A competitive environment challenges retailers to excel in the basics, tailor business to customers and innovate.
Independent restaurants are leading the way with mouth-watering entrees that are veggie-centric. From leading culinary centers like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to small cities and towns, produce dishes are being transformed by creative chefs who are taking vegetables to a whole new level. In fact, the veggie-centric plate is one of two major restaurant trends driving menu development today, according to research by Gordon Food Service, Grand Rapids, MI. Chefs and diners are embracing local and seasonal — think heirloom tomatoes, peppers, Brussels sprouts, kale, baby greens — but they also expect niche, new, and year-round availability.
Enter the distributor, the company in the middle that bridges the gap between farm and fork. Local distributors like Baldor, Riviera and J. Kings Food Service in metro New York; Gordon Food Service in Michigan; and Royal Food Service in Georgia not only supply products, but also share information on seasonal and local availability, recipe ideas and trend intelligence.
Chefs Help Bridge The Gap
“We carry a rotating stock of vegetables and fruits throughout the course of the year, and one of my major roles is to come up with ideas for new seasonal dishes based on the vegetables and fruits we carry,” says Chef Chris Neary, corporate executive chef, Crown 1 Enterprises, Bayshore, NY. “I also help restaurants manage costs by developing new, different, better and less expensive prepared dishes for every season. I have to consider both seasonality and current costs before working new ingredients into existing and new recipes.”
As with many distributors, Sysco Corporation, Houston, supplies chefs with “trendy” vegetables and fruits through a formal, innovative program with its produce companies that constantly brings in new products for consideration. “We review new items by committee and introduce them to our restaurant customers on an ongoing basis,” says Nancy Johnston, senior manager, produce sales. “We are constantly reviewing the latest trends and challenging our in-house chefs to create recipes and exciting menu items to help bring creativity to our chef and restaurant customers.
“We have chefs at each of our companies, and they are included in the business review process with key customers. They provide recipes and concepts based on fresh and seasonal availability. Additionally, we work with our corporate produce team and recommend seasonal offerings in our Foodie magazine that is distributed to more than 8,000 customers.”
Royal Foodservice, Atlanta, provides sample boxes of complementary seasonal items to chefs to serve as inspiration for menu creativity. “Our best meeting room is the kitchen in front of a work station, where we can cut and taste peak-of-season items with our chef customers,” says Richard Greet, sales manager and a trained chef. “We also benefit from the ability and generosity of growers and producers to provide us with samples to share with chefs to help get traction on new items.”
Each year, a team of chefs from Gordon Food Service dedicates three weeks visiting new restaurants in three metro areas — New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. The Gordon team gathers menus, tastes dishes and shoots photographs as it takes the pulse of culinary innovation in independent restaurants.
“For the past several years, we’ve identified vegetable centricity as one of the two most influential macro trends in restaurants,” says Chef Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef, culinary R&D, Gordon Food Service. “Within the macro trends are smaller observations and ingredient applications. For example, the popularity of items such as watermelon radishes and sunchokes. We then derive ingredient-driven opportunities based on the research we gather from the three big cities.”
Gordon shares its research, trends analysis and presentation resources with street-level chefs through an online resource that is accessible by its chef customers, who use the information to best meet their needs. Ludwig also develops recipes and recipe ideas that are inspired by what his team sees and tastes in the trendsetter cities. These are both shared with chef customers and used to create new appetizers, soups, entrees and side dishes to offer as part of the company’s foodservice offerings. Chef clients create their own signature touches by simply adding a few ingredients, such as fresh or fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, fruit salads, vegetable kits, whole and cut salad greens and blends, and fresh herbs that Gordon can supply.
Markets that tend to follow rather than lead trends learn from the larger cities. “Toronto restaurants lag behind those in major U.S. cities,” says Ezio Bondi, account manager, Bondi Produce, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “We contact our partner distributors in the United States when we’re looking for a particular item because they probably have sourced it already and can share the information.”
Using Social Media
Social media has become a popular tool for sharing photos of memorable meals, and that means faster access to restaurant vegetable and fruit trends, particularly for those in smaller metro areas. “Social media enables creative dishes, even ones from Michelin restaurants, to be photographed and go mainstream overnight,” observes Chef Neil Doherty, senior director, culinary development, Sysco.
