Cajun still spicing up menus
Cajun still spicing up menus
Ever since New Orleans chef Paul
Prodhomme first introduced his
version of Cajun cuisine to
mainstream America in the early
1980s, consumers have embraced
its bolder profile, prompting chain
restaurants to follow suit.
“Creole and Cajun dishes are spicier
and more flavorful than your average
American fare and that difference
can be very appealing,” says
Bennett Depew, corporate chef at
five-unit Harry’s of America. “People hear all the wild stories about New Orleans and
Mardi Gras, all the tales of fantastic food and good times, and they want to be a part of
Depew recently added Boudin Balls and Shrimp and Crawfish Pot Pie to Harry’s menu
and says both are a big hit with guests, but cautions that it pays to be strategic about
what goes on the menu.
“Some items that play really well in New Orleans just won’t sell outside of Louisiana. We
probably wouldn’t likely get much interest in “Frog Legs Meuniere,” or “Alligator Sausage
Cheesecake,” he says.
Jeff Powell, who is president and chief executive of 19-unit Razzoo’s Cajun Café, says
there are plenty of Cajun dishes that play very well outside of Louisiana’s borders.
“Shrimp étoufée over beautiful, fresh dirty rice appeals the same in central Kansas as in
central Louisiana,” says Powell. “The key is authenticity and the investment in quality,
fresh ingredients no matter where the prep is happening.”
Cajun food has a diverse and rich history and found its way to America in the mid-1700s
when Acadians settled in Louisiana after being forced out of Canada by the British.
Today, popular Cajun dishes include boudin, a type of sausage made from pork, pork
liver, rice, garlic, green onions and other spices; gumbo, soup that is illustrative of
African and Native American influences; French-inspired Jambalaya, a dish that varies
from restaurant to restaurant but usually includes rice, meat and/or seafood and plenty
of vegetables; and of course, rice and gravy, usually made from meat drippings and
served over steamed rice.
Erik Combs, culinary director of 39-unit Wild Wing Café, says Cajun cuisine makes for
some delicious “mash-ups.”
“Wild Wing Cafe has used the Cajun flavor profile to create some great mash-ups, from
tacos and barbecue, to an Asia-Cajun wing sauce. Cajun food doesn't limit itself to one
particular demographic group because of its multi-cultural influences,” says Combs, who
adds, “I think everyone enjoys the flavors of Cajun food. The spices and heat combine in
just the right way to create something magical.”
At 19-unit VooDoo BBQ & Grill, a New Orleans barbecue concept in three states, there
are several popular dishes that are decidedly Cajun.
“On our menu we have an array of products that are infused with Cajun spices,” says
Tony Avila, the chain’s chief executive. Additionally, all of the meats are dry rubbed in
spices that are common in Louisiana and each guest is asked if they would like to “Jazz
It Up,” when they order a barbecue meat item.
“We also have a Louisiana Legends section of our menu that features many of your
more famous Louisiana dishes infused with barbecue, such as our Red Beans and Rice
with Barbecued Smoked Sausage, Barbecue Jambalaya and Barbecue Gumbo,” says
Avila. “It’s what separates us in barbecue, which is becoming a more crowded segment.
New Orleans-style barbecue is the essence of who we are.”
Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential, says Cajun, based on the research
company’s SCORES database, typically scores better with Millennials as well as AfricanAmerican and Hispanic-American patrons.
One chain that has been seeing same-store sales climb is Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen,
which touts its Louisiana heritage.
“Popeyes has done very well at getting back to their roots and really focusing on their
origination as a Cajun chain,” says Webster. “This focus on story and identity is
increasingly important in foodservice, and Popeyes has done well in getting back to it,
and then driving all menu changes and LTO activity around that story.”
Amy Myrdal Miller, founder and president at Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, says
because Cajun pairs well with beer, she thinks it resonates more with male consumers,
especially those looking for a burger with bold flavors.
“Cajun flavors are bold, and when the heat is just right, you’ll get that “Ay-Yee!” reaction,
which shows the flavors are bold, appealing, and make you stand up and take notice,”
Others agree the “heat factor” has to be just right. Robert Pesch, vice president of
culinary R&D at Cheddar’s Casual Cafe, an Irving, Texas-based chain with 150
restaurants in 29 states, is a case in point. “Cajun flavors can be tricky, but one of the
important things that I find is having a part of the dish to “cool” the heat. For example
having both roasted and spice flavors in a cream pasta create a balance that is
craveable,” he says.
“Instead of making the flavor upfront and too powerful, we’ve found that using it as an
ingredient with other items really helps elevate the dishes on the Cheddar’s menu.”
Pesch’s point is particularly relevant for consumers who enjoy these dishes served in
restaurants outside of New Orleans, which is America’s ground zero for true Cajun.
“Southern food in general is experiencing quite a renaissance — from New York to Los
Angeles you’re seeing shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes on upscale menus,”
says chef Depew of Harry’s.
“Cajun food is one of the original regional southern staples, and it’s really experienced a
broadened appeal. Any that are unsure about Cajun food usually change their minds
pretty quickly once they’ve tried our Bourbon Street Favorites.”