Interest in Asian Cuisines is Driving New Concept and Menu Trends

Asian flavours are growing increasingly popular all over the world, due in part to rapid growth in Asian markets, but also to rising interest in bold, spicy flavours and exciting new foodservice experiences. Asian concepts in particular, especially those that extend beyond typical Chinese food or sushi, are a growing trend in major urban areas, offering consumers more nuanced ways to enjoy Asian cuisine.

Asia-based chains are expanding quickly

A portion of this trend is being driven by the simple fact that Asian consumers happen to like Asian food. As Asia is home to many of the largest foodservice markets in the world—and unquestionably the home of the largest upcoming growth in absolute terms—Asian trends have become global trends. In fact, 54% of the global value growth from 2013-2018 will come from Asia Pacific, with that percentage reaching as high as 72% in the full-service categories. Add to that the fact that many of the region’s most advanced markets have evolved to the point of giving rise to their own home-grown chains, many of which are modern, well-funded, and looking to expand beyond regional borders, and this has meant that Asian concepts are growing quickly both at home and abroad. This has led to diversification in the category in terms of competitors and culinary influences, with plenty of growth to come in the years ahead.

Though US chain Panda Express is still the largest Asian fast food chain in the world at US$1.9 billion in 2013 value, three Japanese chains are quickly catching up. Japan-based gyudon chains Sukiya (US$1.7 billion) and Yoshinoya  (US$1.5 billion) fill the second- and third-place rankings, each with ambitions to become true global competitors. Sukiya has recently established a presence in Latin America with multiple outlets in major cities in Brazil and Mexico, while Yoshinoya is already present in over a dozen countries including a selection in North America and Western Europe. Meanwhile Japanese ramen chain Ajisen Ramen has expanded from US$240 million in sales in 2008 to US$540 in 2013, opening restaurants all across Asia Pacific and even extending as far as Australasia and North America.

China is contributing its own rapid-growing new chains as well. Up and coming full-service hot pot concept Xiabu Xiabu has experienced an even more explosive trajectory over the past five years, growing at an average annual rate of 48%. The chain’s modernised “bar-style” hot pot concept and focus on ingredient quality has proven very popular with Chinese consumers, so much so that in 2015 the company filed a prospectus to become a public company, undoubtedly with plans to fund even broader expansion across China and beyond.

“New Asian” influence is affecting other categories

While such chains are contributing most of the strength behind the global trend, the industry is also seeing a steady infiltration of Asian-inspired flavours and dishes into a broad range of concept menus. Asian-inspired fast casual concepts have been popping up in major cities all over the world, from Mexican-Japanese fusion sushi in Mexico City to fast casual-style dim-sum in Paris; however, this trend has also moved past niche concepts designed for adventurous diners and made its way into more mainstream brands. Fast casual bakery products fast food chain Panera Bread Company for example, which has built its brand on serving American café staples like salads, soups, and sandwiches, recently added a range of ramen-inspired Broth Bowls that illustrates just how far into the mainstream this trend has come.

The sandwich chain is offering four bowls in the new line, including options with soba noodles or a blend of lentils and quinoa along with various protein options. Notably, while the bowls are clearly meant to evoke the feel of traditional Japanese ramen, each one has been thoroughly localized so as to avoid alienating any less adventurous customers. Rather than being topped with pork or seaweed, chicken is the predominant protein; likewise, tomatoes and fresh spinach replace the standard Japanese vegetable toppings. As a result, the line is thoroughly Asian inspired though ultimately American, offering just enough excitement to entice customers without risking a serious shift in Panera’s positioning.

While undoubtedly the result of interest in Asian cuisines, Panera’s new line has also been helped along by a recent trend toward broth as a daily health tonic. In line with the trend toward “real”, functional foods, broth is perceived as a healthier alternative to other menu item foundations–lighter than sandwiches or wraps but heartier and more satisfying than salads. As a result, broth-based dishes are a natural fit for fast casual, and on-trend Asian cuisines offer a timely model for new product innovation.

When taken together, what all of this means is that the global foodservice industry is about to get a lot more Asian, both literally and figuratively. Asia-based chains are growing, broadening their reach, and gaining access to lucrative new markets that are far outside their regional sphere; meanwhile, wealthy consumers all over the world are seeking ever newer and more exotic dining experiences, looking past their current favorites to new cuisines and new concepts that can help to broaden their culinary horizons. This means that there are opportunities all around–for Asian chains, for concepts taking inspiration from Asian cuisines, and even for local chains looking to add interest to their own menus–and there will be plenty more to come as this trend continues.