Produce Innovation for Foodservice

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the MenuWhat innovations in produce can have significant impact for the foodservice industry‭? ‬That’s a very fun‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬and important‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬question to address‭. ‬We can look at innovations in plant breeding‭, ‬value-added processing‭, ‬planting‭, ‬sales strategy‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬even distribution‭.‬

When I was working at The Culinary Institute of America‭, ‬we often had produce companies sponsor conferences attended by chefs so‭ ‬these companies could introduce new items to the chefs‭. ‬While chefs always love seeing‭, ‬tasting and experimenting with new produce‭, ‬challenges often arose over issues related to cost‭, ‬consistent supply and consistent quality‭. ‬Introducing a new produce item before you can supply a large company with the quantity‭, ‬quality or price they need may lead to future collaboration‭, ‬but it doesn’t meet the needs of a foodservice operator who needs a new menu item in the next three to six months‭.‬

Another challenge arose when new items were introduced without any supporting culinary application‭. ‬Yes‭, ‬a professionally trained chef can easily find uses for new produce items‭, ‬but a busy menu developer will appreciate a vendor who understands the customer’s business‭. ‬If you are introducing a fresh produce item to an operator whose restaurants do not use fresh produce due to storage‭ ‬or handling issues‭, ‬that’s a failure on your part‭. ‬You must do your homework so that what you’re introducing has practical application‭, ‬as well as broad appeal‭.‬

Some of the biggest success stories come from produce companies that work with consulting chefs that can have a peer-to-peer conversation and work side-by-side with a corporate chef on new menu ideation‭. ‬Companies that send a sales person may find success‭ ‬with competitive bidding‭, ‬but produce companies that provide chefs with solid concepts will likely find bigger success and longer-term relationships‭. ‬Selling solutions versus selling produce may be more expensive up front‭, ‬but it will pay off in the long run‭.‬

Sometimes the‭ ‬“simplest”‭ ‬innovation‭ (‬e.g‭., ‬modified atmosphere packaging that gives bananas a 21-day shelf life‭) ‬can provide the biggest benefit to the‭ ‬foodservice operator‭. ‬Labor is a significant cost for foodservice operations‭, ‬and with challenges related to skill level and minimum wage increases‭, ‬selling value-added produce is a smart move‭. ‬

Gold Coast Packing‭, ‬Santa Maria‭, ‬CA‭, ‬hit a home run with its Caulifornia Snow Riced Cauliflower introduced in 2016‭. ‬Cauliflower‭ ‬steaks and whole roasted cauliflower were appearing on menus across the country‭. ‬Gold Coast capitalized on the cauliflower trend‭ ‬and brought a new form into the market‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬a form that can be used in many ways‭.‬

Foodservice operators love to use products that have multiple uses on a menu‭. ‬If you can show them how a single item can be used‭ ‬in multiple menu items or across multiple categories‭, ‬that’s a win‭. ‬The Gold Coast riced cauliflower can be used in place of rice‭, ‬on salad bars‭, ‬in gluten-free pizza crust‭, ‬in soups‭, ‬in‭ ‬pasta dishes and more‭.

Selling solutions versus selling produce may be more expensive up front, but it will pay off in the long run.

Are there also opportunities to innovate in foodservice distribution‭? ‬You bet‭. ‬If you’re doing category management for foodservice the same way you’re doing category management for retail‭, ‬you’re missing a big opportunity to better serve your customer‭.‬

In retail‭, ‬products are organized by category‭. ‬Organizing products by application can accelerate conversations about new produce‭ ‬offerings‭. ‬An example of this is apple slices‭. ‬Instead of organizing under fruit or apples‭, ‬why not organize by salad bar‭, ‬side‭ ‬dish and kids’‭ ‬meals‭? ‬Doing this would take work by your database management team to create new categories‭; ‬but‭, ‬think about the power this would put into the hands of your sales team‭. ‬A potential customer says he needs items that can expand his side dish offerings‭. ‬Your sales person does a quick database search by side dish‭, ‬and a menu of options can be served up to the customer‭.‬

‭‬A final category of innovation that can’t be overlooked is innovation in flavor‭. ‬About three years ago‭, ‬I heard a California citrus industry leader say‭, ‬“For 100‭ ‬years we’ve been focused on what the outside looks like‭. ‬Now we need to focus on what the inside tastes like‭.‬”‭ ‬He’s right‭, ‬especially when it comes to foodservice‭. ‬Few produce items are sold in their whole‭, ‬pristine form in foodservice‭. ‬Produce gets cut‭, ‬chopped‭, ‬peeled‭, ‬minced‭, ‬pureed‭, ‬cored‭, ‬cooked‭, ‬mashed‭, ‬fried‭, ‬etc‭. ‬The looks don’t matter‭, ‬but the flavor does‭. ‬We need more innovation in flavor from the field‭, ‬grove or orchard if we want people to eat more‭ ‬produce‭.‬

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. Learn more about her business at Follow her insights on food and flavor issues on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.