The Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference, is an extraordinary event as it is dedicated to finding ways to move the needle of produce consumption in foodservice.
This is easier theorized than done. After all, in order to sell more produce, in general, we need to sell more of specific produce items; yet foodservice is dominated by the sales of just PLOT: Potatoes, Lettuce, Onions and Tomatoes.
Retailers can sell anything, but a foodservice operator only sells what is on its menu. So the challenge is for produce companies to engage in menu development so they can persuade operators to integrate their items into the menu.
Yet few produce growing, packing or marketing organizations have the requisite culinary skills to actively engage in this process, and, even more than that, the economics of the industry discourage such investment. After all, if a broccoli marketer spends seven years persuading an operator to introduce a new broccoli-based dish, what assurance is there that the operator won’t buy from another vendor for a quarter cheaper. Or decide to use frozen product from another country?
These issues and more are on the table at this year’s edition of the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, and we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get us a sneak preview:
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND
Founder and President
Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, LLC
Q: We whole-heartedly welcome you back to the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum. Your presentations are always lively and rich with valuable information garnered from your diverse background.
A: I love the New York Produce Show and am honored to be included in the program again this year.
Q: You’ll certainly have much to contribute to this year’s theme, “The Process of Menu Item Development.” I understand you’ll be moderating a discussion panel: “Development and Refinement –Getting into the Kitchen and Working Out the Kinks,” featuring Peter Glander, corporate chef, Ruby Tuesday; Lisa McNeece, vice president of foodservice for Grimmway Foods; and Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale University Dining. In addition, you’ll be teaming up on a demo with Chef Suvir Saran, with whom you’ve developed a long-standing relationship. That should be worth the price of admission alone!
A: The whole setup for the Ideation Fresh this year with its focus on the process of menu development is a really important issue for anyone in the produce industry who wants to sell to foodservice. They need to understand unless you’re a fine dining chef with a menu that changes daily this is a very complex and long-term process. So the format of having three separate panels that are going to go in-depth on how the process works is a brilliant concept.
Menu item development is not like, “hey this chef has this idea, so I’m going to do something new with butternut squash, and I’m doing it this fall by putting it on the menu, and it’s going to be a limited time offer…” No, this takes a long time, and a lot of the folks participating in this conference understand this. However, for the people who are new to foodservice sales or those who just don’t understand the complexities of the operation and business service, how do you identify the next big thing on the menu if you’re McDonald’s USA, and the process is five to seven years out?
Q: Any help you can provide on that front?
A: The concept might start with what’s going to be the trend. What will people be looking for? We know health and wellness is trending a lot in terms of consumer perceptions with food today, but that’s a more complex issue as it relates to what’s good for me and my health. Now it is growing to what’s good for the health of the planet, and what about the health of the animals we’re eating…
So in identifying trends, you need to dig deeper, but we have the sense health and wellness continues to be a mega trend. Therefore, everyone is looking at putting more produce on the plate. But how that is done is the big challenge.
Q: Could you elaborate on why the menu item development process is five to seven years out for a big chain?
A: If you’re McDonald’s USA, and this is me speaking as Amy, as I’m not a McDonald’s spokesperson, if you’re that big in the marketplace doing something with a produce vendor, the very first thing you have to define is whether our supply team can get the volume we need, and then can we get it in a form to move it through our distribution system and into our restaurants, with the quality we demand; because not all produce moves through the system well with changes in temperature and what not.
From there, if we can get the volume and handle it well, with the value-added processing we need, and it’s going to have the shelf life… OK, if we’ve overcome those hurdles, will consumers buy it? That’s the scenario for McDonald’s.
Q: Do you have examples from your own experiences?
A: I can tell you, when I was with the California Walnut Commission, we did hear the stories of how it took five years to get an apple walnut salad on the menu. It was apples, grapes, yogurt and walnuts, a pretty simple formula and recipe, but can we get the consistent volumes we need? The year-round supply? Will consumers care if the apple variety changes? Can the walnuts be held, these temperature sensitive nuts, without going rancid?
So there were many obstacles to overcome with this simple offering, and it took five years. And they have to go through consumer testing afterwards. Will the consumer be willing to pay a price that makes this product profitable for the franchises?
