August, 2011

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Produce Takes Center Stage On Restaurant Menus

By Hudson Riehle, Senior Vice President, Research & Knowledge Group, National Restaurant Association

Restaurant menus have always been — and still are — driven by consumer demand as much as by chefs’ creativity. Today’s consumers have a more adventurous and sophisticated palate than ever before, and they are taking a stronger interest in what’s on their plate and where their food comes from. As a result, restaurants are blending new ideas in sourcing, nutrition and flavor profiles to create innovative menus — and produce is taking center stage.

No one has a better view of restaurant menu trends than the chefs of the nation’s nearly 1 million restaurants, and that is why the National Restaurant Association surveys these culinary professionals on what’s hot on restaurant menus.

The top trends this year — local sourcing, sustainability and nutrition — reflect wider societal trends and consumers’ growing interest in these issues. Many restaurants are sourcing seasonal fruit and vegetables locally, and you often see chefs shopping for fresh produce at farmer’s markets to create the menu options that today’s diners want.

The National Restaurant Association’s annual survey of more than 1,500 professional chefs (members of the American Culinary Federation) reveals that produce plays a central role on restaurant menus this year. Locally grown produce, restaurant gardens, farm-branded ingredients, organic produce and fruit/vegetable side items in kids’ meals all rank in the Top 20 trends. In addition, other high-ranking trends, such as nutritionally balanced children’s meals and culinary cocktails often feature fresh produce.

The leading culinary theme revealed by the survey is sustainability, which is ranked as the third hottest trend. Whether applied to produce, meat, seafood or alcoholic beverages, the concepts of environmentally friendly practices and local sourcing — farm-to-fork — are appealing to both restaurant operators and consumers for several reasons, including freshness, minimal transportation and supporting local communities and businesses.

Locally grown produce is sharing the top spot with locally sourced meats and seafood, with 86 percent of the chefs surveyed saying it’s a hot trend this year. Organic produce lands at number 14 out of the 226 items in the survey, with 72 percent of the chefs saying it’s a trend. Sixty-nine percent agreed fruit/vegetable side items in kids’ meals are a trend.

The NRA has been conducting the What’s Hot chef survey for five years, and locally grown produce has landed as the top or second hottest trend each year, demonstrating that it is a longer-term trend rather than a fad. This doesn’t mean that chefs and restaurateurs shun non-local produce; simply that sourcing local is a popular option that reflects consumer sentiment. According to National Restaurant Association research, more than two out of three (69 percent) American adults say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced food items. 

The chefs ranked 226 individual food/beverage items, preparation methods and culinary themes as a “hot trend,” “yesterday’s news,” or “perennial favorite” on restaurant menus in 2011. The chefs were also asked about “recession strategies,” operational trends and promoting nutrition.

One in five chefs (19 percent) said increasing the use of fresh produce options on menus is the most effective way for chefs and restaurateurs to best promote health and nutrition to guests. The top answer was to create diet-conscious menu selections (21 percent). The top operational trend is food trucks, followed by restaurants growing their own produce in rooftop, backyard or communal gardens.

The National Restaurant Association and Produce Marketing Association (PMA) also conducted research on opportunities for increased use of fresh produce on foodservice menus. The research shows that restaurant operators see fresh produce as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Nearly three out of four restaurant operators (72 percent) said emphasizing fresh produce in their marketing efforts drives more customers to their restaurant. In addition, 46 percent of restaurant operators said they look for fresh produce items that their customers cannot buy at their supermarket, including 78 percent of fine dining operators. Fifty-six percent of survey respondents serve locally sourced produce in their restaurants.

In addition, 67 percent of restaurant operators said they wish they had more options regarding fresh produce selections, while 60 percent of operators said they wish there was more information on how to incorporate fresh produce on their menu. Forty-one percent said they expect to serve more fresh produce in the next two years, while 56 percent said they expect to serve about the same amount.

What this translates to is that consumers, chefs and restaurant operators all want more fresh produce. Finding ways to open up opportunities between growers, distributors and restaurant operators will help make that happen, and we are working with the PMA and International Foodservice Distributors Association to break down some of the barriers.

