Enticing customers with unexpected flavor combinations

January 12, 2018

Operators are meeting customer demand for memorable culinary experiences by employing unexpected flavor combinations.

Spicing Things Up

Operators are increasingly open to pairing spicy and sweet flavors in unexpected places, from appetizers and entrées to snacks, drinks and desserts. The spices appeal to consumers’ sense of culinary adventure, but they generally appear on otherwise familiar items such as ice cream, doughnuts and burgers.

Salt and Straw

Salt & Straw, known for combining unexpected flavors in its ice cream, last year offered Salted Caramel Thanksgiving Turkey, made with turkey stock and candy-coated bits of turkey skin.

Flex Mussels

Doughnuts got the savory treatment at Flex Mussels in New York City. The restaurant’s Everything Doughnuts are made with everything bagel seasoning and scallion cream cheese filling.


Whataburger last year brought back its Sweet & Spicy Bacon Burger and added to its All Time Favorites menu.

Controlled Burn

Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminster, Colo., offers The Controlled Burn cocktail, which is made with Milagro Silver tequila, fresh-squeezed lime juice, pineapple juice, Green Chartreuse, simple syrup and scorpion pepper tincture.

Korean Pork

Korean foods often blend sweet, spicy and savory elements, such as this Korean-influenced pork belly with waffles dish at the University of Virginia’s O’Hill Dining Hall.


Duke Dining offers a variety of hummus-based desserts that combine sweet and savory flavors, such as snickerdoodle hummus, flavored with cinnamon and available in cones.

More than ever, consumers expect operators to provide a memorable experience in their restaurants, from the ambiance and service to the ingredients and flavors in their menu items. One on-trend way operators are meeting customer demand for such culinary experiences is by employing unexpected flavor combinations.

Spicy and…

The growing popularity of ethnic cuisines has helped drive awareness of spicy flavors such as za’atar and harissa, which are turning up in an increasing variety of dishes from cocktails to appetizers, main dishes, sides and desserts.

According to Technomic’s 2017 Flavor Consumer Trend Report, half of the consumers surveyed favor very spicy food, while 43 percent of younger consumers say they are interested in patronizing foodservice operations that offer items featuring a combination of flavors.

Among the hot items attracting increasing interest from consumers are cayenne- and Sriracha-flavored hot sauces, the research found. In addition, more consumers are seeking out bold flavors, while salty flavors are losing ground, Technomic says. The data also shows tangy and spicy flavor combinations are trending with younger consumers.

Sweet and…

“Sweet and savory appeal to two of the five senses human tongues recognize,” says Arlene Spiegel, president of consulting firm Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York. “Along with texture and aroma, they are the building blocks of a flavor profile that creates craveability.”

Research firm Mintel in its June 2017 Snacking in Foodservice report notes that the sweet-and-salty combination has become a more common flavor profile among snack foods in particular.

“The two flavor profiles can stand independently when it comes to snacks, but consumers are consistently looking for a more unique flavor experience,” Mintel states in the report.

Ice cream specialists such as Salt & Straw, OddFellows Ice Cream Co. and Ample Hills Creamery have been at the leading edge of sweet-and-savory ice cream combinations.

• Salt & Straw, based in Portland, Ore., has featured flavors such as black olive brittle, goat cheese and wasabi in its ice creams.

• Brooklyn, N.Y.-based OddFellows has conjured flavor combinations such as miso-cherry and chorizo-caramel on its rotating menu of flavors.

Other examples of the sweet-and-savory mashup include savory doughnuts, chocolate dessert hummus and savory yogurts with such additions as beets, avocado and harissa.

“Cocktails also utilize the combination by muddling herbs, citrus and sugar to create savory signature drinks,” says Spiegel.

“With knowledgeable consumers looking for the most flavors in every bite, having both sweet and savory in a dish is a winning combination,” she says.

Smoky and…

The Mintel research found that some “niche” flavor categories have been experiencing growth. Nearly a quarter — 24 percent — of consumers report having a preference for tangy flavor profiles, and 22 percent say they have a preference for smoky flavors.

Bacon, the report notes, has a strong flavor profile that is both smoky and salty. “It generates a curiosity and intrigue when it’s paired with sweet-based snacks,” Mintel says.

Research firm Datassential reports that the incidence of bacon on dessert menus has increased 137 percent from 2012 to 2016. Other savory dessert ingredients increasingly being used on menus include olive oil and pretzels, the Datassential report found.

“Bacon in ice cream is delicious,” says Jared Leonard, founder and chief executive of the Stone Soup Collective, which operates multiple restaurants in Chicago and Denver. “People like it when their taste buds are tossed around a little bit.”

Flavor combination tips

1. Follow the rules
While it may appear that “anything goes” when it comes to combining sweet and savory flavors, the most successful of these types of combinations adhere to some rules, says Suzy Badaracco of consulting firm Culinary Tides.

“With these salty and sweet and spicy combinations, the one rule that should not be broken is that the food has to tell a story,” she says. “If you have a snack that is quinoa-based, then the spice or seasoning better be from Peru. Otherwise, it is going to make no sense.”

This continuity is important, she says, because although consumers are open to experimenting with exotic flavors and new flavor combinations, they are not embracing “full-blown fusion.”

“It may seem like a free-for-all, but actually it’s not at all,” she says. “There are hard and fast rules that need to be followed in order for the product to be successful but also flirty and edgy at the same time, otherwise it can be really off-putting to the consumer.”

2. Familiarity is key
Operators seeking to wow customers with edgy sweet-and-savory combinations in their seasonings should also ensure that they have a familiar base underneath it, says Badaracco.

“If your base is a little crazy, the less crazy you can be with the seasonings. You cannot have two extremes,” she says.