Chefs and restaurateurs looking for the next big food trend may find it south of the border, albeit a little farther south than usual. Having just returned from a multi-week journey through Peru, I couldn’t help but marvel over the sheer volume of exotic ingredients, native dishes and robust flavors from across the country.
More importantly, however, is the fact that Peruvian fare has gone virtually untapped in the US. For a food Mecca like Las Vegas, this is a wide-open market for menu additions, fusion and brand new restaurant concepts. This cuisine reaches an excellent balance of novelty and familiarity, health and indulgence, trendiness and evergreen quality. And best of all, it looks to be very profitable.
You’ll find several of Peruvian food’s business-related benefits below:
New, Yet Familiar Food Concepts
Peruvian food integrates the earthy tones found in Mexican food [think Border Grill rather than Lindo Michoacan] with the hearty meats found in Argentina and Brazil as well as more potatoes and corn than you can conceive of growing in the ground. Native dishes like lomo saltado [sautéed beef with peppers and onions] and Pollo Changa [chicken skewers with peanut foam] hit home for most people who have ventured beyond your typical gringo taco, but are still new and different to the point where an ‘I have to try this’ light goes on in the customer’s mind.
Similar to many Latin food concepts, Peruvian fare doesn’t rely on premium-quality meats or extensive preparation techniques. Fresh produce and bold spices and sauces are the name of the game; ideal for driving down food costs.
Tacu tacu, a crowd favorite, is nothing more than a rice omelet with beans as the base instead of eggs. Cachapas are corn pancakes, similar to Jewish latkes, with Peruvian sour cream [much thinner and less intense than the stuff we get in the US]. Starch certainly accounts for the base of many dishes, but leave customers feeling full, enriched and happy to not necessarily break bank like they would at a steakhouse.
Diverse, All-Natural Ingredients
Fun fact: there are 114 micro-climates, or regular weather patterns, in the world. Peru houses 84 of them. This allows a wide variety of crops to grow across the country. Peruvian farmers ship these products straight to local retailers, perfectly aligning with the ‘farm to fork’ trend that’s all the rage across the States.
Peruvian corn kernels can be nearly 10 times the size of those grown in the US, with very different taste and consistency. Roughly 3800 types of potatoes grow in Peru; yes, 38 hundred. Avocados can reach gargantuan proportions in this part of the world, mistaken for [American] footballs if you’re not careful. Any one of these entities can capitalize on customers’ increasing desires to try new and different foods and know where they came from.
Bringing Peruvian Food to Your Restaurant
So how can you broaden your scope across the Peruvian food horizon? If opportunity calls, I’d encourage you to make the trip yourself. After sampling some of the best Peruvian restaurants across Southern Nevada and California, I have yet to find anything that comes close to Lima’s culinary offerings.
Lima is without question the country’s food capital. Many people travel to Lima with no agenda other than to eat. Even the fast food restaurants pay careful attention to their ingredients and preparation for exceptional products. This city is a necessary stop for those looking to broaden their menu’s horizon.
To make the most of your experience, check out The Lima Gourmet Company [LimaGourmetCompany.com]. They offer both morning and evening tours that take you across the city’s top restaurants and bars, complete with tasting menus and vivid descriptions of everything you’re eating. This is no simple tourist attraction, but rather an opportunity to become truly immersed in the dining experience and understand the science and significance behind Peruvian fare.
Another stop to make is at a restaurant by Gastón Acurio, arguably Peru’s top celebrity chef. His Astrid y Gastón in Lima’s San Isidro District has been rated among the world’s top 50 restaurants. I stumbled upon his restaurant Panchita in the Miraflores District, which encompassed a remarkable variety of native haute dishes [bringing new meaning to the term with 1/3 of the menu costing a total of $90].
Peru may be making its mark onto the American culinary scene in the near future. Industry innovators, you’ve got minimal competition right now. Foodies in the US will likely be eager to get introduced to this next great taste profile.
Santa Monica is saturated with beachside hotspots, but venture further inland to the area’s lesser-known district along Pico to find this gem of a spot. A worldly menu and bustling ambiance make The Upper West a place for the palate to explore and the mind to relax and be itself. The place is trendy enough for any hip LA Foodie to have room to play, but keeps it real for the rest of us seeking a truly satisfying dining experience.
Executive Chef Nicholas Shipp is a gregarious gentleman with fascinating taste. While The Upper West builds its base on upscale American fare, its repertoire expands through Asia, India, Italy and Latin America. Shipp doesn’t try to do too much with each dish though; every item stands out with its own distinct taste, forming a menu that appeals to curious palates and traditionalists alike.
You must start with the Applewood smoked blue cheese chips. For that matter, you can continue with them as your main and get a third for dessert. Housemade chips, smoked blue cheese sauce, handfuls of rich bacon and truffle, all served piping hot…is there anything else you could ask for? On the lighter side, the ahi tuna crispy tacos are a house favorite, with fresh-tasting fish complemented well by a plantain shell.