The Door Is Ajar For Foodservice Sales

Survey research of a professional group is very helpful in understanding what is politically correct amongst members of the surveyed group. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily helpful in understanding what is actually happening in practice. This is especially true when one is surveying individuals without “weighting” them for size of operation. So if you survey the head chef at McDonald’s and he says that the chain is not planning on doing more organic, and you then survey nine chefs at various single unit restaurants and these nine chefs say they are planning on doing more organic, it is easy to get confused about reality when the survey result reads that 90 percent of chefs expect to do more organic this year.

What this research really shows is what a job the produce industry has in front of itself when it looks to bring some rationality to the approach that is now trendy among culinarians. After all, one might think chefs would care deeply about flavor. Logically, this would imply seeking out the perfect, ripest, most delicious produce — wherever it may be in season in the world.

One would think chefs would care about variety and the diversity in flavors that this brings. So they want avocados and citrus from across the country and mangos and bananas from around the world.

Of course, all intelligent people want to serve the principles they support rather than yielding to superficially plausible, but deeply flawed, ideas. So chefs, acting in the service of ideals such as the environmental aspects of sustainability, could be expected to reject simplistic and deceptive calculations such as “Food Miles” and insist on rigorous study in the form of lifecycle analysis before changing their procurement patterns in ways that will wind up being harmful to their environmental goals. For example, a study looked at the environmental impact when British consumers ate local lamb as opposed to imported lamb from New Zealand. It turned out that the most sustainable choice, though counter-intuitive, went to New Zealand, as commercial transportation in fully loaded ocean containers is highly efficient and lambs raised on New Zealand’s pastures — as opposed to feed-raising them on farms in densely populated England — accounted for a relatively small carbon footprint.

Of course, chefs would be concerned about food safety. But pathogens are an equal-opportunity problem for farms large and small. We know that today all large vendors maintain food safety departments, employ food safety experts and operate under multiple third-party audits. We also know that as nice a guy as a local small scale farmer may be, the personal financial consequences of deciding to not harvest a field because, say, a pig ran through it, are so great that the temptation to turn a blind eye to the problem is incredible.

Finally, large producers carry substantial liability insurance so if, despite best efforts, there ever is a problem, they are in a position to compensate the restaurant’s patrons for any damage caused. A small producer won’t typically carry enough insurance to make sure that happens. It is one thing if a restaurant tries to buy more locally through a Sysco or U.S. Foodservice... these distributors will still demand adherence to food safety standards and possession of liability insurance. But chefs who just go and “partner” with some small farm and place the name on the menu are courting disaster.

What chefs believe — true or false — matters both because they often control the purse strings on procurement and, also, because chefs are celebrities today, and their discourse on food affects the broader culture. Because changing minds is difficult, the produce industry is wise to find ways to integrate with this Weltanschauung. One way is by making sure definitions of local are broad enough to include things such as citrus and avocados from California and Florida. Another is by focusing on the authenticity of the farmer base wherever the produce is grown.

Our own research indicates that there is a gap between the way chefs use terms such as local and the way consumers do. Although chefs focus on the food and values such as sustainability, consumers often relate to local in an almost tribal manner. Go down to the south of England, right near the English channel and ask consumers about local and they will be enthusiastic advocates. We found this consistently in many focus groups. Yet if you ask them if they want to see a lot of produce from the north of France, just across the channel — in service of ideals they purport to endorse, such as sustainability, food miles, low carbon footprint etc. — they scream no, not at all. They much prefer produce from the hinterlands of Scotland, 800 miles away, than from France. If the industry wants to cater to the predispositions of consumers, a focus on the team — the county, the state, the USA — is likely to be more effective than a focus on carbon footprints.

We are at a rare moment in time. We have an activist President, obesity is a major public health issue, and concern about medical costs is pronounced. So restaurants and the National Restaurant Association are petrified that the powers that be will blame restaurants as the cause of the obesity crisis. That is why McDonald’s is suddenly trumpeting apple slices in Happy Meals and why the NRA is now partnering with IFDA and PMA to double produce consumption in foodservice.

This creates an opportunity for produce firms to market to foodservice. Items that previously would have been rejected as not popular enough, too expensive or just a pain in the neck will now be given a hearing. Changing the eating habits of a nation is not easy, but the door is slightly ajar. The produce industry ought to push hard to see if it will open.