Even as consumers remain wary about spending their hard-earned dollars when dining out, foodservice operators who can successfully menu bolder, more innovative flavors often have an advantage over the competition when it comes to boosting customer traffic and sales.

Once timid where their food was concerned, Americans today are hungry for new and distinctive culinary experiences as reflected in increased interest in menu items that promise a more robust flavor profile. To meet this demand, operators are amping up the flavor levels through the use of fresh ingredients, more authentic ethnic preparations, bolder spice-and-herb-centric recipes, and a variety of condiments and other prepared food items.

Over the past year, for example, Subway brought the heat with its LTO Jalapeño Cheddar Bread, while Wendy's featured a Spicy Chipotle Crispy Chicken Sandwich and Burger King launched a Rodeo Crispy Chicken Sandwich topped with onion rings and barbecue sauce.

“Consumers want more flavor,” says Kelly Weikel, research manager for Technomic Inc. “The spice level is up, and we're even seeing that consumers are more open to less-popular flavors like sour or bitter.”

According to Technomic's 2013 Flavor Consumer Trend Report, 37 percent of consumers polled say they are more interested in trying new flavors than they were just a year ago. At the same time, 41 percent of those respondents say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers new or innovative flavors.

“More room exists to experiment with flavor today than in 2009,” the report says. “The popularity of spicy flavors is growing.”

Brendan Walsh, dean of culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., observes that the American food scene has undergone a dramatic change over the past 20 or so years. “There's been a lot of growth in terms of bolder flavors,” says Walsh, who earlier headed up the kitchen at the ground-breaking southwestern-flavored Arizona 206 in New York.

“Foods that add interest and activity in the mouth are what people are looking for,” he says.” They're open to spicing and different nuances of flavor.”

Technomic found that 54 percent of Americans ages 18 or older enjoy spicy food, up from 48 percent in 2011 and 46 percent in 2009.

Experts attribute this attitudinal shift to Americans' increasing level of sophistication when it comes to food and their growing willingness to sample new and more adventurous dishes. “The consumer is more educated in terms of food,” says Bill Idell, a chairman in the culinary arts department at Johnson & Wales' College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I. “People watch the Food Network and see things like galangal or chipotle, and it piques their curiosity.”

At the same time, he continues, they have access to numerous recipes and culinary information on the Internet. And now, he adds, “Almost every supermarket has an ethnic foods aisle.”

Contributing to this flavor explosion is the evolving interest among Americans for more ethnic dining experiences, including those of Latin America, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. However, experts say, today's consumer wants to experience the real thing.

For example, chefs and restaurants who promise a Mexican or Latin American dining experience can't simply devise a menu relying on a lot of cheese-based dishes anymore. “We're seeing an increase in food with good, strong, distinctive flavors and ingredients,” Walsh says. “[Restaurants are offering] a host of fresh and dried chilis in a variety of different preparations. Chipotle is the big one. There's barely a fast-food concept that doesn't use it today. You take a grilled chicken sandwich and add chipotle mayo to that, and suddenly you have a southwestern dish.”

According to research firm Datassential, the descriptions of spicy food on independent and chain menus are growing. Of the 120 terms for spicy food Datassential tracks, more than 70 grew in popularity between 2008 and 2012, including chipotle, roasted poblano and Thai chili.

The presence of chilis can even be found in sweet menu items. For the summer, Sonic Drive-In is featuring Chocolate Covered Jalapeño shake — an indication that ethnic or regionally flavored ingredients are finding their way into a diverse array of  preparations. “Fusion has been part of the American culinary landscape for a long time,” Walsh says. “But now we have access to more and more ingredients, and almost anything is up for grabs. We're seeing more blending of quality ingredients and flavor profiles.”

The farm-to-table movement also is having an impact on flavor levels. Chefs around the country are able to work with local farmers to produce foods that are fresh and full-flavored. “More chefs are getting involved in hyperlocal sourcing … and getting perfectly raised produce that is picked at the peak of ripeness,” Idell says. “[These foods] can stand by themselves on a plate. Their flavors really shine through.”

Concerns about nutrition also are having an impact on flavors. “The new focus on authentic flavors — produce in particular — often means that chefs don't have to rely as much on fat or sugar or salt as they once did,” Idell says.

The trend toward more pronounced flavors also has extended into the beverage sector. Walsh cites the growth of Starbucks, with its dark, rich blends. “Thirty years ago, people just weren't drinking their coffee like that,” he says. “Their coffee is more intense and robust.”

The flavor explosion is even apparent at the bar as mixologists also experiment with flavor combinations. “We're seeing more fresh, bold flavors in cocktails,” Idell observes. “There is a heightened level of expectation as to what creative bartenders are doing.”

Meanwhile, experts agree that the trend toward ramping up the flavor in menu items is just beginning to gain serious traction. “It seems that everything is up for grabs,” Walsh says. “These different flavors …  add a lot to excitement to ever-expanding [culinary] palettes. We're a huge melting pot, [and] the sky's the limit.”

“It's a good direction we're headed in,” Idell says. “It's what consumers are looking for.”