February, 2008

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

The Zen Of Dining Out Healthfully

National Restaurant Association (NRA) recently reported that four of five consumers think going out to a restaurant is a better use of their time than cooking and cleaning up. Let’s face it — eating out largely boils down to wanting to achieve time efficiencies and be entertained, not to wanting to count fruit and vegetable servings. Nonetheless, the ever-present buzz surrounding more healthful eating can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

Operators, suppliers and diners alike recognize that as eating out increases, increasing fruit and vegetable options on menus is also necessary to maintain health and wellness. Enjoyable, timesaving and nutritious meals eaten out — can there be balance?

In our latest consumer survey, Produce Marketing Association (PMA) finds harmony in variety. Working with Opinion Dynamics Corporation, PMA conducted a national telephone survey in October of 1,000 primary shoppers on their produce preferences specifically at casual and white tablecloth restaurants. We find that the more menu parts into which we can insert fruits and vegetables, the more Americans will eat, and the less guilt they will feel about indulging and the more enjoyable their dining experiences will be.

I’ve written before of the role produce plays in steering diners to a location. These results reinforce that, and they look further at where we might have our biggest impact. Our diners put a premium on the presence of fresh produce on the menu when deciding where to dine — 58 percent say this is important to their restaurant selection.

They also prefer ethnic cuisines when dining out, including Italian, Chinese and Mexican (which tied with American). All of these cuisines also happen to be naturally rich in fruits and vegetables. While their tastes run to what were once considered the “exotic” side of dining, respondents nonetheless associate these cuisines most often with “staple” produce items, including tomatoes, beans, broccoli, onions, carrots and “salad.”

Driven by the changing demographics of 21st century America and the demand for more authenticity in what we eat, these once broadly defined ethnic restaurant categories are splintering. Americans want their meals spiced up with tastes, textures and colors. Even today’s ingredients in fast-food salads would have been unthinkable a decade ago. More matters!

As you make plans for 2008, remember that PMA’s annual consumer trends conference will focus on the opportunities being presented by the exploding popularity of ethnic cuisines. In particular, the 2008 Produce Solutions Conference in April will look at Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican cuisines and consumers. For more information, visit www.pma.com/psc. Conference registrants will also receive a 1-year subscription to PMA’s consumer surveys.

While the flavorful aspect of produce is very much on consumers’ minds while dining out, health appears to be less so. Only 15 percent of respondents say they request more healthful meal substitutions most of the time, while 78 percent say they do so only occasionally. When they do make healthful substitutions, their preference is produce; of those people making substitutions, 24 percent request fresh fruits or vegetables all or most of the time and 65 percent do so some of the time. Our diners tend to think more healthfully in the middle of the day than at the end. They report a much greater likelihood of ordering an entrée salad at lunch than dinner, and over one-quarter are not likely at all to order a salad for dinner.

Action item: Think of the marketing opportunities you have as a consumer. Have you ever asked a waiter for a fresh fruit dessert option when none is offered on the menu? I make a point of asking for mixed berries whenever I want a dessert while eating out. I learned that early in my career, at the elbow of two produce marketing greats: Jack Pandol, who asked for fresh fruit in the middle of winter (to promote awareness of the Chilean deal), and Joe Stubbs, who prompted every waiter to add a slice of lemon (preferably Sunkist!) to his water.

Foodservice remains a huge opportunity for fresh fruits and vegetables — from seeking ways for guests to substitute and customize their meals to add more fruits and vegetables, to identifying underserved meal parts and developing innovative dishes that dish up healthful and exotic flavors.

In our quest to meet diners’ wishes for pleasure, convenience and health, we must balance our nutrition and produce marketing hats. A majority — 53 percent — doesn’t want nutritional information to be in their face on menu listings but rather be available upon request — and it should come as no surprise that 40 percent report they never choose fruit for dessert (after all, how many restaurants offer a fruit dessert option?).

As much as we would like to see menus scream with fresh produce and guests to gobble up healthful fruits and vegetables, the reality is we are a nation heavy into indulgence and don’t want to be constantly reminded of portion sizes and calorie counts. The fact that a dish is also healthful should be the icing on the cake. The onus is on our industry to continue collaborating with menu developers to increase the variety of fruit and vegetable dishes and menu options; meals that offer exotic flavors, introduce different produce from what’s always used at home, and deliver a sense of indulgence. We must meet busy Americans dining out where their mouths are. After all, it’s just good karma.

