Bon Appétit Management Company Wins Produce Business Most Innovative Dining Outlet Award
Originally printed in the July 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Converting Americans’ deficient produce intake and poor dietary habits has proved a formidable feat, but not a fait accompli. This was the impetus propelling the Produce Business industry-nominated award series, which launched this year to honor innovative companies and executives that market and sell produce to drive overall consumption. Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO), a wholly owned subsidiary of Compass Group, is the inaugural winner in the foodservice category.
“Fresh produce has really been a symbolic part of what Bon Appétit does differently, but also just a practical part of what we do, day in and day out, and so critical to who we are as a brand,” says Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy and brand officer, who oversees culinary purchasing, marketing, communications, wellness and guest-facing technology.
That brand identity and mission are passionately tied to improving the health and well-being of its guests, as well as the sustainability of the planet. CEO Fedele Bauccio founded the company in 1987, when he was affronted by institutional cafeteria lines awash in soggy green beans and other sadly themed vegetable sides as a motivator, Ganzler shares.
Now operating more than 1,000 onsite cafés in 33 states, Bon Appétit, headquartered in Palo Alto, CA, reaches a broad range of institutions and customer bases in three main markets: corporations; private higher education; and specialty venues, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and two sports and entertainment arenas in San Francisco, Chase Center and Oracle Park.
“We want plant-forward not to be just about a meal or a station,” says Terri Brownlee, Bon Appétit director of nutrition and wellness, and registered dietitian. “We want it to be a revolution that reaches all corners of the café.”
Bon Appétit’s unique, highly customized model defies conventional, large-scale restaurant chain approaches that use corporate recipes to simplify and duplicate dishes across units for cookie-cutter consistency and easy preparation.
In contrast, Bon Appétit’s model gives each of its venue chefs a carte blanche, creative license to experiment and build innovative, plant-forward dishes, tailored to venue-specific needs.
“The culture of our company is that we are chef-driven, and that allows for that high level of customization for every client,” says Brownlee.
It’s really a differentiator, she adds. “It’s why our clients hire us, because we are able to customize the menus to their exact location, and flavor profiles, taste preferences and menu mix.”
The strategy includes corporate oversight and management of all menu ingredient purchasing and specifications; plant-forward food standard directives; and training programs, according to Ganzler.
One of those food standards requires chefs cook everything from scratch, and use all edible parts of the fruits and vegetables, says Brownlee. The only precooked things chefs are permitted to buy are fermented sauces.
Bon Appétit — which serves 2 million meals annually — understands the key to a successful plant-forward strategy is creating delicious eating experiences, paying homage to its name.
“We’re not driven by corporate recipes or corporate menus, an important distinction,” explains Brownlee. “We really wanted to approach it from a grassroots effort and get our chefs to buy into it. We needed to tell them the why, and inspire them with ideas, and then let them create, because they really know their audiences best.”
“We manage the ingredients and the ingredient specifications of the products that they purchase, or they have access to purchase,” says Brownlee, “and then, they can combine those products in any way they want to within a café.”
Brownlee, who started with Bon Appétit more than 20 years ago, has played an integral role establishing the strong collaboration between the team of dietitians and chefs, which involves extensive training sessions and “culinary nutrition” trialing.
“We complement each other because we come from different areas of expertise, and we push each other in the creative space,” she notes.
FARM TO FORK
To provide some overall perspective of the company’s commitment to fresh fruits and vegetables, it bought more than $79 million in produce in the most recent 12 months, says Ganzler, who notes individual client information is proprietary.
Produce has been fundamental from the beginning, she adds, “but what has evolved is our connection to those who grow it and harvest it.”
Bon Appétit has a Farm to Fork local purchasing program, with an annual goal of 20% of purchases. There are currently more than 1,400 vendors in the program, and the majority are produce, says Ganzler. “We also have chefs that double as foragers to find new Farm to Fork vendors, and to just share knowledge with chefs in their region.”
Since menus change every day in every location, the program lets Bon Appétit venues adapt to what’s available locally and seasonally.
“We also really value the relationship between the chef and farmer that is only possible at the local level,” Ganzler says. For example, a pear grower in the Pacific Northwest talks with the local Bon Appétit chef, and picks the pears at different degrees of ripeness if it’s going to be used as hand fruit, or sliced to go in a salad or poached as a dessert.
Ganzler also tells a story about a farmer, years ago, who wanted to experiment with rainbow carrots. A distributor told the grower if he could get those rainbow carrots to work, Bon Appétit chefs would want to buy them “because they’ll love how beautiful they are.”
