Veggie-Forward Dishes Become Trendy

Industry rallies behind movement of produce from side dish to center of the plate.

Dietitians have tried for several decades to achieve what the industry has accomplished in just a few short years – move produce from side dish to center of the plate. Side dish classics such as steamed green beans and broccoli topped with Hollandaise are being replaced with innovative and exciting combinations and cooking methods.

James Beard award nominee Eric Gabrynowicz, who is executive chef and co-owner of Restaurant North in Armonk, NY, embodies the new attitude. “Vegetables are now the stars of the plate more than ever. I get excited about the first Brussels sprouts after the first frost almost as much as I get excited about a whole heritage pig that graces the kitchen doors.”

NOT Vegetarian

Thai Coconut Slaw

Mann Packing’s Thai Coconut Slaw

What does it mean to be vegetable-forward on the menu? Kori Tuggle, vice president, Church Brothers Farms, Salinas, CA, notes vegetable-forward can take many forms, including “adding vegetables to classic dishes to increase their health factor and take advantage of the vegetable ‘health halo,’ reducing or replacing proteins with vegetables, or making the vegetable serving equal to the protein in an entrée.”

“We’re not just talking about adding lettuce and vegetables to burgers and sandwiches,” says Maeve Webster, president, Menu Matters, Arlington, VT. “Adding produce bulks up a dish to create greater volume, greater value, better eye appeal, and more flavor.”

Today’s produce-forward plate differs, however, from plant-based vegetarianism or popular movements such as Meatless Monday. “Chefs are ideating new menu items and treating fresh produce with the same regard as meat-based protein, but not entirely replacing meat with vegetables,” observes Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef, Gordon Food Service, Grand Rapids, MI.

No longer content with soggy, drab-colored, boiled vegetables, chefs are applying traditional meat cooking methods to vegetables. Chef Chris Koetke, vice president, School of Culinary Arts, Kendall College, Chicago, acknowledges vegetables lend themselves to a multitude of classic cooking methods, including grilling, smoking, braising, and spicing, that coax a larger and more complex flavor profile out of the vegetables.

Savings Meets Sustainability

Burger with Microgreens

Burger with Microgreens

Rising costs, environmental concerns and attention to health combined to create the perfect storm for the vegetable-forward plate. In commercial and non-commercial foodservice, wage equity movements and higher prices for animal protein have increased meal costs. For operators surveyed in 2015 for the Technomic operator survey, and whose responses were summarized in the Mann Packing Viva la Veggies report, this means moving vegetables from the side to the center of the plate for visual appeal, to meet customer demand for healthier items, and to help manage costs. Sustainability is increasingly promoted by organizations such as Cambridge, MA-based Chefs Collaborative, which encourages chefs to help build a better food system through food choices that emphasize delicious, locally grown, seasonally fresh and whole or minimally processed ingredients. On the health side, Webster of Menu Matters notes menu labeling laws spur operators to bulk up dishes with produce to lower calories without reducing portions.

Each of these influencers is likely to remain at the forefront. “Everyone is encountering big beef prices and increased labor costs,” says Chris Neary, corporate executive chef, Crown 1 Enterprises, Bay Shore, NY. “Chefs are designing around produce rather than protein for more colorful and profitable plates.”

“Sustainability is not going away, because the underpinnings are not changing,” says Koetke. “Emphasis on animal protein is not sustainable so vegetables have to play a larger role.”

“Many more consumers have a balanced approach to healthy eating,” says Webster. “They are not just counting calories as in the past.”

Farmers, Chefs And Diners

The vegetable-forward plate has strengthened ties between farms and foodservice. “The relationship between the farmer, the chef, and the diner has

Avocado Chimichurri

Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges with Avocado Chimichurri

deepened and become more complex,” observes Bill Fuller, executive chef, Big Burrito, Pittsburgh. “Chefs want more and better vegetables all the time, and they push for higher quality and better supply. No longer is local good enough. Produce has to be local, fresh, delicious, clean, interesting and fairly reasonably priced. Diners want more ‘healthy’ dishes, which usually means more vegetables (even if they are swathed in butter and bacon). Farmers are slowly opening up to the idea of growing new crops, expanding offerings and extending growing seasons to increase sales and profitability.”

State departments of agriculture often serve as matchmakers between farmers and chefs. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo sought ways to help grow the upstate economy. He partnered with Richard Ball, commissioner, New York State Department of Agriculture, to convene an upstate-downstate summit and explore markets and opportunities for state-grown produce. Ball notes New York State farms are adding new crops and chefs are planning their menus based on what farms have available week-to-week.

