Americans’ everyday embrace of eating out and the foodservice sector’s rebound open the door to putting more fresh produce on the menu.
Originally printed in the July 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Dining out once was, and still is for some people, an indulgent affair relegated to special occasions. Steak or seafood (or both) starred front row center on a diner’s plate and palate. But times are changing.
In 2016, for the first time since the U.S. Department of Commerce began collecting this type of data two decades ago, Americans spent more money eating out than in-home.
A big driver is that dining is now less celebratory and more mundane. There’s grab-and-go breakfasts, corner eatery and QSR (quick-service restaurant) work lunches, and socializing with friends while dining out or dialing out for delivery.
This trend in spend reversed briefly with the pandemic — but it didn’t last long. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service Food Expenditure Series data updated June 1, 2022, away-from-home food spending outpaced dollars for food at home every month from January 2021 to March 2022, returning to the pattern seen pre-pandemic.
Americans’ everyday embrace of eating out and the foodservice sector’s rebound open the door to putting more fresh produce on the menu. This is especially true in new and exciting ways and throughout the day.
Consumers want to eat healthier after COVID, says Nicholas Gonring, North American corporate consulting chef, Culinary R&D, N.A. Distribution for Gordon Food Service, in Wyoming, MI. Chefs can play this to an advantage by creating dishes that can’t easily be made at home — and take experiential dining to a new level.
“I see produce as the new star in this arena,” Gonring adds. “Fruits and vegetables are healthful. They are also incredibly versatile and flavorful. It’s a great balance.”
And he puts on his creative chef’s toque: “Think citrus-like yuzu made into marinades, sauces and dressings. Purple yam gnocchi. Persimmons are pickled in the fall and added to an appetizer or small plates charcuterie board. Pickled green strawberries on salads. Tandoor beets are roasted in a wood-fired oven where the sugars caramelize.”
Especially with the cost of proteins today, moving produce to the center plate and using fruits and vegetables in creative ways in all parts of the menu has a positive impact on a restaurant’s bottom line, Gonring says.
This produce-centric menuing move has the potential to increase overall fruit and vegetable consumption, too. The Brentwood, MO-based Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) State of the Plate research examined fruit and vegetable eating occasion frequency from 2015 to 2020. Away-from-home fruit consumption was flat across this time period, while away-from-home vegetable intake slightly increased, driven by foodservice outlets, including fast food, full service, and cafeterias.
“PBH’s State of The Plate data show that consumers are fans of fresh produce,” says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, MS, RDN, PBH’s president and chief executive officer. “There is an opportunity for the fresh produce industry to work with foodservice leaders to increase consumption by encouraging individuals and families to eat their favorites more often.”
She cites PBH data that demonstrates light frequency vegetable consumers significantly depend on foodservice outlets to increase their consumption. On top of that, behavioral scientists say to increase produce consumption, it must be easy. “What could be easier than ordering off the menu and having someone deliciously prepare it for you?”
“Innovation at foodservice has always inspired produce consumption,” agrees Megan McKenna, senior director of marketing and foodservice for the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB), headquartered in Winter Springs, FL.
Here are how top culinary trends can serve as an inspiration for putting more fresh fruits and vegetables on the menu in different day parts.
1. CUSTOMIZABLE TOPPINGS
From meal maker to garnish, topping produce and nonproduce platforms with fruits and vegetables — akin to the recipe for avocado toast — offers endlessly customizable opportunities.
“Several loaded and topped items where produce can be a key element continue to grow including, loaded tots,” says Claire Conaghan, associate director of Datassential, based in Chicago, IL.
Over the past year, this application of potatoes has grown 26% and over the past four years, it has grown on menus by 191%, according to Datassential research.
“Loaded tots are the top trend we are seeing on menus, which is popular with millennials and Gen Z. It’s a trend growing across all menu day parts and even more popular now with the fact that they travel well, so they are great for take-out and delivery menus,” says Jamie Quinno Bowen, director of marketing for the Idaho Potato Commission, in Eagle, ID.
A good example is the Veggie Tater Tot Skillet served at Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in San Francisco, CA, Bowen says. In addition to potatoes, the skillet topping incorporates fresh onion; red, yellow, and green bell peppers; mushrooms; spinach leaves; Roma tomatoes; kale leaves; and avocado for garnish.
Fresh produce is a mainstay in finishing a dish, offering a visual and textural contrast. Current favorites include pickled onions (on 12.6% of menus, up 35% over the past four years), microgreens (on 1.8% of menus, up 34% over the past four years), and watermelon radish (on 1.3% of menus, up 28% over the past four years), according to Datassential’s Conaghan.