“And he was absolutely right,” she adds. “Now, you have a new variety of carrots entering the marketplace because somebody knew our chefs would value them.”
“We actively seek out those local relationships and make sure it works for both sides,” Brownlee adds. “We often commit to crops for the next year — if you can produce X amount more, we’ll buy it from you.”
Under Ganzler’s leadership, Bon Appétit has also taken a progressive stance on ethical sourcing throughout the supply chain, and the company works to secure fair labor wages for farmworkers. Ganzler, who serves on the board of the Equitable Food Initiative, sees ethical sourcing as “the next frontier,” and created Bon Appétit’s Circle of Responsibility program to educate chefs and café guests on how their food choices impact their environment, community and personal well-being.
Getting chefs on board took off at the Culinary Institute of America’s first Global Plant Forward (GPF) Culinary Summit in 2019. Brownlee says she gathered 20 chefs from across the company “to get them inspired.”
That working group of chefs collaborated with Brownlee’s team of chefs and dietitians to create guiding principles for how to achieve a plant-forward process. First, use animal foods in a supporting role, and lessen that center-of-the-plate focus. Second, make plants the foundation of the plate. Third, emphasize the use of plant proteins, which ensure a robust meal, so people feel satiated.
Brownlee faced plenty of questions and some pushback. Even though plant-forward was already a movement — way past the trend stage in 2019 — there was still a reluctance to say this plate must have a certain amount of plant protein. To make things more understandable, says Brownlee, they leaned into the EAT-Lancet report.
“We set a goal of putting at least six and a half ounces of produce on every plate we serve,” she explains. “And that’s a minimum, we certainly don’t prevent people from using more than that.” In addition, there were quantifications around colors, “otherwise, it would just end up a white plate with more grains on it, and we really wanted that produce variety to be there.”
“We wanted to make sure that plant-forward catered to a broad spectrum of people,” Brownlee adds.“We felt we could make a bigger impact by pushing additional fruits and vegetables on the plate, while reducing the meat component, because many guests will always feel like vegan is a loss for them.”
“Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO) has long focused on putting more delicious, nutritious, scratch-cooked plants at the center of the plate since the company’s founding, but even more so in recent years given their ambitious sustainability and wellness policies and carbon reduction goals,” says Allison Righter, MSPH, RDN, and director of health and sustainability programs for the strategic initiatives group at the Culinary Institute of America, headquartered in Hyde Park, NY.
“We were thrilled when BAMCO brought a group of their leading chefs and wellness team members to our first annual GPF Culinary Summit to establish their own internal Plant-Forward Culinary Collaborative,” Righter adds. “What started as a top-down, companywide commitment gained grassroots support, with chefs inspiring and challenging one another and helping generate buzz among consumers.”
FOOD STANDARDS DASHBOARD 2.0
In a ground-breaking move, Bon Appétit has developed a a sophisticated high-tech tool to document progress with actionable data. The supercharged companywide system —Dashboard Food Standards 2.0 — is designed to meticulously execute, track and measure internal results in its multilayered sustain-ability and wellness goals.
Brownlee explains the Food Standards Dashboard focuses on total purchases of animal ingredients versus plant ingredients. Within the plant purchases, it’s broken down into plant oils, produce, and other plants, which includes tofu and soy products.
Food Standards Dashboard 2.0 has been in place only for slightly more than one year, so aggregate data and year-over-year data is just starting to emerge, what the improvements are, and areas of opportunity. “We already have a number of locations that are well over 50% plant purchases, and usually within that slice of the pie, a large percentage of it is produce,” says Brownlee, adding the dashboard measures purchases by weight and by dollar spend.
The dashboard launched in 2015, says Ganzler, but the 2.0 version is more robust.
“We really tried to quantify the importance of produce through a variety of lenses,” she explains. For example, a plant-forward tab breaks down animal protein versus vegetable protein, with the goal of increasing vegetable protein. For animal protein per guest per meal, the target under two and a half ounces, and for beef, specifically, it’s under one ounce, which spotlights the emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s one thing to have a philosophy and love of produce, and another to quantify and measure it, and have goals in place,” says Ganzler.
“We’re always looking to maintain or increase participation,” says Brownlee, in assessing how to define success of a plant-forward item. “When you make these types of changes, or shifts on your menu, if you don’t see a drop in sales or participation, sometimes that by itself is success, because you’ve improved the menu mix.”
She says it’s too soon to figure out how far they can push it, “because we have guests that will not be happy if we don’t have enough choices at the cafes that have some type of animal protein. So, I think it’s a matter of continuing to push the dial, while also understanding the balance.”
