The foodservice industry is as competitive as it’s ever been, with competition elevated due in large part to a struggling economic recovery, increased competition from a broader array of away-from-home sources, and a lack of significant organic traffic growth. Menu innovation is a critical element of any operator’s effort to remain a competitive force in an industry largely focused on share grabbing. As such, operators must carefully consider their culinary ideation efforts, incorporating ingredients that appeal to large shares of their patrons while creating experiences a consumer can’t replicate elsewhere. Produce, now more than ever, is playing a critical role.
Produce Continues to Shine on the Menu
At this point, no one should be surprised that produce is enjoying a level of focus on American menus not seen in many years. Operators are turning to produce for a number of reasons, and designing dishes to be more produce-forward if not exclusively vegetarian.
Several macro trends are driving produce forward ideation. U.S. consumers continue to be more health-conscious now than in previous years, but that health consciousness has shifted. Rather than focusing on low calorie, weight-loss-oriented foods, consumers have an increased awareness and appreciation for the functional role of produce in a well-balanced diet. Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are an important part of many consumers’ decision-making process when selecting a menu item.
The increased focus on protein in food has also aided produce and its use among foodservice operators. Though all sources have benefited from the heightened importance of protein, the demand for healthier protein has naturally led to greater awareness and use of plant-based proteins. More often than not, the plant-based protein options are not fully replacing animal-based proteins but rather augmenting them and aiding operators in reducing animal-protein serving sizes.
Additionally, the locally sourced movement continues and, with it, continues the use of produce, which is arguably the most readily accessible local food product. Locally sourced, however, is merging with and morphing into a broader focus on clean labels. Ultimately, nothing can be cleaner on a label than produce.
Using Produce To Drive Innovation
When designing new menu items or limited-time-offer promotions, the ultimate “sweet spot” is an item that scores high on both consumer purchase intent and perceived uniqueness. Produce seems most likely to approach the sweet spot with impactful preparations such as grilled mushrooms, roasted roma tomatoes and grilled onions, but others are driven more by being less common on U.S. menus such as corn on the cob and Chinese broccoli. It’s a difficult position to attain with uniqueness typically inversely related to purchase intent. In fact, according to Datassential’s SCORES database database, no operator within the past 12 months featured a new item or promotion that’s scored in the top 50 both for purchase intent and for uniqueness.
How, then, can an operator achieve this elusive position? Often produce can be leveraged to elevate the uniqueness of an item. Purchase intent for U.S. consumers overall is still largely driven by animal-based proteins and indulgent ingredients. But, some of the highest uniqueness scoring individual ingredients when reviewing the consumer feedback in the SCORES database are produce items.
In this role, produce can be used as an accent ingredient that lends authenticity, intrigue, and visual punch without fundamentally altering the safety of the dish. As impactful preparation techniques are applied to the produce, the uniqueness increases as does the overall appeal of the item.
Of course, if the type of produce applied to an item is extremely unfamiliar or relatively divisive, the uniqueness impact can revert to the more traditional inverse relationship with purchase intent and turn the item into a relatively niche item rather than one with mass market appeal.
Unique Doesn’t Mean Bizarre
When considering which produce may have the greatest impact on an item’s overall uniqueness rating, an operator does not have to draw from the most difficult to source varieties or those most likely to negatively impact profit margin. In fact, many of the produce items with some of the greatest average uniqueness impacts are those that are relatively familiar to many consumers.
But, it’s not the uniqueness of the individual ingredient but rather the application of the ingredient. Pears, for example, are not significantly unique when leveraged in a dessert but can be extremely unique to many U.S. consumers when featured in a savory appetizer or paired with a protein in an entrée.
Often, uniqueness can be driven as much by the freshness of the item, as is the case with fresh herbs. In other situations, the preparation technique applied to the ingredient such as charring green onions elevates the perceived uniqueness without pushing a consumer too far out of their comfort zone.
With anything, understanding your patron based on demographics, geography, culture, and needs is the most critical element to designing successful introductions or promotions. Regardless, produce can play a critical role in supporting effective menu ideation.