Innovation Fueling Produce Consumption

Innovating in Foodservice

The vegetable-forward plate has become widely adopted across restaurants and higher education dining services, bringing a flurry of innovation.

“Independent and fast-casual operators are approaching produce with a different philosophy, not just to mimic meat,” says Maeve Webster, president, Menu Matters, Arlington, VT. “They treat vegetables with a certain level of respect. Rather than offering just a few options on the menu, operators are making their vegetable dishes as good as anything on the menu. And they’re offering really interesting dishes as limited-time offers.”

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Carmichael, CA, says innovation in fast food and convenience goes a long way back. “A company I worked for approached a convenience chain to sell packaged bananas in plastic. Because the chain wouldn’t risk shrink, my employer pivoted to packaged salads instead.” Myrdal Miller also notes Subway now offers mashed avocado on sandwiches as a result of long-term relationship building and new processing innovations on the part of the California Avocado Commission in Irvine, CA.

McDonald’s takes pride in its use of innovation to add fresh produce to its menus. Michelle Claravall, manager, culinary menu innovation, McDonald’s, Oak Brook, IL, describes using only refrigeration to preserve fresh produce. To facilitate meal assembly, its suppliers package “kits” for freshly prepared pico de gallo inhouse every day. Others quickly cool and freeze fresh fruit to lock in natural flavor. “We leverage the insights of our produce suppliers as freshness subject matter experts to bring us produce innovations,” she says. “We also seek out fresh produce innovations from our global teams — for example, a buzzworthy burger from McDonald’s Australia that features sliced pickled beets.”

Among colleges and universities, Yale Hospitality enjoys a reputation among the most innovative college dining teams. Team members describe “deliciousness, the simple attractive appearance of freshly made food, inherent attributes of health and wellness, local ingredients and sustainability” as what sets the university apart.

Yale Hospitality avidly uses specialty produce in its menu items. “In recent years, hybrid varieties of vegetables have become more prevalent and accessible. Our catering and executive services division uses a wide variety of specialty produce that becomes a conversation piece for guests,” says Gerry Remer, director, sustainability and sourcing. Remer notes produce purchasing is up 40 percent since 2010.

“On the supply side, we partner with FreshPoint and other specialty produce providers to source from local and regional farmers,” says Allison Arnett, RD, health and wellness manager, Yale Hospitality. “We charge our supply partners with the responsibility of foraging exciting superfoods that are nutrient rich, seasonal and flavorful. Through these relationships we create learning opportunities for our students with local farm tours during harvest season.”

Quintin L. Eason, regional executive chef for Chartwells Higher Education, Rye Brook, NY, says “one of the biggest ways to promote innovation in foodservice is to educate students. For example, they may not know pumpkin can be prepared in 10 different ways with various types of ethnic flair and flavor profiles. We might serve pumpkin hot sauce for chicken wings and kebabs with pumpkin as an entree.”