Trends In Use Of Produce On American Menus

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Originally printed in the April 2018 issue of Produce Business.

What trends are driving use of produce on American menus‭? ‬A group of volume foodservice leaders weighed in on this question recently in preparation for a panel discussion at the Produce for Better Health Foundation 2018‭ ‬Consumer Connection conference‭, ‬to be‭ ‬held in Scottsdale‭, ‬April 4–6‭.‬

Plant-Forward Progress

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the MenuThis group agreed consumer demand for better-for-me‭, ‬better-for-the-planet options is driving a lot of produce-centric innovation in foodservice today‭. ‬“Plant-forward is hard‭,‬”‭ ‬said one leader from a large contract operation‭. ‬“It takes more labor‭, ‬more training‭, ‬but when it’s what our customers want‭, ‬it’s what we’ll offer‭.‬”

Food With A Story

The group also agreed that being able to tell a compelling story about an ingredient or a supplier‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬especially an ingredient from a family farm‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬creates compelling reasons for customers to try new menu items‭. ‬“Being able to talk about who grew a unique produce item allows us to add romance to marketing and menu copy‭,‬”‭ ‬said a leader from a fast-casual chain‭. ‬“Including a picture of a farmer in the field harvesting that gorgeous tomato or ripe‭, ‬aromatic melon gives us even more marketing power‭.‬”

We Eat With Our Eyes

Of all the senses involved in appreciating food‭, ‬our eyes play the first role in judging whether we want to try a new food‭. ‬The‭ ‬vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables are used by chefs to entice the diner‭. ‬“We now top off our soup with fresh greens‭,‬”‭ ‬said a chef from a fast-casual operation‭. ‬“They start to wilt but still retain beautiful dark green color‭, ‬making the customer feel like they are getting something healthy‭, ‬fresh and good for them‭.‬”

Being able to tell a compelling story about an ingredient or a supplier‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬especially an ingredient from a family farm‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬creates‭ ‬compelling reasons for customers to try new menu items‭.‬

Spectacular Salad Bars

No‭, ‬we’re not talking about the traditional salad bar with small containers of a wide variety of ingredients that may or may not go well together‭. ‬We’re talking about salad bars filled with finished dishes where the culinary leader in that operation has taken the time to create‭ ‬something perfect and appealing‭. ‬“We no longer let the diner put raspberry vinaigrette on top of iceberg‭, ‬red kidney beans‭, ‬raw broccoli florets and canned tuna‭. ‬We want them to love every bite‭. ‬We use fresh produce to create finished items that make our customers want to come back time and time again‭,‬”‭ ‬said a leader from a mid-size contract foodservice company‭.

Produce As The Hero

Traditional culinary training focused on the center-of-the-plate protein item with a starch and a vegetable accompaniment‭. ‬“That model is outdated‭, ‬old school‭,‬”‭ ‬said a former culinary school instructor now leading menu innovation at a large chain‭. ‬“We now make produce the hero of the plate or bowl and use protein in much smaller amounts‭. ‬People think this saves us money‭. ‬It‭ ‬doesn’t‭. ‬Produce takes a lot of prep time‭. ‬We do this because it’s what our customers are asking for‭.‬”

Vegan And Vegetarian Cuisine

Many in marketing are now avoiding use of the terms vegetarian and vegan on menus saying the terms have negative properties‭, ‬such as‭ ‬“heart healthy”‭ ‬or‭ ‬“low calorie‭.‬”‭ ‬But others in the restaurant industry use the terms to draw in new diners who demand vegetarian and vegan cuisine‭. ‬“Our vegan customers are a very small percentage of our customer base‭, ‬but they are the loudest‭,‬”‭ ‬said a culinary nutrition leader from a well-known quick service restaurant‭. ‬“Most of our diners are flexitarians who sometimes opt for meat-free meals and appreciate the fact we offer ways to customize our‭ ‬menu items with extra produce‭.‬”

Healthy Indulgence

Another trend many in the group noted was the demand for healthy indulgence featuring produce‭. ‬“We want to offer food that’s‭ ‬‘better-for-you’‭ ‬but also offers what the indulgence people want‭,‬”‭ ‬said a menu developer from a quick service restaurant‭. ‬“You can get French fries topped with cheese sauce‭, ‬or you can get your fries topped with‭ ‬pico de gallo‭.‬”

Another example is tempura green beans‭, ‬an alternative to French fries at The Habit Burger Grill‭.

Loaded With Produce

One final trend many noted is the trend to load burgers‭, ‬nachos‭, ‬fries‭, ‬and other menu items‭. ‬“It’s no longer all about the cheese and bacon‭,‬”‭ ‬said a leader from a fast-casual chain‭. ‬“We’re now seeing our competitors offering more produce options for burgers‭, ‬sandwiches‭, ‬and bowls‭.‬”‭ ‬Expect to see opportunities for tomatoes‭, ‬peppers‭, ‬avocados and other fresh produce that add flavor‭, ‬texture and eye appeal to‭ ‬a wide variety of menu items‭.‬