The Critical Role of Produce in Menu Ideation


Maeve WebsterThe 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.

Maeve Webster is president of Menu Matters, a consultancy focused on supporting foodservice operators and manufacturers identify, understand, prioritize and leverage trends.