Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis
Watermelon Featured On One In Ten U.S. Menus
By Megan Mckenna, Director Of Foodservice At National Watermelon Promotion Board
Watermelon on menus has grown by 27 percent in the past four years, according to a recent MenuTrends Research study commissioned by the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB) and conducted by Chicago-based Datassential. The database used in this study includes menus from more than 7,000 commercial restaurants including independents, regional chains, and national chains in all restaurant segments. The biennial research program allows NWPB to identify trends in foodservice, furthering its goals of education and ideation assistance to maximize watermelon usage and distinguish menu items.
Watermelon has progressed from “Adoption” to “Proliferation” in the usage-menu adoption cycle as independent and chain foodservice operators alike are embracing watermelon’s unique yet-versatile flavor profile. Chefs can pair watermelon with salty, savory, bitter and umami.
According to the study, watermelon is one of the fastest-growing fruits featured on salads with more than 100 percent 4-year growth. Proteins most commonly menued with watermelon are chicken and pork. In addition to watermelon offerings trends, the research also helps identify opportunities for new, innovative usage: Watermelon is featured most often on alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage menus. With the exception of side items, watermelon is expanding across the menu with appetizers experiencing the most rapid growth.
Using this information allows us to assist operators with recipe ideation to optimize consumption based on research-backed consumer preference.
Additional research highlights include the following:
• Watermelon ranks 24th among most popular fruits and 20th among fastest four-year growth.
• Watermelon is most often found on all day menus and has seen the largest growth on dinner menus.
• With the exception of side items, watermelon is expanding across the menu with appetizers experiencing the most rapid growth.
• All regions of the U.S. are experiencing increased use of watermelon.
• Watermelon is found more often on casual and fine dining menus.
• Despite being featured on only 1 percent of all dessert menus, watermelon is among one of the fastest-growing dessert fruits (34 percent 4-year growth)
• Watermelon is one of the fastest-growing fruit flavors in non-alcoholic beverages (29 percent 4-year growth).
• Watermelon is among the fastest-growing fruits in alcoholic beverages, up 39 percent over the past four years.
The National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB), based in Winter Springs, FL, was established in 1989 as an agricultural promotion group to promote watermelon in the United States and in various markets abroad. Funded through a self-mandated industry assessment paid by more than 1,500 watermelon producers, handlers and
Megan McKenna is the director of foodservice and marketing for the National Watermelon Promotion Board since December 2014, but in the produce industry since 2007. She works with decision-makers in foodservice such as culinary, marketing, purchasing, nutrition and more, to get more watermelon on menus.
Small Things Make A Big Difference
The news about watermelon is great. It especially bodes well for watermelon growers, the produce industry at large and for consumers who are experiencing watermelon more frequently when dining out. What it means for the future of produce consumption overall is uncertain.
The National Watermelon Board, working with Datassential, has utilized a four-step process by which foods gain currency on menus. It is called the Menu Adoption Cycle, and it goes from Inception — where menu items are mostly in fine dining or ethnic restaurants — to Adoption — where menu items move into fast casual and casual restaurants — to Proliferation — with menu items in casual chain restaurants and some quick service restaurants — and finally on to Ubiquity — where items are picked up in family restaurants and school cafeterias and similar enterprises. There is a similar path at retail, from specialty gourmet stores to dollar stores.
This is all very true, but not as illuminating as one would hope. In retrospect — after items become ubiquitous, we can trace this path — but there are loads of items that just never take off. Evan stalwart produce items, say pears, which have been around for decades, never run the cycle. We don’t really know why some items, say kale, boom, while others, say cucumbers, don’t.
As an industry, we also have to be careful about making too much of these statistics. It is very nice that menu mentions of, say, blood oranges have boomed, but what does that really mean? Does it mean a mention of a squeeze of blood orange juice or a slice of blood orange for color?
Beyond Penetration — the percentage of restaurants that serve the item — and Incidence — the percentage of menu items that feature a food, flavor or ingredient — the industry actually cares a lot about quantity. If a mention of a steak means a 32-ounce serving, and the mention of a blood orange only means a bit of juice on a salad, the increase in mentions won’t mean much in terms of sales or consumption.
Indeed, one issue with tracking menu mentions is that we can’t be sure if we are tracking actual changes in dishes served or changes in menu language trends. So maybe the roasted chicken was always served with a slice of orange as a garnish, but only now is the orange mentioned.
Another factor for the industry to take note of is the Watermelon Board’s research points to a divergence from what the industry has traditionally thought most important. Although the Watermelon Board, as with most of the produce industry, has thought it wise to focus on health in its marketing — lycopene and whatnot — the Number One penetration area for watermelon is not on the food side at all — it is alcoholic beverages. And that area has grown by 40 percent in the past four years. Now maybe the healthy image makes restaurant guests feel less guilty when drinking their alcohol, or maybe consumers don’t care much about the industry’s various health claims.
One thing the research also indicates is that an “all for one and one for all” industry strategy can often make sense. Watermelons are often featured with grapes, cantaloupe, pineapple, honeydew and strawberries in fruit cups and on platters. A broader assortment can help sell more of an item than if only the one item is available because consumers often enjoy variety. Different items provide different levels of flavor, different textures and whatnot — so avocados are the top “fruit” on salads, and their creaminess encourages purchase from people who might find solely conventional fruits to be too sweet.
The rapid growth of watermelon in foodservice also points out that small things can make a big difference. If the Watermelon Board can persuade a restaurant chain to add a single slice of watermelon as a side dish with a sandwich, or convert every chicken salad to a watermelon chicken salad, these small changes can mean big increases in sales and consumption.
Of course, the big issue for the produce industry is whether the growth we see in items such as watermelon actually means higher overall consumption. In other words, if consumers eat Rita’s Jolly Rancher Watermelon Italian Ice, does that simply mean that strawberry or lemon flavors are down? Do more salads being made with watermelon mean less protein in the salads? Or is it fewer berries or tomatoes? We don’t really know.
But, at the next convention, we can gather over a Watermelon Jalapeno Margarita and discuss the issue at length.