“Social media helps us monitor local and regional trends and learn from what restaurants are doing in other parts of the country,” says Greet. “Chefs love to post photos on the internet. We try to follow our chef customers as they post the meals they create from our items and dishes that they eat at other restaurants.”
“We use social media, particularly Instagram, to monitor restaurant produce trends in the United States,” says Bondi. “We follow Michelin-star restaurants to see what they are doing and creating and whether they are using anything interesting that we can source out. We also follow other distributors like Baldor on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook — if Baldor Foods (Bronx, NY) has it, we know it’s in season and potentially available to our chef customers.”
Shopping Made Easy
Distributors are particularly adept at creating resources to help customers peruse produce offerings. Baldor Specialty Foods, Bronx, NY, creates peak-of-season and seasonal menu guides, displayed on its website, to show favorite and seasonal items that are available to its chef community, with an online form to facilitate ordering. In February, for example, Baldor featured four different varieties of radicchio on its Peak Season page — Italian Tardivo, Rosa Di Gorizia, Castelfranco and Radicchio Del Veneto. Its winter pages displayed citrus fruit (lemons, limes, grapefruits, oranges, Mandarins and tangerines), seasonal roots, such as beets and celery root, an assortment of chicories, cooking greens and wild mushrooms.
“When we get something new and exciting, we do everything we can to get our customers to know about it — social media, emails and the homepage on our website,” says Benjamin Walker, senior director, marketing and development, Baldor Specialty Foods.
Reliance On Distributors
Suvir Saran, executive chef, Tapestry, New York City, epitomizes and defines the vegetable-centric chef, having worked for more than 15 years on the Harvard Healthy Kitchens Healthy Lives project; this initiative gathers health professionals, health executives, foodservice directors and chefs to learn about healthy food selection and preparation for their patients and clients. “Vegetable-forward dishes are in my DNA and in my head, so I no longer have to make an effort when I plan a menu,” says Saran. “In my restaurant, for example, I serve a modest 3-ounce Wagyu beef steak along with nearly a pound of vegetables — roasted carrots and turnips, caramelized Cippolini onions and a vegetable baklava. I give customers the most sought after piece of steak, but it’s just a small part of the plate. The steak draws them in and the vegetables seduce them.”
Incorporating global influences, variety and color generates excitement about Saran’s vegetable-centric plate. Among his vegetable-laden creations are a turkey burger with Cheddar cheese and caramelized onion served with tostones and lotus root chips, an herb-flecked slaw and homemade tomato chutney, and a rabbit tostada appetizer accompanied by pepper chutney, salsa verde, yuzu-cilantro-yogurt crema and mizuna.
Saran credits Baldor Foods with making sure he has the vegetables and fruits that he needs. He also acknowledges Frieda’s, Los Alamitos, CA, for its efforts to procure “beautiful and inspiring produce year-round.”
Saran advises that while serving seasonal and local may be popular, it is not always practical. “People talk seasonality, but they want what they want,” says Saran. “They expect citrus and greens to always be on the menu, even when they are neither local nor seasonal.”
Preparation of produce has the potential to increase restaurant labor costs, which explains the continued growth of value-added produce. Chef Neary sees tremendous opportunity in value-added produce beyond conventional slice-and-dice and into both fancier cuts and veggie noodles.
“Restaurants want fancy cuts, but they don’t want to spend on the additional labor in-house,” observes Neary. “That is why we have a division of 35 employees whose only job is to craft fruits and vegetables. We responded first to requests for vegetable linguini made from yellow and green squash, and now we have new machines that allow us to create noodles from more firm vegetables such as beets, turnips, carrots and parsnips.” The popularity of vegetable noodles for low-carb diets propelled them into supermarket produce sections nearly simultaneously.
Cauliflower continues to be popular, and interest in value-added products is high. “Everyone is into riced cauliflower, which we supply and also use in prepared dishes such as stir-fries, where it takes the place of rice,” says Neary. “Shredded Brussels sprouts also are in demand, particularly for salads and appetizers. Fruits have moved beyond salads into candied versions and decorative garnishes,” says Neary. Riced cauliflower and shaved Brussels sprouts too made a rapid leap into retail.
