By Rick Zambrano, Foodable Industry Expert
As with cocktails, experimental and playful consumer sentiment is a catalyst for playing up categories like street food. Cuisines that were born on the street are opportunistic for restaurateurs. We see their influences not only in the food truck and food cart scene but also on menus in all types of restaurants, from fast food to fine dining. Last fall, boutique research firm Packaged Facts released a food trend report on street food, noting how meaningful these types of foods are, ranging from anticuchos to gua bao.
How Restaurants Benefit from Continuing to Experiment with Street Food and its Influences
There are many aspects of street food that are compelling to the restaurateur. Much of the street food offers menu options that are handheld and are quick to eat. Foods like tacos, empanadas and the gua bao should be savored, but are often gobbled up quickly. For quick-serve restaurant operators, these attributes make these types of foods ideal. Customers in those settings value speed of service highly even if they are also seeking more global and savory flavors.
Customers also appreciate the social aspect of street food. In many areas of the world, including Hong Kong and Thailand, groups gather around the street food vendors and partake of the food. Here, our food fairs & festivals and truck scene resemble much of that social aspect. When we see casual dining establishments advertise on TV, they play up the social aspect of conversation and sharing small plates. Street food can also be playful.
At many small kiosks and street carts around the world, the customer has a direct interface with the cooks who create the food, whether they prepare it in advance or in front of the customer. It may be a hired cook or the owner herself who is preparing and/or serving the food. This is a very personable aspect of this food experience that customers enjoy. It’s akin to a Japanese “hibachi-style” restaurant meal or when the chef comes out of the kitchen to strike up a conversation and ask if the customer(s) enjoyed the food. It is just one aspect that has helped make food trucks popular in major cities.
Winning with Menu Options Borrowed from the Global Street Food Scene
The Mediterranean region has given us influences of cuisine that have translated well to small plates. The small-plate and small-bites movement is not nascent, but it still has room for a lot of growth. International small plates also borrow from the global street food scene in dishes offered here in the U.S., including regional barbecue, and street food from Asia, whether it be roast pork belly from the char siu bao or the popular chicken satay. Restaurateurs can learn a lot from these foods and apply them to their own restaurants. The process is three-fold for restaurateurs and chefs:
Explore and assess street foods that align well with your restaurant concept
Add your own influences, while maintaining a high degree of authenticity
Create a menu rotation that allows for tweaking and using customer feedback to your advantage
Restaurants that offer international flavors will take the street food from those particular countries and see which ones fit their own concept the best. A regional Mexican restaurant that has Veracruz influences will want to adopt the regional antojitos tastes and dishes while incorporating and adding seafood options. For Modern Asian restaurants and eclectic American restaurants that feature global flavors, more street food from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam might be in order. There’s so much to borrow from those cuisines. What’s the best fit for your concept?
How to Make it Your Own
A smart restaurateur or chef can take a new dish and add her own personal touches. For street food, follow the same trajectory by separating the core elements that will make a dish authentic, and the sauces and accompanying vegetables or pairings, which will reflect your own style and concept. Take the thinly-cut “palitos” beef skewers from Ecuador, South America, for example. The cutting preparation of keeping the beef very thin is a core element, while creating dipping sauces, which are not so traditional in this particular application, can really reflect a specific restaurant style. Could you add your own house-made chili or savory dipping sauce?
Where many restaurateurs can go wrong is in the strategic implementation of a street food menu or in expanding such a selection. Understand the winning principles of seasonal rotation, evolving the selection and gaining valuable customer feedback to enhance it. For example, this is how the Latin-American-style chain Paladar rolls out new entrees and appetizers. The chain operates several namesake restaurants in Ohio, the Washington, DC area and Florida. It has done well with its menu by listening to customer feedback and providing nearly-instant feedback to the kitchen and to its chefs.
In gaining a strong following for its small-plates menu and its Latin-inspired cocktail program, the chain in the D.C.-area has offered an evolving selection of pupusas. Over time, it has offered different protein-cheese combinations and different sauces, taking cues from its regulars and newbie guests. Because it rotates its menu frequently enough, it is able to tweak and continue succeeding with its small-plate program.
Restaurateurs can adopt some lessons of successful restaurateurs and glean from the above insights to use street food influences for menu success.