“I love the idea of microgreens becoming a staple in the home and foodservice,” says Justin Timineri, executive chef for the Tallahassee, FL-based Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). “Usually reserved for garnish, it’s time to bring microgreens into the limelight. Packed with flavor and nutrition, they add a huge boost to any dish. Citrus microgreens served with fruit, or in smoothies in the mornings and microgreens added to a feature salad or sandwich at lunch.”
2. PLANT-BASED & PLANT-FORWARD
Plant-based foods ranked second only to sustainability in the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) 2022 What’s Hot survey, which asked some 350 professional chefs what they thought would be the Hottest Culinary Trend this year.
Further, the top plant-based produce-oriented trends by day part include plant-based breakfast sandwiches; plant-based sandwiches, globally inspired salads and grain-based bowls at lunch, and plant-based burgers at dinner, according to the Washington, DC-headquartered organizations survey results.
“Fresh produce is the original plant-based foods. Many of the branded plant-based burgers out there are sold at a premium and they are ubiquitous; they don’t give an operator a point of differentiation,” says Gordon Food Service’s Gonring. “How fresh fruits and vegetables are creatively prepared, plus their flavor and health benefits, can offer this ‘something different’ to diners.”
Jackfruit is gaining (on 1.1% of menus, up 100% over the past four years), as consumers desire actual plants in their plant-based applications, says Datassential’s Conaghan. “Green jackfruit is being used anywhere you might use pulled pork, including tacos, bowls, sandwiches, lettuce wraps and nachos.”
For example, she says, Elephants Delicatessen, with locations throughout Portland, OR, offers a veggie breakfast sandwich with eggs, jackfruit black bean veggie sausage, Tillamook cheddar, and spinach with hollandaise on ciabatta. And Blackwood BBQ, in Chicago, IL, has the option of beef brisket, pulled pork, or vegetarian jackfruit for its breakfast wrap catering meal.
The best lesson learned from the smash hit of avocado toast is that impactful innovation does not need to be complicated.
Mushrooms are being smash-seared as the ultimate and real ‘plant-based burger,’ says Pam Smith, RDN, foodservice consultant to the Lee’s Summit, MO-based Mushroom Council. “I love seeing portabellas roasted and shredded into ‘pulled ports’ and used for barbecue, on a tostada or in a bao bun, or as a sandwich topper.”
It’s exciting to see chefs and other menu developers think of mushrooms in creative ways, adds Smith, who shares three examples.
For one, in April, celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn showcased an alternative to crab cakes with his Lion’s Mane Mushroom and Jackfruit Cakes at the Culinary Institute of America’s Global Plant-Forward Culinary Summit. Second, Chef Derek Sarno, chef-director of Plant-Based Innovation at UK retailer, Tesco, turned 400 pounds of mushrooms into ‘vegan meat’ at the Hot Luck Festival, a meaty, major annual barbecue event in Austin, TX. Third, Jersey Mike’s Subs, a nearly 2,000-location sandwich chain headquartered in Manasquan, NJ, added its Grilled Portabella Mushroom and Swiss Sub to its permanent menu, after a successful 2021-2022 trial. The offering was named the best healthy fast-food sandwich in the 2022 Eat This, Not That! Food Awards. Plus, interest in this sub prompted the addition of two other new menu items: The Portabella Cheesesteak and the Portabella Chicken Cheesesteak, to the Jersey Mike’s menu.
3. GLOBAL FLAVORS
Global fare and flavors ranked fifth in the NRA’s 2022 What’s Hot survey of the Hottest Culinary Trend in 2022. Specifically, the top three global trends were Southeast Asian (Vietnamese, Singaporean, Philippine, etc.); South American (Argentinian, Brazilian, Chilean, etc.); and Caribbean (Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, etc.)
Elote, also called Mexican Street Corn, which features corn on the cob spread with mayonnaise, chili powder, lime juice, Cotija cheese, and cilantro, could be the next avocado toast, says Tara Murray, vice president of marketing for Rhome, TX-based Fresh Innovations, LLC, makers of Yo Quiero branded produce-based dips. The company released its Elote dip in December.
A longtime favorite, the Mediterranean Diet, ranked No. 1 as the best diet overall by U.S. News and World Report, in its Jan. 4 release. It’s a position this diet has held for the fifth straight year.
“Produce-based dips and spreads are popular in Mediterranean cuisine. Most people don’t realize that 22 countries make up the Mediterranean. I think we’ll see much more innovation,” says Gordon Food Service’s Gonring, who, with his colleagues conducts live tastings annually in newly opened innovative restaurant concepts in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, then distills this taste-testing into the top cutting-edge menu trends.
