What Will Watermelon Do Next on American Menus?

Originally printed in the July 2023 issue of Produce Business.

When it comes to seasonal produce use on American menus, watermelon is a classic go-to summer fruit for many chefs and menu developers. From a customer expectation point of view, watermelon is an easy ingredient to include on menus. Most people know and love watermelon. Nearly everyone surveyed by Datassential (98%) knows what watermelon is, more than nine out of 10 (92%) have tried it, and more than eight out of 10 (84%) say they love it or like it.

But despite familiarity and appeal, watermelon has a long way to go to achieve ubiquity on American menus. According to insights from Datassential, the most common menu mentions for watermelon are in salads and frozen desserts. Menu penetration has grown from 8.3% in 2013 to 15.1% today. While growth has been steady, it has also been slow for this well-loved and recognized fruit.

Datassential predicts strong growth for watermelon over the next four years. Colleen McClellan, director of client solutions at Datassential, reports watermelon’s growth on menus “is predicted to outperform 97% of all other foods, beverages and ingredients over the next four years.” But, at its current rate, even with strong growth projections, watermelon will appear on less than one in five menus by 2027.

There are few regional differences among watermelon’s use, ranging from the low of 14.2% of menus in the Midwest to the high of 16.6% in the South. There are interesting differences in the type of restaurants that feature watermelon. Use is lowest with fast casual (9.0%) and quick service restaurants (QSRs, 9.7%). The highest use is in casual dining restaurants (20.9%) followed by fine dining (17.9%).

There is definitely room for watermelon to be used in more ways on more menus in all regions of the country. Chef Rebecca Peizer, a former faculty member at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, chef/owner of All Things Culinary LLC in Napa, CA, and a consultant to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, believes watermelon can and should be used across all day parts, menu parts, and in all types of foodservice operations. Peizer has done culinary development work with watermelon the past year to showcase its versatility.

Committed to reducing food waste in professional kitchens, Peizer points out that 90% of a watermelon is usable fruit, but there are many ways for savvy chefs and culinary teams to use the rind and peel. Watermelon rind can be grated and used as a substitute for papaya in a green papaya salad, or cooked and used as a gluten-free noodle. She laughed when I asked about pickling the rind, pointing out everyone in the South knows about pickled watermelon rinds, but that chefs in other parts of the country may not yet have tried that full product utilization trick.

She discusses the power of the rind when juiced and then used as a souring agent, pointing out it is not as sour as lime juice, but still helps with flavor balance in vinaigrettes and cold salads. She has also used it to make kombucha.

And, she adds, “watermelon skin is gorgeous. It can be used as a plate garnish in place of banana leaves, or cut into strips, tied, and used as a garnish for cocktails.” Clearly, this chef is not short on creative ideas.

While watermelon growth has been steady, it has also been slow for this well-loved and recognized fruit.

Discussing innovative ways to use the fruit, Peizer describes her work compressing the fruit. “When you compress the watermelon, you concentrate the flavor and change the texture,” she explains. “It can be compressed and served raw for something like watermelon carpaccio, or grilled, roasted or hot smoked.”

“Smoked watermelon is a wonderful replacement for pork in bao buns,” she asserts. “And compressed watermelon, served cold, can be a great vegan substitute for tuna.”

Watermelon pairings can be used to develop new menu concepts. Peizer likes pairing watermelon with seafood, like scallops and langoustines, as well as pork and lamb. She also points out the power of the classic Middle Eastern pairing of watermelon and feta. “The sweet of watermelon balances the salty flavors in many dishes.”

Our final few minutes of conversation focused on juicing and straining the fruit. “If I juice it for a sauce, like barbecue sauce, I like the pulpy texture,” said Peizer. “But I can also strain the pulpy juice and make fruit leather or add pectin and sugar to make watermelon jelly to use as a donut filling, for example.”
Her final comment focused on using personal size watermelons as the vessel for serving festive cocktails. Yes, chef, that sounds great. I’ll take one!

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. She is the culinary and foodservice strategist for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, the retail nutrition marketing and foodservice specialist for the Buy California Marketing Agreement/CA GROWN, a member of the Texas A&M Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture AgriLife External Advisory Board, a member of the Bayer Vegetable Seeds Horticultural Advisory Council, and co-author of Cooking á la Heart, a 500-recipe cookbook based on plant-forward eating cultures from around the world.. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on social media @AmyMyrdalMiller.