Brownlee acknowledges Bon Appétit has been low key about promoting its plant-forward concepts. “We find one of the things that we can do well in this space is to make food delicious. And sometimes that is the best message, no message.”
“When you give your produce a lot of love, people see value in it.”
“We have such a love and reverence for fresh produce, we want to celebrate it on the menus, and we want to celebrate it with the people that grow it for us,” Ganzler adds. “It’s just so near and dear to our hearts as a company, and, individually, as food professionals.”
• • •
PRODUCE CARVING STATION A HIT
Reinventing the carving station, the staff at one of the Bon Appétit locations came up with the idea of replacing an animal protein with a big winter squash.
To have that same appeal, the chefs kept the squash whole and sliced it to order at the station, providing toppings and sauces for guests to choose.
It was a big hit, and Bon Appétit venues that don’t do away with the protein part of the carving station, have added a produce element to it.
• • •
GRILL IMPOSTERS CONVINCE DIE-HARDS
In a dining setting, salad bars are naturally plant-forward, and deli sandwiches and trendy bowls were easy to flip to spot-light produce, but the grill is a completely different animal, says Terri Brownlee, Bon Appétit director of nutrition and wellness, and registered dietitian.
“You have those people who go to the grill as their staple every single day,” she says, so the challenge is to figure out how to appeal to this dedicated group of diners.
One of the characteristics of grill food is that it’s kind of an indulgence, often fried, and not necessarily considered the healthiest part of the café. So Brownlee started considering how to reposition plant-forward solutions.
She introduced the idea of creating imposters for items that are grill favorites, like a Philly cheesesteak. The chefs started taking tofu and tempeh and blending it with produce items like mushrooms to get that umami and then using a little bit of regular cheese to finish it off.
Once the Bon Appétit chefs started thinking about imposters — without focusing on the healthy aspects — it opened up possibilities, Brownlee says.
For example, many of Bon Appétit’s guests, particularly college students, love buffalo chicken, buffalo wings, anything that has that slight hot, saucy-type presentation. And the chefs knew almost anything that will hold up to be coated and fried and then tossed in sauce can be buffaloed. Would guests also accept buffalo tofu or buffalo Brussels sprouts?
Turns out, they will.
• • •
DEFAULTING TO BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE TO PUSH MORE PRODUCE
Tapping into behavioral science techniques, some Bon Appétit chefs use “default mechanisms,” where the special for the day, as an example, is plant-based as the default choice. An animal protein alternative is still available as an option, but someone has to ask for it.
When you start messaging something as ‘plant-based,’ then people complain about it, explains Terri Brownlee, Bon Appétit director of nutrition and wellness. “Once you label something healthy or good for you, people are like, ‘wait, I don’t know about that.’”
“We want to educate people about the wonderful aspects of using produce, instead of saying ‘produce is good for you, you should eat more of it.’”
“I have a chef who made a butternut-squash cashew cheese sauce for his nachos, using the idea of the default mechanism, but he decided not to serve a regular cheese sauce,” says Brownlee. He was prepared to refund money to anybody who said they didn’t like it. “He didn’t refund any money and he sold more than he would have sold of the regular nachos.”
• • •
• Battle of the Bacon. During training, Bon Appétit chefs come up with their best iteration of a plant-based bacon, and the best ones are from produce, says Terri Brownlee, Bon Appétit director of nutrition and wellness, adding, “sweet potato bacon is my favorite.” From a commercial kitchen standpoint, Bon Appétit is not going to start making their own plant-based bacon, she admits, but “this is inspiring them to think differently, and what can they do with this produce that is different.”
• Vegetable Butchers. Vegetable Butchery events show Bon Appétit guests how they can use vegetables as the center of the plate, and how to use the whole vegetable, like pickling the beet stem. Guests can attend a vegetable butchery cooking class, which is promoted in the café and on the company website and social media. It might also just be a demo station at an individual café.
• • •
HOME RUN WITH HEALTHY KIDS
Bon Appétit encourages an early start with the plant-forward message through a fun program called Healthy Kids in the Bon Appétit Kitchen.
The program — which started at Oracle Park — is offered in a variety of ways, says Terri Brownlee, Bon Appétit director of nutrition and wellness, such as for children of corporate employees the company serves, or on a college campus, with faculty children. Sometimes, Bon Appétit works with a local girls and boys club or YMCA to do a cooking class.
Teachers demonstrate how to use kid-safe knives, and children will make their own fruit pizzas or rainbow kebab vegetables on a stick. “They get excited about it, and learn about the plant parts,” Brownlee says. “We find that makes them much more willing to try new fruits and vegetables that might have been scary to them and give them a taste of fresh produce early in life because it’s so healthy.”