Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis
Blueberries More Plentiful on Top Chain Menus, Adding Interest to Meals & Reflecting Consumer Demand
By Mark Villata, Executive Director Of The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council
Blueberries, once seen as “just another berry” that tastes great in muffins, have over the past six years been transformed in the eyes of restaurant operators to a new menu standard. Overall mentions of blueberries on 500 top chain restaurant menus have doubled, references to fresh blueberries have nearly tripled, and restaurants are using blueberries in more different types of dishes than ever before1.
What’s causing this striking shift? A number of factors, including the growing number of consumers who see blueberries as a little change they can make in pursuit of a healthy lifestyle and the expanding group of foodservice operators who discovered blueberries as a simple way to turn a commonplace dish into a great one.
The fact that blueberries show a stronger growth rate as far as overall mentions on 500 top chain menus than blackberries, raspberries and strawberries1 suggests greater appreciation of the dynamic combination of qualities they bring to the table: natural simplicity, nutritional benefits, great taste and amazing versatility.
While interest in classic items like blueberry muffins and pancakes hasn’t waned, today’s consumers want to eat blueberries in more adventurous ways; for example, cooked into meat dishes, sprinkled on salads, blended into salsas or smoothies. The chain restaurants surveyed are using blueberries in different types of dishes than ever before, with increased usage apparent across all restaurant segments and meal parts1. It seems each week, chefs and dietitians are bringing new blueberry items to restaurant menus.
Key areas of growth in the period 2007-2013 include non-alcoholic beverages and smoothies, where incidence of blueberry mentions increased 93 percent; entrees and salads, where incidence of blueberry mentions increased 66 percent; and dessert dishes, where incidence of blueberry mentions increased 45 percent1.
The upward trend in the dessert category is consistent with the finding that 60 percent of consumers now say they choose fruit for dessert at least once a week — more people than those who regularly opt for cookies (51 percent) or ice cream (47 percent)2.
While fresh and frozen blueberries are still the forms used most frequently, more chefs and product developers are experimenting with dishes featuring dried, freeze-dried, pureed and powdered blueberries.
As smoothie fever sweeps the nation, many chain restaurants are offering blueberry as an option and discovering the flavor is most popular with younger Gen-Y [or Millennial] customers. Menu incidence of blueberry mentions in smoothies increased 60 percent since 20071, with 54 percent of consumers overall3 and 63 percent of 18 to 24 year olds saying they find blueberry an appealing smoothie flavor4.
There is no shortage of reasons to love blueberries, but consumers rank health, taste and convenience as their favorite things about the fruit5.
And, for many consumers, the blueberry’s positive halo extends all the way to restaurants that serve them. When consumers see a blueberry item on a menu, 58 percent perceive it as healthier, 44 percent find it more appealing, 24 percent perceive the restaurant as offering healthy fare, and 20 percent are compelled to order that specific item5.
Among consumers and chain restaurants alike, interest in and usage of blueberries has never been greater. Blueberry marketers should capitalize on this trend by helping restaurants explore more unconventional ways to incorporate this dynamic fruit into their everyday offerings. Visit blueberrycouncil.org/foodservice for more information on blueberries in foodservice, restaurant-style recipes sourcing information and cooking tips.
The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council represents blueberry growers and packers in North and South America who market their blueberries in the United States and work to promote the growth and well-being of the entire blueberry industry. The blueberry industry is committed to providing blueberries that are grown, harvested, packed and shipped in clean, safe environments.
Big Lessons From Little Fruit
Research based on menu mentions is always difficult to interpret, particularly if one’s goal is to identify whether consumption of a particular item is increasing in foodservice. After all, though an increase in mentions on menus could indicate an item is featured in more menu items, it also could indicate other things.
Perhaps menu styles have changed to feature more descriptions of ingredients. Or, perhaps, positive news about an item has led restaurants to think highlighting it on the menu is a great idea, even without changing recipes at all.
Even if, in fact, increased menu mentions indicate that more items are being sold with a particular ingredient, we can’t tell how well they are actually selling or what percentage of the dish this ingredient represents.
If one’s interest is not strictly the sales of the particular ingredient but, rather, a broader interest in increasing produce consumption in foodservice, menu mentions are opaque in terms of interpreting the total composition of sales. Did more sales of blueberries at the restaurant level mean fewer sales of strawberries? Or did the produce category grow overall? One can’t really ascertain any of this from a study of menu mentions.
Still, blueberries are an incredible product, and one for which the stars seem to have aligned. The research highlights the trifecta of health benefits, good taste and convenience as powerful forces driving increased usage in foodservice and increased consumption overall.
We would add two more factors that have contributed to the success of blueberries in foodservice: Innovative packaging, such as the ready-to-eat pack that Naturipe Farms used to get McDonald’s to sell blueberries with oatmeal, has allowed for the product to enter new market segments.
In addition, imports from Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, New Zealand and Canada have exploded — thus making the integration of blueberries onto infrequently changing menus more plausible.
Of course, it is easier to surf if there is a good wave coming by, and kudos belong to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council for seeing the massive smoothie wave and riding it to glory. Hooking in on a hot culinary trend is a surefire way of building demand, and the blueberry industry is making it happen.
To increase demand, the industry needs to move beyond traditional usage patterns. This is especially true when some of those traditional uses — say blueberry muffins — are somewhat at odds with the healthy positioning that the industry is going for. And the whole effort of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council is right on target; it might as well be called “beyond blueberry pancakes….”
Not so obviously stated within this research is a hidden gem, a thought important to all produce marketers and an element that chefs and restaurateurs should pay mind to: The value of featuring an item can go beyond the sales and profit associated with that item directly. Featuring blueberries and other fresh produce items doesn’t just lead to sales of these items; it changes the consumer perception of the whole restaurant.
Years ago, the California Avocado Commission ran a series of ads that played off the famous Perception/Reality campaign, which Rolling Stone magazine used to run. In those ads, Rolling Stone would feature images such as an old Volkswagen mini bus on the left (perception) and a BMW on the right (reality), showing that although Rolling Stone might have been perceived as a rock anthem magazine from the counter-culture era, in fact its readers had high incomes and bought materialistic cars.
The California Avocado Commission ads would feature a plain food item, say a basic chicken sandwich, on the left. The ad would say something such as “Chicken sandwich: $1.99” and then on the right page, they would put the sandwich on a colorful plate, add a slice of avocado and declare it, “Chicken sandwich a la Mexicana: $3.49.”
The point? Small changes — a slice of avocado and a nice plate — can lead to big changes in perception.
So restaurants should lead with produce because that fresh, healthy image is what they want for the whole concept. This research by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council tells us that featuring this little fruit can warp the arc of consumer perception. That is an important lesson for restaurants and for produce marketers.