He says muhammara (roasted red pepper dip) is gaining popularity. So is beet hummus, which can be served on toast topped with leafy greens, herbs, and spice blends. Dips made with beans, legumes, nuts with produce added fresh or roasted and folded in are big too.
4. SWEET & SAVORY
Mangos, watermelon, pears, and blueberries are traditionally eaten out of hand or as a dessert. Using these sweets in savory dishes is an application that’s barely scratched the surface.
“The acid and touch of sweet from mango helps bring flavors into balance across menus and day parts,” says Jason Hernandez, of Blade & Tine Culinary Consulting and chef consultant for the National Mango Board, in Orlando, FL. “For example, chefs can take French toast into new directions with a savory-sweet mango bacon jam. Fresh mango can replace tomatoes with its subtle sweetness and acidity, including in the classic caprese salad. Mango could also be bruleed for a smoky flavor in place of prosciutto on traditional toasts, like crostini, with goat cheese.”
Watermelon and feta salad is a classic, says the NWPB’s McKenna, “but think of all those who salt their watermelon. The opportunity of pairing watermelon and cheese is endless. The soft, tanginess of burrata or the salty, crunch of pecorino Romano with watermelon takes the watermelon salad or appetizer build in a new direction. The same with halloumi, cheddar, blue cheese and more.”
The Pear Bureau Northwest offers savory foodservice recipes for its fruit. One creative example is The Fez Burger, from the Fez Restaurant in Phoenix, AZ, which features cinnamon pears with beef, a spicy barbecue sauce, cilantro, feta and fried onions on top. Another out-of-the-box use is Cod Ceviche with Pickled Pears, by Chef Stephan Pyles, at his former namesake restaurant in Dallas, TX.
A Foodservice Patron study fielded in May 2021 by the Folsom, CA-headquartered U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC), found 59% of patrons agree they ‘wish there were more exciting and adventurous applications for blueberries’ on menus, and nearly 30% selected side and entrée salads as desired items for blueberry inclusion, and a smaller number wanted to see blueberries applied to savory options like chicken wings with blueberry sauce.
In answer, foodservice recipes offered by the USHBC include a Blueberry Brisket Sandwich, Middle Eastern Cauliflower Bowl Blueberry Tahini Sauce, and PB Blueberry Burger.
5. BOUNTIFUL BOWLS
Outside the box of smoothies and salads, produce is playing a starring role in bowls, according to Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, in Arlington, VT. “This is because every element of a bowl needs to work in concert with the other ingredients (versus a plated entree where the sides may or may not play a critical role). Texture, flavor, and appearance all become critical components of the overall arrangement in a bowl. Bowls are very relevant across all day parts. Breakfast bowls are one of the fastest applications for this format.”
Examples of inspired bowls for lunch or dinner are the Grilled Chicken & Avocado Lifestyle Bowl, Walking BBQ Pork Bowl, and Chicken & Avocado Tandoori Bowl, all foodservice recipes offered by AFM.
Beyond citrus slices and maraschino cherries, it’s bartenders who are using a greater volume and variety of fresh produce. This is an interesting and innovative use, particularly for vegetables, says Webster, and should expand consumers’ perception of how and where produce can work.
Examples include a Watermelon Paloma and classic Watermelon Negroni from the NWPB, Blue-Eyed Mary and Blueberry Manhattan from the USHBC, and Florida Honey and Citrus Hot Toddy and Florida Sunset Mule from the FDACS.
Interestingly, while entrees have the highest penetration of avocado (41%), beverages have seen the largest increase in penetration (126%), over the last four years, according to the Irvine, CA-headquartered California Avocado Commission (CAC).
7. BREAKFAST & BRUNCH
Over the last two years, consumers have increased their focus on breakfast and brunch, according to results of a 2020 Harris Poll, as shared by the CAC. More specifically, 75% of those surveyed are excited to eat breakfast and brunch again and 66% are excited for new twists on breakfast classics.
Culinary trends often begin at high-end places that offer lunch and dinner separately, move to all-day menus, and then to breakfast. So, making something work for breakfast can be the most difficult part, according to Datassential’s Conaghan.
Yet, “many people now look to having veggies as part of their breakfast, and an area that has always done that well is Israel with the classic Israeli breakfast salad starting to grow on early-stage menus,” she says. “That pairing of tomatoes and cucumbers would be an appropriate summer addition to more familiar breakfast bowls that might be leaning toward Mediterranean flavors. Breakfast salads, in general, are starting to grow and are a nice way to highlight all forms of seasonal veggies, but this will remain a fringe trend for a more health forward consumer.”
