, for instance, introduced a Spicy Asian BBQ sandwich to most of its nearly 400 locations in 41 states and 13 countries. The Columbus-based chain says it was “catching the Kogi-style consumer wave that’s sweeping the nation.” The marinade is made from pears, green onions, and Asian spices, and the steak is toped with provolone cheese.

Many of the emerging brands play down a specific ethnic identity in favor of casting a more generic “Asian” positioning.

Already, sales of the new sandwich comprise about 7 percent of sales at Charley’s on U.S. military bases, and even 5 percent at its outlets in the typically conservative Midwest.

“That’s really good for a brand new product,” said Betsy Wright, Charley’s director of marketing. “Plus, this is a premium-priced product. And it looks like it’s bringing in new customers, not just cannibalizing our other products.”

Charley’s success underscores what other brands can learn from the fast-growing Asian phenomenon.

Most of the new Asian concepts register relatively low on the calorie and fat scale. Wow Bao buns average 179 calories apiece, yet they’re as convenient to tote and eat as a White Castle Slider. Even contrasted with similar recent successes, such as Fresh Mex chains, the Asian segment typically has the advantage of relying on leaner staples like cooked vegetables rather than cheese.

“We’re even seeing some blending of Japanese and Chinese, and Chinese and Indian, flavorings, though that’s still rare,” says Scott Gilkey, president of Gilkey Restaurant Consulting Group, in Seattle.

Many Asian dishes employ lemon grass, fresh mint, Thai basil, and cilantro as well as “truly memorable” aromatics, Small says. “A lot of the flavor profiles are three-dimensional. And those appeal to most consumers.”