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Using Google Insights for Search to Analyze Ethnic Restaurant Trends

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Last week at my birthday dinner at an excellent Chicago Korean restaurant (San Goo Gab San), a friend mentioned that ethnic food, especially the cuisines of Asia and Africa, has become increasingly accessible and popular in the Chicago area since he first moved there in the 1980s. This isn’t a revelation. There are clearly more ethnic places in the Windy City than there were when we were young. According to one account, in 1970 there was just one Indian restaurant in all of Chicago and now there’s a buffet on every corner.

It was the discussion that followed the comment that got me thinking. The dinner attendees started speculating about which cuisines have grown the most in popularity, and whether Korean food has become more widely available, or grown more in popularity than Indian food. Some enterprising guests even started speculating about which cuisines were “poised to pop” – which ethnic foods would become as popular 30 years from now as Chinese food is today. Everyone had an opinion, but no one had any data.

Being an analytical chap, I decided to see if Google’s enormous query database could help us answer these burning (or should I say spicy?) questions. The tool that I used, Google Insights for Search, is a publically accessible tool that allows you to compare indexed search volume patterns across specific regions, categories, and time frames. You can find it at:

I used query volume for “Chinese Restaurant, Indian Restaurant,” etc. as a proxy for a cuisine’s popularity. While this is not a perfect way of measuring the popularity of ethnic food, it’s a whole lot easier than hand counting every ethnic restaurant in the US, which would take a rather fun and tasty 100 years.

My research attempted to answer three questions: 1) Which ethnic cuisines are the most popular in the US, and how have these trends changed over time? 2) Which “emerging” or “frontier” cuisines are likely to become more accessible and beloved in the future? And 3) is the growth of ethnic food in America geographically broad-based, or limited to large, diverse cities? This analysis yielded some obvious conclusions and some that were more, shall we say, delectable.

Which ethnic cuisines are the most popular in the US?

Three cuisines, Italian, Chinese, and Mexican dominate America’s ethnic food landscape. From 2004-2008 (and likely before that as well), Italian food held a slim lead over the other two big players. In mid-2009, just as the world economy emerged from the depths of the financial crisis, Italian food lost its (probably) century-old lead to Chinese food. Shortly after, in mid-2010, Mexican food also jumped ahead of Italian food and, according to forecasts, will likely stay there.

If current trends hold, Italian food will have great difficulty regaining the title of America’s ethnic food king. As in so many other fields of contemporary human endeavor, the Chinese seem to have won out over the Western Europeans in the American food game.

Surprise, surprise – Kung Pao Chicken has stolen the crown from hapless Veal Parm.

Trailing behind the big three are Indian and Thai cuisine, which is easily available in most large cities and small towns all over the US. The demand for Indian and Thai food has remained steady for most of the decade, with the exception of a small bump of ~5% this year. I suspect that Indian and Thai food will be flat to up in the coming years unless their prices drop.

Two other well-established ethnic cuisines, Japanese and French, are worth noting. Unlike Chinese, Italian and Mexican ones, Japanese and French restaurants are usually more upscale. As you might expect, interest in this pricier fare has been flat for the past 8 years, and declined slightly during the recession. If things keep moving in their current direction, Indian and Thai cuisines may overtake Japanese food in popularity over the next decade, even with relatively flat growth.

Which” emerging” or “frontier” cuisines are candidates to become everyone’s favorites five years from now based on growth rate?

If I had to bet, I’d put my money on Korean and Vietnamese. Searches for Korean food have delivered an almost 40% increase since 2008 as bulgolgi tacos and kalbi enter the mainstream and Americans realize that Korean food really isn’t all that foreign to American palettes. Brazilian food, on the other hand, has taken a tumble, with interest dropping nearly 20% since the mid-2000s.

Vietnamese food, which is my personal favorite, has surged 20% in 3 years. It is now ahead of Brazilian food and has separated itself from Ethiopian and Cuban food to take firm command of second place among “frontier” cuisines. Vietnamese food is healthy, flavorful, and contains meats and noodles familiar to average Joe’s. As Vietnam’s economy continues to grow and more Americans visit Southeast Asia for vacation, the popularity of Pho and Bun is likely to grow. In fact, in this month’s issue of Fortune magazine, the founder and CEO of Chipotle announced that he is working on an idea for a fast casual Southeast Asian restaurant, which will launch sometime in the next 5 years. I think he’s on to something.

Brazil’s economy may be surging, but its cuisine isn’t.

Are ethnic restaurants growing in small towns (or just big cities)?

I was born in State College, Pennsylvania, a tiny Big Ten college town nestled in the mountains in the center of the state. When I was born in 1980, State College was home to few ethnic restaurants – we had a couple of Chinese places, a Mexican place called La Bamba, and not much else. Over the years, however, State College has become something of an ethnic food mecca. It’s now home to Indonesian, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, and many other world cuisines.

Is State College the exception or the rule? Have smaller towns and more remote states experienced an influx of new cuisines, or is the growth in ethnic foods’ popularity limited to large, diverse, immigrant-heavy cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago?

The answer is a resounding “no.” From Ohio to Nebraska to Idaho, ethnic food queries are growing. Try it for yourself!

You, too can use Google Insights for Search to find data that confirms or refutes your random hypotheses about everyday life - or even better, your business. Give it a shot:

Guest Post by Aaron Lichtig