Originally printed in the Febraury 2018 issue of Produce Business.
I was talking with a group of volume foodservice chefs recently about what quality attributes they seek in their protein sourcing programs. The list was endless and included everything from cage-free, antibiotic-free and organic to certified sustainable.
If I’d asked similar questions about quality in produce, the list would be much shorter. Volume foodservice leaders want safe produce with extended shelf life and value-added attributes that reduce labor cost. But could they be asking for more? Could they request specific varieties with quality attributes that focus on flavor?
Yes, there are fine-dining chefs who will order specific varieties such as Moro (blood) oranges, Lacinato kale, or Brandywine tomatoes, but it’s rare to find specific produce varieties on menus in other foodservice channels. But this could create huge market opportunities for produce in foodservice.
Chefs are first and foremost creative spirits inspired by great flavor. Seed developers and growers who can prove a specific variety has a unique flavor benefit or sensory profile may have a competitive advantage in the future.
If we want people to eat more produce, we have to start exploring all the ways to make produce more appealing, more enjoyable, more flavorful, more delicious.
Leaders in the extra virgin olive oil and honey industries have been working on sensory research, education and communication in this area for many years. Getting a chef or consumer to select extra virgin olive oil made from Picual olives versus Arbequina olives takes education that includes doing side-by-side tastings to show differences and quality guarantees to show paying more for a specific variety is worth the cost. If a product is labeled “Picual”, it must have the sensory characteristics of Picual.
You also need to invest in culinary research to show the benefit of using a specific extra virgin olive oil for a certain culinary application. Paying more for Picual is senseless if the oil is going to be used for frying and the aromatic compounds break down under high heat conditions.
The same is true for honey. If people believe all honeys taste the same, why would someone pay twice as much for orange blossom honey compared to clover honey? The answer lies in flavor benefit, but only if it can be experienced and is valued by the person paying the premium price.
So where are the opportunities for specific varieties of produce in foodservice? There are certain categories where chefs have been begging for better flavor for years, including melons and tomatoes. Certain seed developers and growers have been working on selling specific varieties of melons in retail, highlighting the enticing aroma, consistent brix and incredible flavor of specific varieties. If foodservice leaders got the opportunity to taste and then specify these varieties, they would. There is interest in better flavor in the melon category. The same is true for tomatoes, and again, there has been great work done in this area for retail. But these are fresh products for which the chef rarely applies heat or other cooking techniques to develop or enhance flavor. The fresh product must stand on its own.
But what about fresh produce items that are never eaten in the raw form such as potatoes? Is there a future where a culinary leader will specify a certain variety of potato for a specific menu application, one where the diner will be enticed by flavor descriptors that sell on flavor as well as health?
There are produce leaders already doing this work. Seed companies such as Monsanto Vegetable Seeds, St. Louis, are breeding tomatoes and melons for flavor. HZPC in the Netherlands is breeding potatoes to provide functional, nutrition and flavor benefits. Wonderful Citrus, Delano, CA, is focusing on citrus varieties that not only look great, but also deliver on fantastic flavor.
The next step is finding a way to prove the extra cost — from significant changes required all along the supply chain — are worth it. I believe the extra effort and cost are worth it. If we want people to eat more produce, we have to start exploring all the ways to make produce more appealing, more enjoyable, more flavorful, more delicious.