Kevan Vetter traded in his restaurant chef hat for one in the corporate space nearly two decades ago. While the venue may have changed, his quest to wow consumers with the next great meal is still very much on the menu.
Today, 52-year-old Vetter is the executive chef at McCormick & Co., the 130-year old manufacturer of spices, seasoning mixes, flavorings and condiments. Vetter no longer is feeding 300 consumers a night in his restaurant. That base has grown exponentially to millions of people around the world who use one of the Hunt Valley, Maryland company's products in their foods.
But Vetter said the pace to uncover the next great flavor has increased substantially as consumers — punctuated by interest from Generation Z and millennials — are looking to find the next flavor they can try at restaurants or in their home kitchens. Increasingly, McCormick is spanning the globe looking for the next flavor trend that could permeate the food landscape several several years into the future by taking to chefs, attending conferences and sampling local cuisine.
Vetter spoke with Food Dive about McCormick's Flavor Forecast — a tool that helps identifies up-and-coming flavors — while also speaking broadly about what today's consumers are looking for in the foods they eat. The interview has been edited for brevity.
FOOD DIVE: Is McCormick devoting more time to finding international flavors?
VETTER: Consumers are really looking for easy ways to make great global food at home. They want to recreate some of the experiences that they've had, whether it be because they've been able to travel internationally or they've got some favorite hot spots at food halls that are creating these global dishes. The ability to recreate that at home with ease is just becoming paramount. ... We're able to leverage these global flavors in ways that people can create at home.
How do you go about finding flavors internationally and deciding whether or not that flavor is something you want to bring back to the United States?
VETTER: We're getting ideas through our flavor forecast and then that turns into (ideas). As we're going through that vetting process, we have a global flavor forecast think tank team that does a lot of the heavy lifting up front, looking for global macro trends. Then we come together and distill those down into opportunities for the report.
We're looking at what flavors are emerging. We're looking for how do those flavors pass. Are they passing east to west, west to east? What's the rate of adoption and what's the right time to introduce that? One of the ways that we look at whether a flavor will be successful around the world is if it's starting to take root in other places and other countries and starting to spread. We get down into the weeds and really explore what's happening.
Describe the process you use to find a new flavor. How does it work?
VETTER: We kind of look at the flavor forecast as a two-to-four year time horizon. It used to be three to five, but now we're looking at it more as two to four just because the rate of adoption of food and flavors has really increased.
We're not looking for one-offs for a particular region. We're looking for something something that's gonna have impact across the globe. It's not going to be a fad. It's going to have enough runway where we see opportunities with that flavor to really become mainstream and not just a kind of a one and done in six months and it's moving on to the next thing. We've got folks that have great hunches about food, but we also use data sources looking into new product launches. We're going to certain conferences.
And within our process, we're constantly sort of converging and diverging to take those trends, distilling them down to the ingredients, to the cuisine, using a variety of tools to kind of vet them. Do they have global impact? Do they have enough runway before they actually make it to the report?
(Our) think tank team is constantly on the lookout for food and flavor ingredients and things that we're seeing emerging, both boots on the ground as well as following other influencers. We research chefs and restaurants that are doing some cool things. The team is dedicated to making sure that we're keeping McCormick as a thought leader in that food and flavor space.
You and your team spend and a fair amount of time traveling the globe looking for the next flavor. Can you walk me through that process and describe an experience that stood out to you?
VETTER: I travel a lot for business and you're always trying to ... find a great flavor or food experience. I feel like whether you're in the heart of the South or whether you're in a major metropolitan city, you can find nuggets. You just need to do a little bit of research to find out what is the local cuisine experience? What are the ingredients? Who are the chefs and where do you go?
You might find yourself eating at a burger joint just because that burger joint is known for a very specific preparation, ingredients that they put on, or you may find yourself at a more fine dining experience looking at some novel cooking techniques or use of other ingredients. And I think that makes a difference. The deeper you can get in if you go to a place, experiencing the menu, ordering things off the menu. It's obviously a tasting thing that's important, but talking to the folks that are creating that, what's their story and how did they get to doing what they're doing and what inspires them.
Can you highlight one experience while traveling that was particularly meaningful?
VETTER: We had our flavor forecast summit in the U.K. about two years ago and we went to a food hall as part of our experience. There's probably 20 different vendors there. We were eating around and toward the end of the night I ate a vegan bao bun and it was made with tofu and it had this chili sauce. And I'm telling you, I'm a hardcore carnivore. I love meat, but that was absolutely the best thing that I ate that night. It has opened my eyes that there's a lot (more) there. ... I'm a little disappointed in some of these sort of vegetarian plates that I might've served as a restaurant chef 20 years ago and thinking about all the ways that you can cook for vegetarians or vegans.
Has McCormick's focus on finding the next international flavor increased in recent years?
VETTER: We've got folks in places globally that we rely on as our flavor forecasters. We have representation in Australia, and that covers the Southeast Asia, as well as folks in China, U.K., Poland, France, Mexico, Canada, Singapore, India, Italy and the Philippines. So we really have this whole team of folks that are out experiencing the globe and because of the way we operate are really able to share those experiences domestically. We've really got eyes and boots on the ground in every part of the world that's out looking for these flavors. And I think that's a huge difference.
When we first started this flavor forecast and really doing heavy trend research, we didn't really have the team in place to accomplish that. I feel like we've really got some great folks who are incredible foodies. They know where to look and turn over those rocks to look for the next big idea. As a whole, the company is doing more global trend hunting than ever before.
Do you see global demand for global flavors in the U.S. continuing?
VETTER: I absolutely see the demand in the U.S. for global flavors continuing because I feel like, particularly with Gen Z and millennials, they are demanding different flavors. It's not the same old comfort foods that everyone, that I grew up with. I eat very differently than the way Gen Z and millennials (do.) They have higher expectations. They've been exposed to more food and more flavor experiences at an earlier age, and they're looking to continue that. They want to be able to go out, but they also want to be able to create those same flavors at home.
You used to be a chef prior to joining McCormick. Has that influenced the process you use to find new flavors, especially in the international market place?
VETTER: I loved being in a restaurant and enjoy that time and I feel like that gave me that drive and that pursuit to look for new flavors. The restaurant business is certainly very competitive and you had to have differentiating menu items to get guests to come to you. And I feel like that same drive to discover ingredients, to just discover dishes and flavors, continues today because in the restaurant business you saw results creating dishes that were different and were intriguing and people wanted to come back for. That type of excitement about new dishes has been instilled in me since being a line cook a long time ago and just never settling for keeping your menu static.
And I think that's something that continues to drive me today is what's next? What's going to be on the horizon? What I do now, it's not just about feeding 300 guests a night, it's about feeding hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people globally, helping them make meals and occasions that are going to be delicious, flavorful.