Avocado Toast 2.0 variations are emerging and ideal for breakfast and brunch. One example is Mango Cado Toast, in which there’s a layer of gingery mango cream cheese, topped with a layer of chunky mango guacamole, and finished with thinly sliced mango cut from a mango cheek, micro greens, and red pepper flakes.
Another is the DIY Avocado Toast on the brunch menu at Paul Martin’s American Grill in Westlake Village, CA, says Jan DeLyser, the CAC’s vice president of marketing. “They’ve deconstructed avocado toast to create a charcuterie board with thick toasted sourdough, smashed avocado, deviled eggs, chevre, and a fresh produce lineup that includes tomato, radish, microgreens, and fresh berries. It takes avocado toast to the next level.”
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AVOCADO TOAST AS AN INNOVATION TEMPLATE
A great source of inspiration for menu innovation is the phenomenon of avocado toast. Not a new dish, its fame started to skyrocket after Bon Appetit magazine published a recipe called ‘Your New Avocado Toast’ in its January 2015 issue.
“If we look back at what made avocado toast a success, it is the following: low cost, easy to execute consistently, customizable, applicable to all day parts, and appealing to multiple consumer bases,” says David Spirito, senior director of culinary and foodservice for Irving, TX-headquartered Avocados from Mexico (AFM).
To have mass appeal, a dish needs to have visual appeal, taste great and have a nutritional aspect, adds Deena Ensworth, senior content manager for Markon Cooperative Inc., in Salinas, CA. “People want to feel they are eating healthy, but need a punch of texture or flavor to draw them in. The fact that avo toast is also vegetarian/vegan adds folks from those demographics, too.”
The best lesson learned from the smash hit of avocado toast is that impactful innovation does not need to be complicated or esoteric or push every boundary, says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, in Arlington, VT. “Oftentimes, the desire to really lean into complicated innovation can create something unique and intriguing, but more than consumers can necessarily wrap their heads around. Sometimes, the simplest execution that really showcases key flavors and fits well with consumers’ behavior will be a winner.”
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What’s The Next Avocado Toast?
Innovative. Creative. All-around excellent in using fresh fruits and vegetables in the culinary arts. These are among the gold standards by which winners of the International Fresh Produce Association’s Produce Excellence in Foodservice Awards Program are selected. PRODUCE BUSINESS asked some of the 2022 IFPA winners, which represent a broad spectrum of the foodservice industry, to look into their crystal balls and forecast the next big produce trend after avocado toast, and, how this dish can be menued across the day.
Colleges & Universities Category Winner
Associate Director of Culinary Excellence
R&DE, Stanford Dining
What is the Next Avocado Toast & Why? Breakfast salad. We serve a breakfast salad bar that offers seasonal vegetables, greens and legumes. It’s become a student favorite for breakfast. This program supports our inclusive dining initiative, providing alternative breakfast options to people of diverse cultural and geographic backgrounds, allergens and dietary needs, plant-forward and vegan preferences, religious diets, and more. Offering these options is also a way to lower our carbon footprint by reducing our overall egg and breakfast meat purchases. I see endless potential for breakfast salad.
Use in Day Parts: This is available already in most foodservice operations and restaurants, but most diners and operators tend to only focus on for lunch and dinner. But it’s almost mind-blowing to see it appear in the breakfast daypart, to have it on a menu in the morning hours. By offering an option that’s so crave-able, original, and interesting to come across on a breakfast menu, this dish could dramatically increase Americans’ produce consumption.
Quick Serve Restaurants Category Winner
Founder + Chief Salad Officer
What is the Next Avocado Toast & Why? While edamame has been around and is ubiquitous at sushi restaurants, I believe we’re going to see it popping up in other creative ways. It works for both the plant-based and low-carb followers, plus it tastes great! Folks can mash it up with a myriad of other ingredients and use it as a dip or spread it on toast. It can even be thinned out and used as a dressing/sauce.
Use in Day Parts: From edamame toast to adding edamame to scrambled eggs, it’s great for breakfast and then it’s super easy to throw some edamame into a lunch or dinner salad.
Supermarkets & Retail Operators Category Winner
Nordstrom Restaurant Division
What is the Next Avocado Toast & Why? Rather than a specific dish, I see the next big food trend (for produce) as the continued innovation of produce-based protein alternatives. I am seeing more of these crop up — from artichokes to jackfruit, to mushrooms, and beyond. Long term, it is innovation like this that will continue to highlight the benefits of fresh produce — not only enjoyed ‘as is’ in its raw or cooked state, but also as a complement and flavor enhancer to other foods.
Use in Day Parts: Produce-based protein alternatives can fit into all day parts — from ‘chicken’ and waffles to ‘burgers’ and ‘nuggets’, and even into pastas and onto pizzas.
