During COVID-19 especially, people are looking for a familiar comfort food and salsa is at the top of the menu topping the comforting favorites. Salsa is starting to outgrow its reputation as something to add to an order or chips and popping up in some unusual places with some new pairings that may make consumers second-guess adding just their “usual” to the delivery order.

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Salsa By the Numbers

During Q2 of 2020, Technomic analyzed thousands of dishes incorporating salsa, and taking into account COVID-19 menu restrictions and closures, saw a small 0.8% fall in growth. However, there is still an overwhelming 84.5% penetration in Mexican operators and 77.4% with Sports Bar operators. Other top segments included Midscale Dining with a market penetration of 63.2%, Fast Casual with 37.4% and Upscale with 35.5%, with a total 24.6% operator penetration across all segments.

The top paired ingredients are what come to mind with any fantastic Mexican food feast: cheese, pico de gallo, beans, and sour cream. As predictable as that may sound, however, the fastest rising ingredients to pair with salsa are much less traditional and reflect a consumer interested in salsa as a healthy ingredient to dishes. Plant-based egg rose an astounding 211.1% over one year while spinach wraps follow with a 52.9% rise in the same amount of time. Muenster is in third with a 19% rise in pairings, giving cheddar a run for its money as the favorite cheese to pair with salsa.

Classic Dishes and Contemporary Favorites

The top dishes with salsa are a testament to the foods salsa is ubiquitous with and doesn’t feel right to not include: burrito/chimichanga, quesadilla, taco, fajita, and, obviously, chips and salsa are the top choices. As mainstream as these dishes are, it’s up to operators to drive excitement with menu innovations that appeal to both consumers seeking comfort in the familiar and those who are looking for a twist on the classics. During the pandemic, this innovation came as a new way to deliver delicious, fresh food to people in new ways, like the taco box or a taco feast in a bag put together by both upscale and midscale restaurants. Other restaurants known for their sandwiches or burgers are also experimenting with adding different salsas, especially roasted chili-corn and bean, as a condiment to their menus, giving consumers a new option as a topping.

Salsa Innovations

Over the last five years, salsa trends have skewed to include more creamy, fruity flavors with a more savory, creamy, multinational salsa is emerging, while the fresh, saucy, spiciness of classic red salsa seems to still be a staple on many menus. On some fast-casual menus, pineapple-jalapeño salsa paired with blue cheese dressing for chicken tenders is making waves as well as served with chips alongside lobster and shrimp at the midscale level.

Although the top dishes are South American in origin and flavor, there are some innovations rising that may be surprising to see on menus. Salsa is beginning to make its way onto Korean food menus, served with sashimi, and even made with pears for a different kind of tart taste. There is also more fish being paired with salsa – king crab, oysters, and yellowtail being a few making an introduction in 2020. Consumers are more willing than ever to play with flavor and are interested in a more international selection and blending of cultures, as evidenced by these new trends. However, the most mainstream and mature flavors of tomato, poblano, onion, and jalapeno pepper still reign as the supreme salsas.

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This article has been updated from 04/17/2018.

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