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Michelle Kim/MEDILL NEWS

Habanero, Ghost pepper and red Trinidad Scorpion peppers make up the ingredients for the triple X wings at Jake Melnick's Corner Top on Superior St. in Chicago.

The hotter the better: More Americans spice up their palates

by Michelle Kim
Nov 07, 2013

Nick Santangelo, executive sous chef at Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap, was using habaneros and Ghost Peppers, known for their scorching, tongue-numbing heat, for the restaurant’s triple X wings until customers hungered for something spicier.

“There are people that say, ‘It’s hot but ehh...’ In the last month, we’ve been using the Red Trinidad Scorpion Pepper, now the hottest in the world, and incorporating that into the triple X sauce. We just keep trying to seek out basically new peppers,” Santangelo said.

What many in the food industry have suspected for some time is borne out by new research showing that more than half of consumers now prefer hot or spicy sauces, dips or condiments, compared with 46 percent in 2009.

Consumers may be gravitating towards very spicy foods because of heightened interest in ethnic flavors, like Latin American and Asian cuisines, said Anne Mills, consumer research manager for Technomic, a Chicago-based food research company.

“It’s something that has been increasing in the industry,” Mills said. “What they can do is leverage their focus on traditional foods and create a unique twist on them. New and unique flavors are going to drive people into restaurants.”

Forty-one percent of consumers indicated they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers new or innovative flavors and 37 percent said they are increasingly driven to try new flavors, which means more room exists for restaurateurs to experiment with flavor.

Other trending flavors included sour, tropical, ginger and regional American tastes, such as Cajun and BBQ.

Consumers also appear to be taking their new-found love of heat and intense flavors back to their own kitchens.

Dave Trout, owner of Savory Spice Shop in Lincoln Square, said more customers are seeking out spices flavored with ultra-hot chilies.

“People’s palates are expanding to areas they haven’t been before,” said Dave Trout, owner of Savory Spice Shop in Lincoln Square. “It’s not just about jalapenos anymore. It’s habaneros and Ghost Peppers.”