June, 2014

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Menu Analysis Shows New Twist On Old Favorites

By Maeve Webster, Senior Director, Datassential

There’s no question produce is playing a larger role in foodservice. Driven by several macro trends including the continued, and expanding, presence of better-for-you behavior, increased focus on local sourcing, ongoing price pressures with multiple proteins, and improved availability of a wide range of varietals, both operators and consumers are placing a greater emphasis on produce.

But, with an endless bounty of produce options available, chefs and other foodservice operators are looking to existing menu trends to gauge consumer interest and to ease customers into more innovative, adventurous produce options.

New Versions Of Old Favorites

The top-menued produce has stayed fairly consistent over the past few decades — onions (92%), tomatoes (86%), peppers (85%), and mushrooms (80%) have become basic, essential ingredients on the menu. As menu innovation both impacts and responds to consumer demand for new food experiences, operators are introducing new varietals and unique new options to increase interest, create new flavors, and leverage on-trend world cuisines.

But how does an operator keep the menu fresh and evolving without losing the appeal of those long-standing customer favorites? The answer is to find new and unique varietals of those very same customer favorites, giving the consumer a familiar, enjoyable ingredient while adding interest with new flavors, textures, and visual appeal.

Take mushrooms, for example. The vast majority of restaurants menu at least one item featuring mushrooms. As consumers became more comfortable with mushrooms, operators branched out, adding Portobellos (18%), Criminis (3%), and wild mushrooms (9%). Now, some of the fastest growing mushroom types are even more exotic — varieties like Black Trumpet, Hen of the Wood, and Oyster mushrooms.

Last year’s intense focus on kale (5%) can be traced back to the growth in menuing and appeal of spinach. As spinach (59%) saturated the market, operators looked for another dark green vegetable with an equally healthy perception that could be used in a wide variety of applications. Enter the year of kale and its rapid proliferation on the menu.

You can see this same type of menu evolution occurring with a wide variety of produce. Tomatoes transitioned from standard, often unnamed varieties to quality-driven, brand name varieties like San Marzano. Operators are also leveraging a rainbow of heritage varietals as well as countless hybrids featuring names as colorful as the fruit itself: Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, and Bull’s Heart.

Looking Abroad For Inspiration

While restaurants and other operators have an ever-expanding selection of domestically-grown fruits and vegetables available to them, the growth of world cuisines in the U.S. is providing even more produce inspiration — and more options. Americans are increasingly exposed to “new” cuisines such as Peruvian, Korean, Scandinavian and Filipino and, in turn, discovering new types of produce that were previously unknown and unavailable.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the growing array of peppers, hot and sweet, available on today’s menu. Operators are experimenting with new varieties from Central and South America, like Aji (<1%), Cascabel (<1%), Arbol (1%), and Guajillo (1%), while Ghost peppers (<1%) are delivering incredible heat from India. Meanwhile, Spain’s milder Piquillo (1%) adds a sweet heat to dishes as does the Shishito pepper (<1%) from Japan.

Fruit is not immune to this trend, with chefs scouring the globe for new, more adventurous options. Restaurants have introduced unique citrus varieties including Yuzu and Buddha’s Hand from Asia. As operators continue to experiment with sweet and savory combinations, the use of berries in savory applications is likely to increase — think berries from Scandinavia, such as Lingonberry and Cloudberries, adding a sweet and tart component to heritage or wild meats.

Digging Into The Archives

While much inspiration comes from abroad, some creativeness is driven by history, as on-trend chefs seek inspiration from recipes and ingredients that were popular decades, even a century, ago. Now everything old is new again. Items such as pickled vegetables and hand-foraged herbs, or "retro" dishes using deviled eggs — even Prohibition-era cocktails and speakeasies are back.

Which means, of course, that produce follows suit, with “classic” produce items used to create an authentically and accurate dish — vegetables like sorrel, salsify, watercress, and leeks, or fruits like kumquats, persimmons, and quinces. And as these ingredients find their way into operators’ kitchens, chefs are getting more adventurous with them; rhubarb, for example, can be found in everything from an old-fashioned strawberry rhubarb pie to innovative savory and beverage applications.

Key Takeaway
Inspiration can come from anywhere. It’s important to look at macro trends to understand how chefs are leveraging particular ingredients. Though produce certainly helps to elevate the perceived healthfulness of a dish, the ever expanding selection of fruits and vegetables available to restaurants provide an even more expansive palate from which to experiment and create.

