Sauces Satisfy and Surprise David Despain | February 2014, Volume 68, No.2

A growing array of sauces and marinades addresses consumers’ desire for authentic, exotic, and ethnic fare that is easy to prepare.

Kikkoman sauce
While taking a tour of the test kitchens at P.F. Chang’s headquarters in Scottsdale, Ariz. (, you learn that the first step in the creation of any restaurant menu item is a search for a great sauce. Sauce development is primary because the wok is central to all of the cooking at P.F. Chang’s and the company’s fast-casual spinoff Pei Wei Asian Diner. Sauce is serious business—a construction of bold, concentrated flavor that is what keeps customers coming back—and, unlike other kinds of sauces (e.g., barbecue or pasta), each Southeast Asian-inspired concoction must be carefully crafted to be just the right balance of tangy, sweet, salty, and heat. Pei Wei Creative Culinary Chef Phil Butler says, “Sauce is what brings everything together, and everything in the sauce has to be in harmony.”

Thai Lime & Chile SaladNow Pei Wei is breaking new ground with the announcement that it’s made one of the largest menu overhauls in the history of the restaurant, according to Butler. “Lighter, brighter, and fresher” looks to be the underlying theme of the new menu. On the menu, customers will have their choice of lighter, small-sized entrées. A new Thai Lime & Chile offering combines citrus flavors with spicy Fresno chiles and is available as a regular or small wok-prepared entrée or as an entrée salad. Other menu additions include Wok Roasted Vegetable Salad, and new side dishes include zesty Ginger Orange Edamame and spicy Szechuan Green Beans. The menu also has a new platform: “Lettuce Wraps” are not just an appetizer anymore and are now part of the “Lighter Offerings” section of the menu—a clear signal that the company looks to expand and own this category. Varieties include Traditional Chicken, Thai Chicken, and Korean Steak

These introductions all have to do with the latest in customer preferences and sauce trends. “People are getting really focused on flavor, health, and regionally specific dishes,” Butler says. 

Many of these customers also have their minds set on bringing healthy, regionally specific Asian flavors of cooking sauces home to use in their own kitchens. A new Mintel report titled Cooking Sauces, Marinades, and DressingsU.S. says the market enjoys a healthy outlook, having reached $7.4 billion in 2013, and is expected to reach $9.1 billion by 2018. According to the report, dry sauces topped all segments of the category with an estimated $3.2 billion in sales in 2013, while dressings sold $2.6 billion, and liquid sauces sold $1.6 billion. Leading the dry sauce segment is McCormick, Baltimore, Md. (, with $1.2 billion in sales and 18% share of the market.

When Mintel asked 1,763 Internet users ages 18+ what flavors they preferred when choosing “sauces/marinades, dry seasoning mixes, or dressings,” four in 10 respondents reported that they preferred “international/ethnic flavors.” Mintel suggests that these findings underscore the “growing popularity of more exotic flavors that source from faraway lands.” Because five in 10 respondents also reported that they preferred “spicy/hot” flavors, Mintel advises that consumers are very likely to enjoy not only hot and spicy, but also international/ethnic flavors and authentic regional flavors. Indeed, ethnic foods prepared at home are on the rise; more than 87% of Mintel survey respondents reported that they are cooking ethnic foods in their home more frequently.