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.
This 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.”
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.