The Spiceman Cometh

When Keira Knightley wears a dress on the red carpet, department store buyers take note and place orders. In the culinary world, her equal is a pudgy, middle-aged former hotel chef from Baltimore. In lieu of a trend-defining gown, Kevan Vetter, the executive chef at seasoning giant McCormick & Co. (MKC), rolls out the company's annual Flavor Forecast—a range of flavor pairings that McCormick expects will resonate with American taste buds and drive sales.

Over the past decade, Vetter's chosen flavors have found their way into nearly every corner of the processed food chain, including Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos, Kashi Lemongrass Coconut Chicken frozen dinners, and Taco Bell's carne asada chalupa. His 2010 Flavor Forecast, published earlier this month, is the first ever specifically designed for the holiday season.

Vetter, 43, is less Alice Waters than Dave Thomas. After honing his understanding of the American palate at suburban restaurants, he landed at McCormick in 1998 with the goal of enhancing its influence outside the supermarket. In his first Flavor Forecast, in 2000, he noted the rise of Latin American dishes and small plates. Melding the middle-brow culinary zeitgeist with the American palate's increasing quirkiness, he recommended five generic spices—cinnamon, cumin, ginger, dill, and fennel. "What was big was using sweet spices in main dishes, and savory spices in desserts," recalls Vetter. "We were supporting trends with flavors we felt made sense." New reports were issued in 2003 (championing an unheralded jalapeño called chipotle) and 2005 (which helped revive red curry), and every subsequent year. In 2007, Vetter moved beyond mere spice predictions to actual flavor pairings.

Vetter's flavors have a meaningful effect on McCormick's bottom line. "Within a matter of a couple of months, we'll get orders [for spices and flavors]," says Alan Wilson, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of McCormick. The company's share price has more than doubled in the decade since the 2000 forecast. Since 2005 between 13 and 18 percent of nonretail sales have come from new products launched in the three preceding years. Some of Chef Vetter's choice flavors have even enjoyed Lady Gaga-like stardom. After it was included in the 2006 report, sales of smoked paprika have grown 300%, leading to an entire line of toasted and roasted spices. Chipotle sales are up 75% in the past five years. "Eight years ago people couldn't pronounce chipotle!" says Vetter. Now, "it's on every menu from fast food to fine dining."

To perfect his forecast, Vetter spends six months brainstorming with a team of food scientists and marketers. They solicit suggestions from fine-dining chefs like David Chang of New York's Momofuku, and pay close attention to economic factors. (Could a statistical increase in sales of Ball jars suggest Americans are ready for more exposure to pickling spices?) Eventually the hundreds of possible combinations are whittled down to about 20 before the inevitable question—"Will this actually sell?"—is considered.

The answer isn't always easy. Last year's forecast called for pairing toasted sesame and root beer, and cayenne and tart cherry, among others. It's still too early to judge the success of these in the marketplace, but at least one prominent chef was nonplussed. "I remember reading [the final report] and thinking 'Oh, those are combinations I'd never use,' " says Chang. "It made very little impression on me."

McCormick, however, is less interested in impressing top chefs than in influencing the flavor of Cheetos that Americans will buy in five years. After the flavors are finalized, McCormick's marketers present the results to more than 100 clients while distributors give presentations to hundreds more. Each talk is tailored to the clients' interests, and sample dishes—like cayenne and tart cherry brownies—are provided to suggest how the flavors might be integrated into their product lines.

"That's one of the big values," says Doug Hasselo, chief food innovation officer with KFC, owned by Yum! Brands (YUM). "They'll take trends and research, and apply that into prototypes and concepts that we might pursue." Hasselo says the McCormick presentations' consumer research makes it easier for KFC to commit resources to developing prototypes based on the company's products, such as the seasoning for Kentucky Grilled Chicken.

To be successful, flavors must be versatile. "It has to be a broad enough pairing to hit multiple places in a menu," says Vetter, noting that the best pairings work in at least three categories, such as a dessert, savory main, appetizer, snack, or cocktail. For the special 2010 Holiday Forecast, Vetter honed in on pumpkin spice, breaking down the ingredients—cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice—to reveal flavors common in Latin and Caribbean dishes, such as jerk chicken. Since those dishes often require coconut milk, a potential pairing was born.

After concocting pumpkin pie spice and coconut milk rubbed short ribs, pumpkin spiced coconut fudge, and a pumpkin whoopee pie with coconut cream filling, he decided the pairing made the cut. It joined bay leaf and pear, almond and caramel, sage and citrus, as well as roasted cinnamon and bacon in rounding out the yuletide forecast. "What the report reflects," Vetter says, "is how the holiday is evolving."

For McCormick, evolution is good for business. The company has launched a report for the Chinese market—which includes flavor combinations such as avocado and blueberry—and one for Europe (mint and courgette, anyone?). Since McCormick acquired a stake in the Indian company Eastern Condiments in June, expect to see Vetter's combinations popping up in the fast-food outlets and supermarkets of Mumbai and New Delhi over the coming years.

Despite his influence, Vetter remains modest. During a recent visit to a restaurant in Anaheim, Calif., he noticed a cocktail with watermelon and basil, one of his signature combinations. "This almost validates what we're doing," he says. "I feel pretty pleased I called that trend."

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