BERRIES: Small But Mighty

Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Health halo and consumer appeal inspire creativity from restaurant chefs.

When Wendy’s put its Summer Berry Chicken Salad on the menu as a limited-time offer (LTO) back in 2016, the quick-serve restaurant broke the mold for berries on the menu in three key ways. First, the application was a savory salad rather than the traditional sweet dessert. Second, the combination with other produce ingredients such as iceberg and Romaine lettuces add to the berry’s health halo while simultaneously retaining the fruit image of indulgence.

These two features weren’t a first for Wendy’s. In 2011, the Dublin, OH-headquartered chain introduced a Berry Almond Chicken Salad, made with fresh strawberries and blueberries. It is the third point, the addition of blackberries, that made QSR history. Sourcing enough fresh blackberries for all 6,500-plus U.S. restaurants for the summer-long offer was the result of a two-year sourcing effort, and made Wendy’s the first national QSR to serve these berries. Today, many foodservice outlets, from fast casual to fine dining, serve fresh strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.

“A search of ‘strawberry’ shows ‘fresh’ is the most commonly associated description,” explains Jackie Rodriguez, senior project manager for Chicago-based Datassential, which tracks menu trends. “Strawberry as a description has the highest penetration, on 51 percent of restaurant menus, although it should be noted this (and other berry variety mentions) would include things like strawberry jam, strawberry ice cream, etc.,” explains Rodriguez. “Raspberry is next, followed by blueberry and then blackberry. All varieties have risen on menus in the past four years; blackberry has seen the highest increase during that time, up 28 percent.”

Strawberries starred in IHOP restaurant’s limited-time “Fresh Market” menu last summer as Fundue, a dish that featured five silver dollar-sized buttermilk pancakes served with the berries, sliced bananas and Nutella (a sweet hazelnut chocolate spread).

“There’s something to be said for the simplistic beauty of fresh berries,” says Alisa Gmelich, vice president of marketing for the nearly 1,700-unit chain headquartered in Glendale, CA. “Berries pair perfectly with our core menu items of pancakes, waffles, fresh toast and crepes. Plus, the Fundue is kid-friendly. Kids love dipping the whole berries in the Nutella.”

Both strawberries and blueberries team in Wendy’s recent LTO summer salad. The Berry Burst Chicken Salad went on the menu this past June. This is similar to the popular Berry Almond Salad introduced in 2011 but uses Feta cheese instead of the original Asiago.

“We continue to monitor the trend curves and look at great berry combinations for not just the berries on the salad but also in the dressing,” says Shelly Thobe, director of culinary innovation at Wendy’s. “Our Raspberry Vinaigrette helps to bring fruit flavors to our salads through the dressing.”

This duo of berries is also featured in one of the current menu items offered at the Corner Bakery Café, a 192-unit fast casual chain based in Dallas. This is a Berry Pecan Salad that includes chicken, Bleu cheese, fresh blueberries and fresh strawberries with a strawberry vinaigrette.

“We’ve found consumers are looking for fresh ingredients that are nutrient-rich with ‘superfood” factor,’ ” explains Donna Josephson, chief marketing officer. “Berries are popular and widely liked fruits that add a special touch to items on the menu. Not only are they packed with essential nutrients, they also add great flavor, color, texture and promote a festive seasonality to some of our menu offerings.”

Blueberries especially are something more chefs are adding to savory areas of the menu, which aligns with recent consumer trends, according to Victoria De Bruin, marketing manager of the Folsom, CA-headquartered U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC). “In fact, there was a 29-percent increase in consumers using fresh blueberries in savory applications between 2014 and 2017 (according to the Council’s 2017 Consumer Usage & Attitude Study).”

Fresh raspberries were included in two ways on the menu during the 2017 holiday season at Denny’s, a 1,600-unit casual family-style restaurant chain headquartered in Spartanburg, SC. One was White Chocolate Raspberry Pancakes, which features a pair of buttermilk pancakes with white chocolate chips cooked inside and topped with vanilla ice cream, fresh raspberries and white chocolate curls. The second was a White Chocolate Raspberry Milk Shake, made with vanilla ice cream blended with fresh raspberries and topped with whipped cream and white chocolate curls.

“We’re committed to providing our guests with high-quality ingredients,” says Sharon Lykins, senior director of product innovation at Denny’s. Therefore, “when we’re planning menu cycles and sourcing for dishes that will include fresh berries, we are mindful of the seasonality of these ingredients. For example, blackberries can carry us through winter, while strawberries are perfect in spring and summer.”

WHAT’S NEW ON THE MENU?