Some restaurants establish formalized relationships with area farms. Chef Gabrynowicz participates in an RSA (restaurant supported agriculture) arrangement whereby his restaurant helps financially support a farm in exchange for a share of its crops. New York City’s Dig Inn seasonal market invests in sustainable best practices at area farms to help farmers grow more food and find new markets. “My mantra is you find me the vegetable, and I’ll make the menu,” explains Dig Inn culinary director Matt Weingarten. “We can help stabilize crops that the farmer wants to grow.”

Distributors such as Baldor and J. Kings, both in New York, facilitate transportation logistics. Benjamin Walker, director, marketing and business development, Baldor Specialty Foods, Bronx, NY, describes Baldor’s role as the player in the middle, sending trucks to deliver to restaurants and then back hauling products from farms. During growing season, Baldor can bring products from farm to fork in 24 hours.

Balancing Local With Responsible

FreshPoint Local Farmers

FreshPoint Local Farmers

Local sells and is increasingly appealing to both chefs and diners. However, sourcing vegetables from local producers can be difficult as quality, availability and costs fluctuate throughout the year.

“In the height of the growing season, we get very close to 100 percent local but outside the growing season that number is nowhere near that figure,” says Gabrynowicz. His priority instead is to procure the best products, raised in a sustainable manner, that have the least negative impact on the environment and the biggest impact on the local economy. Gabrynowicz tries to “think outside the box” in ways that support local farmers, for example, taking approximately 4,000 pounds of local winter squash, waxing it to extend its shelf life, and preserving it through pickling, jarring, canning and confit. “We think by working hard to extend the seasons we can inspire a younger generation to cook like this and create a DNA of sustainability going forward.”

A growing number of distributors, including industry giant Sysco and its FreshPoint division, offer local purchasing programs. Gordon Food Service’s NearBuy program features 100-plus seasonal items from Michigan farmers. Baldor customers who “take the local pledge” automatically receive a local product when its price is within 10 percent of commodity price. “By automatically creating greater demand for local items, Baldor can work with farmers and producers to bring down prices,” says Baldor’s Walker.

Local produce consistently ranks near the top of the National Restaurant Association poll of 1,500 chefs nationwide and its “What’s Hot” culinary forecast. Britni Webster, director of business development and marketing, FreshPoint Inc., Maitland, FL, notes “this tells us sourcing local produce is a priority for many chefs. However, it does take more time and resources for them to identify and work with smaller farms that may carry just one or two particular items. FreshPoint assists in the purchasing function for the chef, bringing in small quantities from multiple farms, putting them on a pallet, and delivering on one truck with one invoice.”

What’s Next?

There’s no arguing kale revolutionized the vegetable-forward menu. While it no longer is among Datassential’s one-year fastest growing vegetables in fine dining and holds only the fifth spot for fast casual, it continues to grow in QSR.

Loree Dowse, foodservice marketing manager, Mann Packing, Salinas, CA, notes kale moved from trendy to mainstream in such dishes as Chick-fil-A’s kale/broccolini salad. Tuggle of Church Brothers observes baby kale is less intimidating but still has the nutritional halo that allows large chains such as McDonald’s to add it to their mainstream menus in salads and limited time offer (LTO) dishes.

Brussels sprouts replaced kale, and cauliflower replaced Brussels sprouts, with chefs guessing the next vegetable superstar. With inspiration coming from fine dining, Datassential’s fastest growing vegetables are padron pepper and mustard greens. Mann’s Viva la Veggies report names kohlrabi, broccolini and sugar snap peas as “cutting-edge” vegetables. Chef Koetke from Kendall College has his eye on Jerusalem artichokes, heirloom carrots and wild mushrooms. Webster of Menu Matters predicts growing in interest is darker, bitter greens, including Swiss chard and Chinese cabbage. Ezio Bondi, account manager, Bondi Product, Toronto, expects growth in urban-farmed crops such as herbs and microgreens. Chef Ludwig likes the versatility of hard winter squash. “It is economical and plentiful, offers wide variety and keeps well, so it is not exclusively seasonal. It can be oven-roasted, smoked, torched, shaved into ribbons as carpaccio, or turned into a thick puree.”

On the fruit side, blueberries continue to be popular. “Creative dishes include blueberry pizza, nachos, bisques, marinades and even blueberry salt,” says Kyla Oberman, director of marketing, Naturipe Farms LLC, Salinas, CA. “LTO blueberry dishes moved to the permanent menu, aided by our foodservice-pack washed, ready-to-eat berries that are perfect for back-of-house as they don’t require prep or additional handling.”

“The rising vegetable tide lifts all boats,” says Commissioner Ball. “Restaurants are asking for cardoon and more unusual vegetables. Chefs are using beets and rediscovering the many varieties of potatoes.”

