November, 2009

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Coloring Between Holiday Tradition And Everyday

Later this month, American families like mine will sit down together for a Thanksgiving holiday dinner — one with turkey piled high on the plate, served with perennial favorite side dishes including stuffing and mashed potatoes, followed by pumpkin pie. Mine will also have spinach casserole, steamed broccoli, fresh mushroom and onion gravy and more. Few meals in this country are as traditional as an American Thanksgiving.

For me, the tradition is still fairly new:

Time: my first Thanksgiving dinner, 1977

Place: a University of Chicago faculty member’s home in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side

Reason: I was a fresh-off-the-plane overseas graduate student with nowhere else to go — and no idea of what, or to whom, thanks were being given

State of mind: bewilderment beforehand, indigestion afterwards

So this holiday provides the perfect backdrop to update you on a new initiative for the produce and foodservice sectors to significantly change other traditional meals: ones served away from home. I first wrote about the initiative here in May, right after it was announced by Produce Marketing Association (PMA), National Restaurant Association and International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA). We now have concrete and exciting news to share from the project, as detailed in a new two-part report.

The first part summarizes research conducted for the partners by National Restaurant Association’s research group in April and June. That research included a quantitative survey of a nationwide sample of 500 restaurant operators with fresh produce purchasing authority and qualitative interviews with 10 major chains’ purchasing executives.

The research found that opportunities abound to increase fresh produce use on restaurant menus. Produce is already seen as a way to draw diners and to differentiate one’s operation from its competition. More than 40 percent plan to serve more produce in the next two years; 56 percent will serve at least the same amount.

Yet unfilled demand remains; a majority of operators said they wish they had more fresh produce options, and three-fifths noted they wished there was more information on how to incorporate fresh produce on their menu. Top interests include local sourcing and food safety.

The second part of the report documents an “executive think tank” discussion of leading produce, operator and distributor executives convened by the associations in late July to discuss the operator research. Our panel set a goal to double produce usage in foodservice by 2020, and identified five priority strategies to work toward that goal:

• Re-imagine the restaurant experience, with produce having a stronger presence and telling its story from field-to-fork;

• Increase consumer confidence in fresh produce, including product safety, trust and integrity;

• Demonstrate social responsibility, balancing the needs of people, the planet and profitability;

• Foster closer collaboration among the industry sectors, including operators, distributors and grower/shippers;

• Foster closer collaboration with government and other stakeholders.

The think tank panel report documents the panel’s day-long gathering, including: analysis of the forces working for and against increased produce usage in foodservice; rationale for setting an ambitious goal to galvanize action; discussion of the five strategies.

This portion of the report details some of the discussion the group members had along the way, including the importance of telling industry’s story, the role of an increasingly regional food system, and that a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work across a diverse foodservice industry with 70 categories. The executives also stressed the need to better define collaborating as much more than just reporting — working together to find mutual solutions, rather than talking at each other.

The work of the new Foodservice 2020 Steering Committee we’re creating to bring our three associations together won’t be easy given our goal: to focus on the five priority areas and thus drive changes within the foodservice sector that will double produce use in the next decade.

Changing the traditional Thanksgiving meal is not our target. Our future will not be made of choices that are “either/or” but will be filled with many that are “both/and” — let’s learn to color between the extremities. Occasional gluttony observed as family and societal tradition is as old as humankind. But driving food choices to reflect changing consumer demands and needs on most other days of the year is a recognition that we can shape what we offer most of the time — for healthier menus, healthier consumers and healthier business.

I wish you and your families a joyous and healthful Thanksgiving holiday.

Up Hill Battle

PMA, IFDA and NRA deserve praise for daring to attempt a great thing that would do much good for the produce industry, for the foodservice industry and the health of hundreds of millions of people. One wonders, however, what it could possibly mean for foodservice operators to say that they “wished they had more fresh produce options” and that they “wished there was more information on how to incorporate fresh produce on their menu.”

Certainly, large vendors will do back flips to respond to information requests from companies like McDonald’s, so what kind of information could top experts on the buy side be lacking? And with the explosion of counter-seasonal imports and the growth of fresh-cuts, there are more options than ever before. So what options are they missing?

Perhaps this is just an expression of a wish list. Buyers would like to know where to buy locally grown musk melons in Boston year-round, and a way to offer a mango steak that won’t leave customers asking: Where’s the beef? But this doesn’t seem like the way real world business people address real world business problems.

Sure, the production end of the business can always do better and offer more options and more information. Yet there is something about this kind of feedback that leaves this columnist wondering if buyers aren’t telling us what they think we want to hear or what they think they ought to say.

We suspect the truth is that though associations such as the National Restaurant Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association can see a great strategic reason for restaurants to be considered as advocates for increasing fresh produce consumption — after all, that would align their industries with the angels, those looking to improve public health — actual menu decisions are not usually prompted by such concerns.

Oh sure, it may be true that McDonald’s keeps salad items on its menu, selling at a level that would be completely unacceptable for a hamburger, but McDonald’s is the poster child for bad health-promoting food and a giant global corporation very sensitive to political concerns.

Besides, although the goal may be to double fresh produce usage in foodservice, most would consider that goal a waste if it came about through a lot of produce being ordered by foodservice operators, even served, but not consumed. Anyone with small children, who has had the opportunity to spend time at the school cafeteria, sees this dynamic clearly. The school can prepare that succotash, it can even force every child to accept it on the plate, but, in the end, the school can’t force the children eat it.

There are certainly concepts, say Darden’s Season’s 52, where produce is crucial. For the most part, though, produce is caught in the middle. The protein is what causes the sale and what the consumer evaluates. The starch fills up both the plate and the stomach inexpensively. That leaves produce, in most mainstream concepts, as an accent, adding color and texture.

The key to increasing produce consumption at foodservice is to change the nature of the entrée so that produce is the main event and the protein becomes the accent — a stir-fry is a perfect example.

Many consumers will find these types of produce-rich foods very satisfying — a stir fry, many salads with some protein accents, pita pockets filled with vegetables, etc. — and they are ideal for foodservice because many consumers would find gathering all the varieties of produce and all the chopping and dicing off-putting.

Far be it for us to argue that the industry shouldn’t help to “re-imagine the restaurant experience” or against “demonstrating social responsibility,” “collaborating with stakeholders” and the industry “telling its story,” but the typical restaurant out there puts things on its menu for more prosaic reasons — the items taste good and they sell.

Although associations — PMA in produce and NRA and IFDA on the foodservice operator and distributor side — have their own reasons for heralding initiatives and, of course, better information from operators only helps, our sense is we are really surveying the wrong people.

Doubling usage of fresh produce in a meaningful way means doubling consumption, so we better be talking to consumers about what holds them back from ordering and eating more fresh produce. We should be looking at consumer-friendly initiatives such as allowing consumers to get an old favorite dish if they try a new produce item and they don’t like it.

We also need to consider if we are really true to the story we tell. If we attract people to eating produce based on its health benefits and then slather the vegetables in a calorie-rich sauce or dressing, it is a kind of bait-and-switch.

There are lots of great foods focused on produce, but we should not underestimate the difficulty of the task ahead. All over the world, in widely varying cultures, as the people become more prosperous they eat a diet higher in calories and richer in meat. One suspects that this “westernized” diet must answer to very deep needs, both cultural and biological, to have such universal success.

Europe and Canada both have higher per-capita produce consumption than the United States, but if we wanted to list the cultures that have reduced protein consumption to consume more produce, we would have a short list indeed.