What Does 'Fresh' Mean?

What does “going out to a restaurant” mean? The same National Restaurant Association that tells us four out of five consumers think going out to a restaurant is a better use of their time than cooking and cleaning up also tells us that back in 2001, what the restaurant industry calls “off-premises” — takeout and delivery — accounted for 58 percent of total restaurant traffic. (That number is likely much higher today.)

What does “casual dining” mean and does the word “dine” bias answers when many times consumers view their restaurant adventure as a form of refueling?

We wonder about the significance of the word “fresh” when Bryan writes: “Our diners put a premium on the presence of fresh produce on the menu when deciding where to dine — 58 percent say this is important to their restaurant selection.” We have some uncertainty as to what that means.

Perhaps they like to go to restaurants that offer a lot of obviously fresh items, such as entrée salads and many choices of fresh vegetables. It might mean that if they order items with fresh produce — a salad or a burger topped with lettuce, tomato and onion — they want the produce to be high quality and crispy — fresh being shorthand for quality.

Or could they be saying they want all the side dishes to be fresh as opposed to frozen or canned? One wonders if they could really tell the difference in a lot of cases.

Maybe they want the cooking to be done with fresh produce, say french fries made from potatoes cut, peeled and fried in house. They want soups made with fresh vegetables.

It is impossible to know without further research. One of the dangers of having a goal in research — such as learning consumer attitudes toward fresh — is we sometimes use words without really knowing what the consumer means in answering our questions.

Sometimes a word is just a throwaway. Next time we do such a survey, we should try to divide the respondents and ask some to rank the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables on the menu and some to rank the importance of fruits and vegetables on the menu. We could also try other qualifiers such as “healthful.” This would enable us to judge if we need to work on consumer perceptions of fresh vs. frozen or canned items.

One key place where the produce industry can help itself is recipe development in ethnic food areas. Bryan’s comments about consumer enthusiasm for Italian, Chinese and Mexican, as well as cuisines growing fast in popularity, such as the Vietnamese cuisine that is being discussed at PMA’s Produce Solutions Conference, points less to the popularity of ethnic cuisines than to the mainstreaming of these foods into American cuisine.

Just as nobody thinks of Frankfurt, Germany, when eating a hot dog (frankfurter), or Hamburg, Germany, when eating a hamburger, few foods are more American than pizza. In fact, chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and chains such as California Pizza Kitchen have developed countless pizzas no one in Italy would recognize as Italian food.

Relatively few ethnic restaurants are focused on authentically duplicating the eating experience of the home country. The trend is to both fusion cuisine — combining attributes of different cuisines — or a kind of nouvelle cuisine of ethnic foods, a re-imagining of dishes to use ingredients and equipment that were never available back home. This opens the door for the produce industry to suggest usages that, though true to the spirit of the cuisine, are light years away from anything Grandma or Grandpa would have recognized.

The issue of health and produce in restaurants also needs to be explored in greater depth. Of those 89 percent who request to substitute and add in fresh fruit or vegetables items at least sometimes — how many are requesting a second vegetable portion rather than a starch, such as pasta, rice or, most of the time, a potato. Perhaps they were all on Atkins when they made the request. We would also like to see research that distinguishes between those seeking weight loss and those seeking health enhancement.

Bryan makes a strong point about the power industry members possess as consumers. As a father, this author has tried to prod restaurants to alter the children’s menu to include more healthful options — grilled chicken instead of deep fried; peas, carrots and corn, in addition to a starch; fresh fruit for dessert instead of a scoop of ice cream. Generally if they have it, they will substitute.

If we regularly go to an independent restaurant so the owners know us, they will even inventory a new item and change the menu — assuming we are reasonably representative of what parents want. We have found they are often quicker to add canned peas or pears to the menu — knowing they can store it — than fresh fruit or vegetables.

The industry must confront a broader problem, namely consumers’ unprompted responses usually focus on protein. Most casual dining chains will report customer comment cards focus almost exclusively on the protein. Was the steak, chicken, fish plentiful, well cooked, good quality, delicious? As long as that is the focus of consumer comment, the inclination will be for restaurants to put their money into the protein, fill up the plate with the cheapest starch they can find and then add a couple stalks of asparagus and a cherry tomato for color.

Restaurants are pretty responsive to consumers. If we get consumers to really care — not just say they care — about eating more fresh produce, bet the restaurant menu problem will take care of itself.