Intermediaries Strengthen The System

Few players at the beginning and end of the vegetable supply chain, namely farmers and foodservice, are in a position to source directly from each other

Kale Color Crunch Salad

Church Brothers’ Kale Color Crunch Salad Mixed with Fruit

without intermediaries. New York State’s Commissioner Ball is exploring infrastructure for storing and transporting produce procured from upstate farms.

Ben Friedman, president, Riviera Produce, Englewood, NJ, describes his company as “the ambassadors of farm produce. We will pick up and deliver even one box of produce to help move product. We’re driven by what chefs want to work with and what farmers are growing. We also utilize our own storage facility.”

Supply chain manager Pro*Act created and administers Greener Fields Together, a sustainability program. “Greener Fields Together engages and involves local and national farmers, distributors, commercial and non-commercial foodservice operators and retail locations in an effort to work toward available and safer produce from seed to fork,” explains Kathleen Weaver, supply chain sustainability manager, Pro*Act USA, Monterey, CA.

Distributors and other industry partners also update foodservice clients on trends, insights and new products. “If one of our chef clients orders an interesting product, we let other clients know through our newsletter. Maybe they’ll want to order it too,” says Bondi. “For example, we publicized that a chef in fine dining was using fava beans. Three to six months later, a QSR customer added favas to its grain bowls as a seasonal promotion.”

Value-Added Gains Value

Value-added products facilitate adding vegetable-forward items to the menu. According to Mann’s Viva la Veggies report, two-fifths of surveyed operators say they purchase ready-to-use vegetables for ease of use, availability of clean product and time-savings. Furthermore, one-third of operators who do not use ready-to-eat vegetables are interested in purchasing them in the future. Primary reasons for not using them, however, include high price related to value, shelf life, freshness and quality.

“For a lot of operators, the desire to add more produce becomes more challenging, because it requires some level of skill and staff to prep,” says Webster of Menu Matters. “That is why more operators, particularly in QSR, are looking for value-added products.”

Don Odiorne, vice president, foodservice, Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, ID, notes fresh-cut potatoes are top-selling items. “The most recent foodservice recipes added to our website do not include a big protein portion, and many are ethnically-inspired.”

Baldor’s Walker expects a growing variety of value-added and pre-formatted products in the future and at all restaurant levels. “With increased labor costs in the U.S., restaurants are likely to over-index for labor-saving products like chopped onions. We’re already seeing this trickle down to fast casual.”

What Grocers Can Expect

Produce departments can expect changes in supply and packaging. Grower/shippers continue to add to their product lines for trendy value-added timesavers such as shaved Brussels sprouts, mixed deep greens and recipe-ready cauliflower crumbles. Packaging increasingly reflects local and/or sustainable practices. Produce items also may bear a state certification. New York, for example, is exploring a symbol or label for New York-grown that would communicate to shoppers the produce is New York-grown and GAP-certified and cultivated adhering to good agriculture practices and an Agriculture Environmental Management plan.

The trend toward vegetable-forward dishes is likely to have a greater impact behind the glass in the prepared foods department than in the produce department. Prepared foods continue to grow as shoppers turn to these growing sections rather than the produce department for quick-meal solutions. Foodservice companies play an important role in keeping the prepared foods department well stocked.

“We’ve been supplying stores with ready-to-eat entrées for about five years,” says Chef Neary of Crown 1 Enterprises. “Starchy side dishes used to be an area of high growth for us, but now shoppers are more into vegetable sides. We also dressed up classics, such as potato dishes, offering a five-color fingerling dish, for example, instead of plain roasted potatoes. Vegetable dishes have grown to about 15 percent of our cooked business.” He adds markets want to position themselves as culinary experts, whether with an in-store chef or by using a foodservice culinary department.

Produce departments need to be proactive to avoid losing ground to prepared foods. “While I observed more convenience packaging in the produce department, I don’t see an abundance of recipes or efforts in showing shoppers how to make vegetables the center of the plate,” says Jim Matorin, president, Smartketing, a Philadelphia-based market resource company. “Cauliflower, for example, is a hot item in restaurants, but it’s not actively promoted in the supermarket.”

Kelly Jacob, vice president, retail and emerging channels, Pro*Act USA, questions whether produce executives follow and jump on restaurant trends.

“Grocery stores historically react to consumer trend demands but rarely create them,” she says. “That said, since restaurant food dollar sales equal grocery sales for the first time ever, the blurring of channels between grocery, ‘grocerant,’ and restaurant is real. Smart folks will watch what cutting-edge chefs are doing. Those who find out and exploit the trends will find a point of differentiation and incremental sales. Even better, grocerants that start trends with fresh ingredients will give the restaurant industry a run for its money.”