Forget Bland! Next-Gen Diners Crave Bold Flavors and 'Instagrammable' Drinks

Next-Gen Diners Want Bold Flavors and Custom Drinks, Menu Experts Reveal at recent National Restaurant Association food show in Chicago.

4 min read
Forget Bland! Next-Gen Diners Crave Bold Flavors and 'Instagrammable' Drinks
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By Nancy Luna | For The Prep

Today's consumers crave more than just a simple meal when dining out. They seek personalization, shareable experiences, culinary adventure and spicy cuisines.

"We want small escapes," menu trends expert Nancy Kruse said during her annual “State of the Plate” presentation at the 2024 National Restaurant Association food show in Chicago.

During the recent restaurant conference, Kruse and Michael Parlapiano of the consultancy firm The Culinary Edge provided The Prep with must-know insights on what’s capturing the appetites of the next generation of diners.

When it comes to beverages, consumers are gravitating towards custom drinks, especially social media savvy Gen Z, said Parlapiano, managing director at The Culinary Edge in San Francisco.

“People are using beverages as an expression of themselves,” he said.

This self-expression is particularly evident on social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat, where young consumers love to showcase their beverage hacks – from boba drinks to multi-ingredient espresso beverages.

"This is about brand affiliation," Parlapiano explained. "We talk a lot about arm candy with beverages, where you see a lot of younger generations in social media holding up their [drinks]. You don't see people holding up a plate saying, ‘This is my omelet.’”

Michael Parlapiano of The Culinary Edge said “army candy” is a form of self-expression among young consumers who like to show off their drinks on social media platforms. (Credit: Nancy Luna, For The Prep)

On the culinary front, Parlapiano highlighted the rising popularity of "hot and honey" and "sweet and spicy" flavor combinations.

Historically, restaurants have strayed from spicy offerings. But today, heat is in high demand, he said.

This shift reflects a generational change, as a new cohort of diners have grown up eating spicier foods at home, Parlapiano said.

"There's a whole new customer palate that loves heat," he said.

And restaurants are responding.

“Things that were usually off limits are now easily accessible,” Parlapiano said.

Texture is another trend gaining momentum, particularly among Gen Z.

Parlapiano noted that younger consumers are more open to experiencing contrasting textures and flavors, from hot and cold to crunchy and soft. This openness is driving the inclusion of global flavors into mainstream menus. For instance, American brunch chain First Watch has introduced Chilaquiles, a Mexican dish of fried tortilla strips smothered in red or green salsa and often topped with a fried egg.

"Such dishes appeal to younger consumers who love bold flavors," Parlapiano said.

Adventurous eaters are also voicing their preferences for specific types of global cuisines, especially Korean and regional Mexican flavors.

Parlapiano said consumers are moving from Mexican cuisine to regional specialties from Baja, Sonora, or Oaxaca.

“The consumer is waking up to the fact that Mexican cuisine isn't just one note,” he said.

Global flavors

During her presentation, Kruse also noted the growing popularity of Asian cuisine.

"The Asian pantry is vast," Kruse said, noting a rise in Korean "sandos" and Japanese fried chicken katsu sandwiches.

Korean cuisine is also expanding beyond barbecue and Kogi-style tacos.

In San Francisco, Korean breakfast sandwiches are trending, exemplified by Toast'N Egg, which offers a variety of Korean-inspired toasts. One standout is the Shrimp Talk Toast, featuring a shrimp-fish patty topped with egg, cheese, purple cabbage, pickle, sweet chili sauce, mayo, sweet cream, seaweed, and chip crumbs.

Kruse, president of The Kruse Company, also highlighted the ongoing demand for fried chicken in various formats, such as the fried chicken pot pie at Kitchen No. 324 in Oklahoma City.

"Nothing succeeds like excess. Warm and gooey and crispy crunchy, it’s comforting on a primal level,” she said.

She also noted that many of these food trends “originate on the independent side, then work their way up to the chains.”

Overall, adapting menus with fresh trends is crucial as restaurants face a slowdown in visits from consumers due to rising menu prices, trend experts concluded.

Still, Parlapiano cautioned that operators should carefully consider their audience before diving into a complete menu overhaul: "You can't just chase trends without a little bit of a compass."

Nancy Luna is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She can be reached at

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