Produce creates outstanding visual appeal, an endless array of textures, and a rainbow of colors. Whether drawing inspiration from heirloom varieties or looking abroad for authentic touches, produce can be a solid base for innovation.

Note: All percentages are penetration or percent of operators’ menuing from the annual Chains & Independents MenuTrends database, which covers just under 5,000 unique menus, from the largest national chains to small independent restaurants.

 

Looking For A Bigger Win

If the industry is going to get serious about using foodservice as a venue to boost consumption, the trade needs to invest in serious research to understand the behavioral effects of different produce offerings in restaurants.

This piece of research indicates two things clearly. First, there are boundless opportunities for individual companies to promote intriguing new items in the foodservice sector. Chefs yearn for innovative items by which they can distinguish their cuisine from others, and, especially in the white tablecloth sector where price points are high, chefs actively seek to differentiate their offerings from what patrons could get at more moderately priced chain restaurants.

Second, this research gives precious little credence to the idea that it is easy to increase total produce consumption or that the joint PMA/NRA/IFDA effort, launched in July of 2009 to double produce consumption in foodservice, has had any impact at all.

Most of these exciting new items appear in less than 2 percent of all menus. This is because they are used solely in specific ethnic dishes or because they are used solely by white-tablecloth chefs. Since, say, Thai restaurants are only a small percentage of all restaurants and white-tablecloth restaurants are less than 1 percent of the U.S. foodservice scene, neither of these approaches can effectively move the needle on consumption.

When there is a real breakthrough, as with kale, this research explains clearly the dynamic:

Last year’s intense focus on kale (5%) can be traced back to the growth in menuing and appeal of spinach. As spinach (59%) saturated the market, operators looked for another dark green vegetable with an equally healthy perception that could be used in a wide variety of applications. Enter the year of kale and its rapid proliferation on the menu.

This trend is great for anyone with a specific interest in selling kale, but for anyone interested in either the commercial interests of the produce industry in expanding sales or increasing public health through dietary change, there is nothing here. Some restaurants want to innovate, so they replace spinach with kale. Where is the win there?

Yet a paucity of data, plus an urge to self-congratulatory presentations, has led most assessments of success or failure on the issue of produce in foodservice to focus on facts of questionable relevance — such as menu mentions — or “case studies” that don’t assess all the relevant variables.

So a chef shows that his restaurant reimagined a dish, replaced a 1,500-calorie breaded Veal Parmesan on an ocean of spaghetti, covered it with cheese and with a few ounces of grilled veal and some vegetables. The restaurant announces that the new dish outsells the old. But the study never discusses whether it has changed eating habits or whether the same people who bought the Veal Parmesan are now switching their orders. It is quite likely that those who wanted the mega meal have switched to the equally gluttonous lasagna, and the grilled veal and vegetables are a switch from the salad set.

THE PMA/NRA/IFDA initiative was doomed from the start, because nobody had baseline data on how much produce was used in foodservice; therefore, nobody will be able to say what happened to usage in 10 years.

Furthermore, nobody is doing the kind of research that would really tell us if menu changes in restaurants make a difference. First we have to know if changing dishes can really change eating habits in the restaurant. Do people switch from the 16-ounce Veal Parm over pasta to the 3-ounce grilled veal and steamed vegetables if given the option? But that is not enough if we are interested in public health. Maybe the larger serving satiates hunger, and those people skip dessert. Maybe the fewer-calorie serving makes people feel they ate virtuously and so they can indulge in a banana split. Or maybe the lower-calorie choice leaves people raiding the fridge at 2 a.m.

Few are inclined to fund or conduct this kind of research, so at chef conclaves they give each other awards for reimagining dishes without any evidence that their efforts make any difference at all on produce usage or public health.

None of this takes anything at all away from chefs who use produce in an innovative manner or vendors and producers who work to introduce new items. If we didn’t do that, produce would be a bore, and sales and consumption would ultimately decline. It is just like saying that putting tail fins on a car may switch people to that model, but it probably won’t increase the overall number of cars sold over a long period of time.

So if the industry is going to get serious about using foodservice as a venue to boost consumption, the trade needs to invest in serious research to understand the behavioral effects of different produce offerings in restaurants. Otherwise every kale triumph will come at the cost of a spinach failure, and we will have accomplished little or nothing.