Sweet and spicy pairings, tropical fruits and international influences will see a surge as the weather heats up, experts say.

By Christine Blank

4 hot c-store flavor trends for summer

Sweet and spicy combos, like this breakfast sandwich with two slices of cinnamon swirl French toast as the bread, sold at Cliff's, will continue drawing interest. Permission granted by Cliff's

Keeping up with flavor trends is an endless effort. New ideas come and go, tastes change and what’s popular can vary wildly from year to year.

A glance at Datassential’s top flavors reports for the last two years shows as much, with 2022’s top 10 including black salt and Indian-inspired pizzas, while 2023 was rife with sweeter fare like mango, yuzu and spicy maple. 

As c-store operators plan their food and beverage menus for the summer months, foodservice consultants and operators shared their predictions for some of the top flavors that will influence new items across the industry as the weather heats up.

Sweet and savory/spicy flavor combos stay strong

“Spicy-sweet flavor combinations will continue to grow on menus — particularly hot honey, but also variations such as honey Sriracha,” said Katie Belflower, editor at foodservice consulting firm Technomic.

Claire Conaghan, associate director and trendologist at Datassential, a global food and beverage intelligence company, agreed.

“There’s certainly no signs that the sweet and spicy trend will be slowing anytime soon,” Conaghan said. The combo is growing on menus, and there are still many LTOs in the foodservice industry featuring those flavors as well, she noted.

Consumers have also been showing a growing interest in bold and adventurous flavors, and spicy and Asian-inspired or spicy/sweet dishes cater to this demand, said Chad White, foodservice category manager for The Rutter’s Companies in York, Pennsylvania. 

“We still see spicy/sweet flavors growing in popularity and we are expecting them to continue through the summer months,” said White.

Combining spicy and tropical flavors or blending savory and sweet notes can also create “intriguing culinary experiences,” White said. 

RaceTrac is leaning into the trend with a summer LTO lineup that includes a sausage, egg and cheese waffle breakfast sandwich. It’s one of several companies with recent waffle-wrapped options.  

4 hot c-store flavor trends for summer

Dandy is among the c-store chains offering sweet and spicy waffle-based sandwiches. Screenshot from godandy.com  

“The flavors for the summer season are sweet, spicy and seasonal, and these items are targeting our core guest segmentation as well as designed to drive trial and conversion of our busy guests on the go,” said Tony DeSerto, senior category manager of Atlanta-based RaceTrac.

The company has had previous success with items such as Spicy Hawaiian and Cheeseburger pizzas, the PepperJack’d sandwich and a Southwest Scrambled Breakfast Tornado.

Fruits — particular tropical or global flavors — will rule

While Belflower predicts traditional summer fruits will continue to be popular, “with global ingredients and flavors increasingly appearing on menus overall, global fruits including coconut, mango, guava and dragon fruit will start to ramp up on menus.”

Guava and blackberry were very popular last summer, according to Conaghan, and she expects those fruit flavors to be popular again this summer.

Tropical flavors like coconut and mango often experience a surge in popularity during the summer months, White noted. «I believe these flavors give feelings of relaxation and vacation, making them ideal for warm weather,” he said.

Marcy, New York-based Clifford Fuel and Cliff’s Local Market plans to offer a “tropical parfait” from Memorial Day through Labor Day that offers vanilla yogurt, mango, raspberries, pineapples and shredded coconut in a plastic cup, with a small container of granola that can be mixed in.

Rutter’s also sees an increase in smoothie sales during the summer months, with options such as strawberry, mango, mixed berries, and other variations. “[For] each of these flavors, you can make it a colada utilizing the coconut trend,” White said.

Additionally, lemon, lime and orange are classic, refreshing choices that can be incorporated into beverages or desserts, according to White.

4 hot c-store flavor trends for summer

Cut watermelon is a popular summer item at Cliff’s. Permission granted by Cliff’s  

Cliff’s will feature Sour Patch Kids candy-based flavors in sour watermelon and sour orange in its frozen dispensed beverage program. “It’s going to track kids’ eyeballs with [corresponding] graphics,” Thurston said.

Additionally, Cliff’s will bring back cut watermelon bowls this summer. Last year, it sold more than 10,400 from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Tips for choosing summer flavors

Chad White, foodservice category manager for Rutter’s, shared tips for choosing successful food and beverage flavor profiles for the summer months:

1. Analyze market research and consumer insights to identify emerging flavor trends and consumer preferences, White suggested. “Understanding what flavors resonate with target demographics can inform product development and promotional strategies.”

2. Consider seasonality and regional preferences when developing summer LTOs. “Seasonal ingredients and flavors that align with local tastes can enhance the appeal of offerings and drive sales,” White said.

3. Collaborate with culinary experts and chefs who can provide valuable insights into flavor pairings and trending ingredients. “We often leverage our partnerships to help us find the right products during the right seasons to incorporate ideas into our menu,” White noted.

4. Offer unique and innovative flavor combinations that set brands apart from competitors and capture consumer attention, according to White. “Experimenting with new flavor profiles while staying true to brand identity allows for menu differentiation and keeps offerings fresh and exciting,” he said.

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Asian flavors lead global cuisine influences

Global cuisines continue to influence c-store menu innovation — and smart operators will incorporate these trends in summer offerings, as well, experts say.

“As consumers become more adventurous with their palates, there’s a growing demand for unique and unexpected flavor combinations,” White said. «Incorporating elements from different culinary traditions, can result in exciting new flavor profiles that capture consumer interest.”

Asian flavors, in particular, continue to be popular, with Korean gochujang expected to show up on more menus, according to Belflower.

“Other global ingredients that could increasingly appear on summer menus come from Mexican cuisine, with items such as birria and mezcal expected to show continued growth,” Belflower said.

Additionally, ingredients such as chamoy — a savory Mexican sauce made from chilis and pickled fruits — or boba could add variation to summer classics to make them stand out more, according to Belflower.

Barbecue flavors are hot in the summer months and will likely be influenced regionally this year — particularly Alabama white barbecue sauce, which sports a mayonnaise base mixed with vinegar and other spices; and Carolina Gold, a South Carolina-influenced flavor profile featuring mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and spices.

4 hot c-store flavor trends for summer

A summer salad from Cliff’s. Permission granted by Cliff’s  

Operators will offer different twists on veggies

While the food industry has seen plenty of meat alternatives over the years, Whole Foods’ 2024 food trend predictions expects to see veggies taking more of a starring role in food options.  

Summer classic vegetables such as corn and tomatoes will be popping up on menus during the warm season, according to Belflower.

“Corn in all forms is always a summer classic with elote continuing to trend especially used as a flavor,” Conaghan added.

She added that c-stores and restaurants might try offering elote chips, or use an elote dry rub on wings 

Cliff’s Local Market will bring back its summer salad, which includes spinach topped with strawberries, blueberries, goat cheese and sweet Vidalia onion dressing. 

“We tested it last year at a few locations and it did pretty well…[now it] will be at all locations,” Thurston said.

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