The challenge for foodservice professionals when working with fresh berries is to think beyond the stereotype that berries are only good for breakfast foods and desserts, says Chef Andrew Hunter, consultant for the USHBC and Los Angeles-based research and development chef, author and the R&D mentor of Lifetime network’s competition series, Supermarket Superstar. “Blueberries, for example, have incredibly complex flavors. There are notes of citrus, black pepper, tannins like grapes, accents of tobacco and a dark fruit flavor. We do tastings with chefs, just as you would do with grapes and wine, to help them identify these flavor components to help them innovate.”

Sauces are one of the latest ways fresh blueberries are being used, according to Hunter. Examples include blueberry-flavored barbeque sauce and Asian-style Hoisin sauce sweetened with blueberries. Backing this up are results from the USHBC’s 2016 Opportunity Assessment/Market Segmentation Analysis, which focus on industry opportunities, and showed 38 percent of foodservice operators think blueberries are a good fit in savory marinades and sauces, and 1 in 5 think blueberries are a good fit for main entrees.

Pickled berries are also being championed by progressive chefs, says M. Jill Overdorf, director of business development and corporate executive chef for Naturipe Value-Added Fresh, LLC, in Salinas, CA. “What started as a trend at farmers markets is now a commercial opportunity for the pruning and thinning of early plants. Green or unripe strawberries are harvested with a blush of pink, but before any sugar has developed, and then they are often pickled to be served as a unique condiment or addition to a meal. Green blueberries have a slight reddish hue and are similarly treated; they can also be used for mixology, relishes and garnishes depending on their cure.”

Grilled and broiled fresh berries are yet another trend, adds Overdorf. “A standard culinary application is to brûlée, or ‘broil’ strawberries to enhance the sugars and add a depth of flavor. This is the same process that is used with a Crème Brûlée or a breakfast grapefruit. Grilled blueberries and blackberries are achieved using a grill screen. Blueberries can be served whole after grilling as a garnish and grilled blackberries are an incredible sauce to nappe over elk, bear, boar or gamebirds.”

Finally, beverages are a fashionable foil for berries. A good example, pointed out by Randy Benko, director of foodservice sales for Watsonville, CA-based Driscoll’s, is the drink infusions at Café Zupas, a 40-plus-unit fast casual soup-salad-sandwich chain based in Provo, UT. The infusions are non-alcoholic, non-carbonated water-based beverages made with honey and fresh-squeezed fruit such as raspberries.

“Cross utilization, or using ingredients in more than one place on the menu and in more than one way, is essential for foodservice operators to control shrink and costs,” says Benko. “This is especially important in the case of highly perishable berries. One way to do this, for example, is using fresh plump berries in applications like salads and desserts, and those that are slightly soft or dehydrated but still good can be used mashed or pureed, chopped or blended in fresh berry sauces, salsas and beverages. It’s a win-win.”

To spur even more creativity, California Giant Berry Farms, Watsonville, CA, launched a national foodservice competition where chefs created a signature recipe using at least two of four berries – strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries – and were selected by the company during preliminary judging. The five chef finalists then made their creations at a Chef Showdown in July. Chefs participating included those representing foodservice distributors Markon, Performance Food Group, Produce Alliance, Renaissance Food Group, Sysco and US Foods. The winner, Chef Luis Reyes of Sysco Foods, received the title of Top Chef and a trip to the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Conference in July, in Monterey, CA.


THREE TIPS FOR FOODSERVICE PRODUCE BUYERS

New varietal development, greater availability and value-added fresh berries are all factors foodservice buyers should keep in mind when ordering berries for the menu.

  1. Varieties. “Better varieties are producing better flavor, sweetness and sizing,” says Tom Smith, director of foodservice for California Giant Berry Farms, in Watsonville, CA. “Certainly, blueberries and now blackberries and raspberries, too, are being noticed. Consumers have warmed up to these berries over recent years, as a result, and demand these flavors along with strawberries.”
  2. Cost and availability. The cost of fresh berries can be a challenge for very tightly budgeted programs such as schools and healthcare, according to Smith. “I recommend utilizing peak season availability of all berry items. When product is most plentiful it is more affordable. Multiple growing regions and year-round availability has made this much less of an issue. If using all four berry items, there’s always one that will be readily available and affordable to all consumers.”
  3. Value-added. There are now opportunities for foodservice companies to purchase value-added strawberries and blueberries in volumes equal in weight to a flat of fresh berries but with the added benefits of being pre-washed, providing 100 percent yield and having an extended shelf life,” says M. Jill Overdorf, director of business development and corporate executive chef for Naturipe Value-Added Fresh, LLC, in Salinas, CA. “We have developed an FDA-approved proprietary wash for blueberries and strawberries that alleviates kitchen labor and provides double the shelf life of fresh fruit; this is a game-changer for busy kitchens and large volume operations like cruise ships and hotels that need both safe and flavorful product.”
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