Fine Dining Restaurants Category Winner
Executive Chef/Proprietor & Owner
Cured Restaurant Group – Cured and Landrace
San Antonio, TX
What is the Next Avocado Toast & Why? I think the next avocado toast is going to be the versatility of the kimchi pancake. We make them in the restaurant with all different types of ferments, not just kimchi, and they are great during all meal periods. Ferments are amazing, as they not only preserve food, but also make them taste better and are great for your health.
Use in Day Parts: This works great with eggs in the morning or as a fun snack at lunch with dipping sauce. It also pairs nicely with a grilled piece of fish during dinner. And, because they are made with rice flour and not wheat flour, they are gluten-free.
Hospitals & Healthcare Category Winner
What is the Next Avocado Toast & Why? I feel like mushroom powder could really grow in popularity, as the request for dishes featuring items other than traditional protein continue to grow. Even though mushrooms themselves are already being utilized on menus and dishes, chefs are going to continue to be creative and come up with different techniques that will help appeal to their target audience.
Use in Day Parts: Powders are an incredible way to flavor soups and broths, mix in with your morning coffee, or put into your breakfast smoothies to help with inflammation or boost the immune system. Sprinkling it on vegetables or mixing it in with different grains is a great way to bring out that earthy/umami flavor in bowls and other entrée options where you may not be featuring a traditional protein to help give that feeling of satiety.
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HOW-TO TIPS FOR CREATIVELY MENUING FRESH PRODUCE
There are multiple strategies foodservice operators can use to increase produce consumption among their diners, says Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, and culinary & foodservice specialist for the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH).
“These include adding more produce-centric dishes to menus; using rich descriptive language to describe produce-centric dishes that entice diners to order them; training front-of-house team members to speak positively about produce and encourage diners to order dishes that feature produce.”
GO WITH THE SEASONS
Datassential’s 2022 Seasonality Trends Report shows that 38% of menus feature the word ‘seasonal,’ says Jan DeLyser, the Irvine, CA-headquartered California Avocado Commission (CAC) vice president of marketing. “Seasonality can present a compelling hook, whether to introduce a new menu item, promote a premium ingredient swap, or launch an LTO campaign.”
Seasonality can add success to every part of the plate, right down to the garnish. That’s why it’s important for chefs and produce growers/shippers to work together closely.
A good example comes from Chef Jason Knoll, the Pensacola, FL-based vice president of culinary for Another Broken Egg Café, a nearly 100-unit sit-down restaurant chain headquartered in Orlando, FL.
“Fellow employees think I’m nuts, but I like to spend time in the dish room and look at what people throw away. Usually, it’s the melon, grapes, or strawberries, garnishes that tend to be the same year-round. Instead, we made seasonal changes to match the fruit’s peak flavor. Now it’s watermelon in the summer, kiwi in the winter, and kumquats in the spring. We outsource our buying to National Produce Consultants and let them know three months in advance what we want and how much. Their buyers are on the lookout for us to get the best of what’s in season. That translates to better taste and less plate waste from customers.”
ROOT TO LEAF
Fresh produce is best. Customers appreciate it and there are higher returns, says Nicholas Gonring, North American corporate consulting chef, Culinary R&D, N.A. Distribution for Gordon Food Service, in Wyoming, MI.
“That said, it’s important to use fresh produce across the menu and in many applications — as they say, ‘root to leaf,’” Gonring says. “For example, ramps are seasonal. We use the green tops in purees and pickle the bulbs. It’s a way diners can still enjoy them when the season is over. Plus, it reduced shrink.”
Using watermelon rind is a delicious way to combat food waste, adds Megan McKenna, senior director of marketing and foodservice for the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB), headquartered in Winter Springs, FL.
“Consider craveable Pickled Watermelon, Fried Watermelon Rind Pickles with a Watermelon BBQ Sauce. How about an Indian Watermelon Rind Stir Fry with a Watermelon Lassi for vegetarian customers?”
Likewise, the National Mango Board educates foodservice operators on how to use a whole mango by incorporating the seeds in sauces, like mole, and as an infuser for water.
The best way produce companies can help foodservice operators put more produce on the menu in new and exciting ways and across day parts is through education, says Kroll, of Another Broken Egg Café.
“It starts with teaching all the back-of-the-house staff about specific fruits and vegetables. If it’s something they haven’t used before or don’t know, they’re scared of it and won’t use it. It can be as easy for produce companies to take their cell phones and film a 1.5 to 2-minute video on a type of produce — how to tell when it’s ripe, how to use it — and share it with their foodservice partners.”