Comfort Food Mash-Ups Have Strong Appeal

November 29, 2021

Hybrid food creations and stuffed treats offer a break from traditional fare without straying too far outside consumers’ comfort zones.

When it comes to foodservice snack and dessert trends in the near term, operators should think more about playing it safe as opposed to swinging for the fences where new flavors and ingredients are concerned.

The uneven recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the kind of upswing in the national mood that might have led to more experimentation on the part of consumers, says Suzy Badaracco, president of consulting firm Culinary Tides.

Had it not been for the COVID-19 Delta variant surge and the threat of ongoing inflation, consumers might be ready for more adventurous choices, such as full-blown fusion cuisines and exotic ingredients. Instead, they are easing their way in that direction with hybrid food items or “mash-ups” that combine familiar components, such as “croffles,” which are waffles made with croissant dough.

In fact, a bakery called Croffle House opened earlier this year in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York, known for its vibrant Asian restaurant scene (The croffle is reported to have gained widespread popularity in South Korea.). The restaurant offers several sweet versions, topped with strawberries and whipped cream, as well as some savory versions, such as a basil pesto croffle.

Stuffed food mash-ups

Stuffed foods are another example of this food mash-ups trend, including items such as stuffed muffins, donuts and French toast. Family dining chain Huddle House this year introduced three varieties of stuffed French toast, for example—strawberry, apple and apple with caramel.

“Hybrids and stuffed foods can be sort of silly and funny and flirty, but they're not risk-taking, because you're really just combining two things people are familiar with,” says Badaracco. “That's why the pizza companies are all advertising their stuffed-crust pizzas, and the taco companies are promoting things like tacos combined with a quesadilla.

“It's not a mistake that they're all doing that, because people are still very fearful because of COVID, and we're cautious because of inflation,” she says. “That's why we're hovering around here.”

Global cuisines with a comfort twist

As far as what snack and dessert trends operators should be thinking about as the recovery gains traction, Badaracco suggests looking back to the trends that had been emerging before the pandemic. This includes globally-inspired items that trace their origins to specific regions within countries, including items from specific areas of the American South, such as the Ozarks.

Certain cuisines from the Middle East, South America and the Caribbean are among those that had momentum before the pandemic that are poised to continue attracting consumers as the recovery continues. International street foods in particular stand to remain popular because they tend to be value-priced, for one thing, and they offer the appeal of their global provenance, Badaracco says.

The racial unrest and emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 also set the stage for consumer interest in regional African cuisine, in addition to traditional Black culinary traditions from the American South, she says.

Operators not only need to think about globally-inspired snacks and desserts that are from very specific regions, but they also need to ensure that the items are the comfort foods from those regions, Badaracco says, rather than more exotic fare.

“From Russia, for example, you're seeing pierogi, but you're not seeing some salted, fermented fish nonsense,” she says. “You're seeing the pierogi because it's a lovely, little dumpling—and by the way, pierogies are stuffed.”

New takes on comfort food classics

While globally-inspired comfort foods are on trend, the more traditional American comfort foods that were popular during the early months of the pandemic are not, Badaracco says, citing the need to combine comfort foods in new ways.

“Right now, with desserts or snacks, or any categories, you do not want it to be 100% comfort food,” she says. “That’s why macaroni and cheese is now showing up in ice cream and grilled cheese sandwiches. That's why s'mores are now made with peanut butter, or flavored marshmallows.”

The trend away from traditional comfort foods is also reflected in snack foods such as chips and fries. Rather than traditional potato chips or French fries, consumers are more likely to be interested in vegetable chips, sweet potato fries or yucca fries, Badaracco says.

In addition, even though consumers are not currently overly adventurous when it comes to exotic ingredient experimentation, they do want some bold flavors in their snacks and desserts, she says. That includes flavors such as strong citrus notes and spicy chilies that move dishes away from the boring, bland flavors that consumers turn to in times of distress.

Operators seeking to capitalize on the moods and preferences of today’s consumers need to tread carefully when it comes to menu experimentation. Think of fun and creative ways to combine familiar forms, flavors and ingredients that don’t stretch too far outside of consumers’ comfort zones.

For more flavor and ingredient inspiration, visit the Mondelēz International Foodservice Culinary Center.

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