Health Spurs Innovation
Both restaurant diners and supermarket customers increasingly drive demand for more healthful choices. “Vegan and vegetarian have taken a front seat in restaurants,” says Sysco’s Doherty. “We are encouraging our chef customers to create more produce dishes as center-of-the-plate menu items. The great thing about produce is you can dress it up as you would a steak. Currently, Sysco also is working with chefs on ethnic cuisines that are proportionally heavier in produce and grains.” Sysco, in partnership with Produce For Better Heath (PBH), is creating a foodservice focus group with operators to find ways to put more produce on the menu and send messaging on healthy eating habits home with customers.
Supermarket chains are presenting distributors with customer-driven lists of ingredients that cannot be used in prepared foods in their stores. Those requests and restrictions carry over into distributor offerings to their restaurant clients. Another consideration is nutrition. “We created a veggie burger that we opted not to market because it had too much sodium and fat, and too many calories,” says Neary. “We can’t assume that a dish made with vegetables automatically is healthy.”
Sustainability can unite distributors and restaurants as they work together to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. Baldor created a program, SparCs (scraps spelled backward), to repurpose food waste — namely peels and skins — from its value-added production. SparCs’ proprietary vegetable blend is a nutrient-dense powder that restaurants can use in their soups, smoothies and other items.
Royal, in conjunction with Pro*Act, operates a program called Greener Fields Together that helps connect local and sustainability-focused farmers with its distribution network. The goals of Greener Fields Together are to implement sustainability practices that will improve environmental impact and to ensure the availability and safety of produce for foodservice and retail partners in all industry segments.
“We arrange to pick up their vegetables and fruits; take over logistics, storage and food safety documentation; and then deliver them to our restaurant customers,” explains Royal’s Greet. “We free up farmers to focus on what they do best — grow the best products. And for every product sold, Pro*Act returns a percentage to farmers via a grant fund that is voted on by fellow farmers, chefs and the general public.”
“The relationships and partnerships we’ve kept with longstanding vendors are very important to us,” says Chef Suzanne Cupps, chef de cuisine at Untitled in the Whitney Museum, New York City. “We challenge the normal restaurant portion by putting more vegetables on a dish and less protein; and we challenge our farmers to grow even more specialized types and sizes of vegetables.”
“We rely on our customers and farmers to keep us apprised of new items or trends, and our vast network of farms and partners enables us to source pretty much anything,” says Baldor’s Walker. “We more often than not will try a new item to see if it sticks. We can tell right away if we have a best seller on our hands.”
Often, chefs propel trends forward. “A popular chef will call and ask for an interesting product,” says Bondi. “We move fast, sourcing that item within two weeks to make it a reality for the chef. But as a middle man, my challenge is to keep the chef happy and make sourcing worth my vendor’s time. Nobody wants an order of one case, so I will buy a bit extra and promote the surplus to our customer base. Sometimes it’s a quick hit; other times I sample it out to generate interest.” Bondi adds each new item to the company’s “toolbox,” an expanding database of vendors from around the world who can be approached for the next order of that item.
Royal encourages its buyers to scout out trends at local farmers markets and send reports of what’s available. “We put that information in our database for seasonality and use it to time our promotions to restaurants,” says Greet. “For example, if heirloom vegetables appeared in farmers markets in March of the previous year, we know to begin promotions the following February for the new crop. While we typically don’t source from farmers markets because they don’t have adequate volume or logistics for our restaurant customers, we ask farmers to introduce us to others who might have the appropriate scale for our network.”
Royal, Gordon and Crown 1 all employ chefs. At Royal, every person on the restaurant sales team has a culinary background and worked as a chef, a line cook or alongside a certified master chef. The sales team serves as a resource to restaurant chefs for information on handling, preparation, storage temperature and other information on our fruits and vegetables. Greet explains that “we suggest produce ingredients like we would offer paint to Picasso — we’re the supply experts and the chef is the artist. Chefs drive the product that we bring to them as much as we drive what they serve in the restaurant.”
Greet observes that fruits and vegetables sell themselves when distributors provide chefs with the best available items at peak season. “Chefs take those individual items and pair them with others in a way that is exponential. Imagination is the limit.”