The roasted corn soup is another intriguing must, also made in-house and served with a black bean falafel that should be its own entrée. On the note of mains, the short rib is certainly tender and tasty but may not be worth the investment price-wise. The Giselle, or ‘Krabby Patty’ crab cake sandwich, comes out quite nicely and may fit better into the mix. A side of caramelized cauliflower or roasted corn with avocado butter would also make a fine addition.
Triple chocolate torte and exotic ice creams such as toasted marshmallow and peanut brittle finish with a sweet touch, and a fun cocktail menu adds another dimension to The Upper West’s creativity and execution. The place may not be in Santa Monica’s most trafficked area, but always expect a big crowd here. Looks like word is getting out.
The Upper West is located at 3321 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90404. Out-the-door price for appetizer, entrée, split side, split dessert and 1 – 2 drinks is ~$72/person. Call The Upper West at (310) 586-1111 or visit them online.
More and more diners are expressing desire for healthier dining options, and this growing market certainly warrants restaurants’ menu revisions. At the same time, however, consumers are also up on their indulgent dining choices. Same-store burger sales, for example, have increased from last year. To add to the complexity, the same people are just as likely to fit into both categories…even over the course of a single day!
So how is a restaurant supposed to cope with these polar trends for both healthy and hearty? The answer, quite simply, is to tack on a little bit of both to your menu.
Understanding Consumer Psychology
The most efficient way to understand your target customers is to group them into segments, typically by taste preference in a restaurant’s case. Few diners, however, will ever fall into the same segment every time. Sure, someone may be vegetarian, but that’s not going to stop them from ordering a lite salad for lunch followed by an eggplant Parmesan with extra cheese for dinner. On the other hand, a man who frequently feeds his inner child with Dr. Pepper ribs and mac ‘n’ cheese may want to buck the trend one night with a turkey burger.
Additionally, restaurants must always be mindful of members of the group who don’t necessarily fit their target profile. Spouses, children, business clients and friends along for the ride may not have your place as their first choice, but incorporating variety to appeal to these people may ‘wow’ them enough to come back on their own.
Restaurants cannot predict what mindset their customers will have on arrival, but they can prepare for the possibilities through an adequate array of offerings. Ingredient-specific food trends will come and go, but the menu itself should always carry a healthy variety [no pun intended] of healthy and hearty options.
Preparing a menu that caters to body [read: healthy] and soul [read: not] does not have to entail extensive changes in inventory or back-of-house operations, and nor should it. The easiest option is likely the most profitable—customization.
Let’s take the burger as an example. Many establishments offer one, and it so happens that intriguing burger add-ons are all the rage right now. A restaurant can easily transform their basic burger option to include extensive upsell opportunities:
Healthy—Turkey patty, veggie patty, no bun, no cheese, wheat bun, gluten free bun
Hearty—Add bacon, double meat, double cheese, add signature sauce, onion strings
"Your most important marketing tool is your repeat customers. Keep their favorite items on your menu."
These are just a few of the seemingly endless list of bells and whistles used to modify burgers nowadays. However, each one becomes quite easy to implement as long as you have other items that use the same ingredients. Creating web of dishes from the same ingredients will expand your offerings and appeal across the nutrition spectrum, as well as reduce the risks associated with unsold food.
Keep your Brand Intact
While offering both healthy and hearty options adds tremendous value to a restaurant’s reach, be sure to not take it too far to the point where your variety clouds your identity. If you run a smoothie shop, feel free to include a chocolate or peanut-butter based option, but don’t feel pressured to form half your menu from those bases. A burger joint doesn’t have to serve a dozen organic salad options; a veggie burger may be all the place needs.
Your most important marketing tool is your repeat customers. Keep their favorite items on your menu. Talk to them, and certainly their guests who they bring along, frequently to assess their satisfaction with your menu. Only toy with an item if it’s not selling.
If you’re going to add a healthy or hearty option, think about how that item relates to the rest of the menu. A smoothie shop doesn’t need to sell burgers, and vice-versa. If a new item is closely related to a pre-existing item on the menu, consider listing it as an add-on/variation within the same line. Dedicating entire sections to healthy and hearty is definitely okay, as long as these sections don’t deviate too far away from your menu’s current offerings [as well as follow the facets listed above].
As trends fade in and out at an increasingly faster rate, restaurants are finding it even more difficult to satisfy these ever-changing needs. The most successful establishments will certainly respond to these trends, but in a way that keeps their brand intact and keeps their operations at status quo. Innovation and consistent change is quintessential to the industry, but these facets should never come at the cost of your restaurant’s identity. Do add healthy and hearty menu options for your customers, but be sure that you’re making the most out of your menu expansion in the process.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.