Let’s say you’re a regional player and you want to put butternut squash on the menu. Are you going to go direct contract with the grower; is that grower going to be able to produce it; what’s your backup plan if there is a problem with an area because of very heavy rainfall, or the produce doesn’t sit well or there’s a shipping challenge? Is there a value-added form that cooks in your restaurant can handle? Are you working with a third-party supplier who is doing the recipes for you and you’re just caramelizing them? It’s a little different if you’re a smaller player, but still if you’re doing direct contract with the grower on a seasonal item, you’re looking at minimum 12 to 18 months out that you’re doing your forecasting.
And what about that kale that was so hot in 2014 and 2015? What if you’re ready to roll out a kale item in 2016, and the marketplace is done with kale? We’ve moved on, we want collard greens now, or cauliflower or whatever.
Q: With the logistical challenges you describe in dealing with fresh produce, does it still behoove foodservice operators to push for produce-centric dishes?
A: Yes. The health and wellness trend has been a mega trend for many years now, and it just continues to grow across all demographic segments. And then more so in certain segments. Millennials want to be sure what they’re choosing is good for me and good for the planet, so they are layering on aspects of sustainability.
But when you talk about fruits and vegetables, overwhelmingly, people immediately go, oh, they’re good for me, and there’s not a lot of drama.
Q: What do you mean by drama?
A: When you think about the big hot button issues for consumers right now, produce doesn’t touch on any of them.
Q: What big hot button issues are you referring to?
A: Consumers are concerned about animal welfare, antibiotics and growth hormones; they’re concerned about biotechnology and genetic modification, but the produce industry is mostly immune from those issues.
Q: Isn’t that a good thing?
A: Yes. It’s an absolute positive. Produce is positioned to continue to grow in the marketplace. But the big challenge is that produce gets taken for granted in a lot of places. For example, in a traditional restaurant kitchen, the person who cooks the meat has the highest rank and is paid the most. Grilling and seasoning a piece of meat is fairly easy when talking techniques, and you can use a thermometer to determine that steak is rare, medium or well. There are definitive ways to determine doneness, you’ve got the beautiful color… you put on a little seasoning, or pepper, and you’re done.
On the produce side, that’s where the least experienced person, who’s paid the least in that kitchen, winds up. You’re on salad prep; you’re on produce prep. Well, that’s where you need the most culinary technique and experience because produce isn’t very consistent. Making something delicious takes some effort; it takes some creativity. It takes utilization of techniques from around the world.
Raw spinach isn’t the same as cooked spinach, so you’ve got to have more talent there. We haven’t elevated produce to the level where people give it the respect it deserves.
Q: I imagine you and Chef Suvir Saran will be doing just that.
A: Chef Suvir and I are working on a PRODUCE BUSINESS article that will come out in December. This is one of the points we make there. A side of steamed vegetables is not acceptable. Anybody who does that in foodservice should be embarrassed. You’ve got to do more to make that look beautiful. OK, steamed vegetables, yeah, you can get a great pop of color, but to get aromas to entice the diner to take the first bite and the second bite and to order that again, you’ve got to try harder, so that’s what we’re going to be talking about on stage. But I don’t want to give too much away.
Q: Could you give us a taste of what attendees can look forward to?
A: You can take something like the humble green bean and turn into the most alluring, seductive, tempting thing on a plate. Part of that is the ingredients you choose, part of it is the technique, and part of it is how you describe it. Chef Suvir does these green beans with toasted coconut; the green beans are blanched, and then they’re stir-fried, and you’ve got mustard seeds and chilies, and you finish it with the toasted coconut.
The toasted coconut is the real key because toasted coconut aroma — just think of a macaroon or a coconut cream pie — when that’s put on green beans, you say wow, I am really interested in trying that. It gives you a whole different perspective on green beans.
So we’re going to go through about five different dishes in 45 minutes to give produce the respect it deserves. Taking some time and attention, looking at world cuisines, and thinking about the words we choose when describing something on a menu, when a server is standing next to a table talking about an item, or when it’s on a menu board in a quick service restaurant.
All of this matters. We have to capture people’s attention and seduce them; that’s one of Suvir’s terms he loves to use. How do get people to want something? This is classic marketing within the food space. You have to be very careful and thoughtful and reflective.
Q: How complicated is it to learn these techniques and pull off these creative items? Does it require hiring a much higher level expert or extensive training?
A: No. It’s just taking commitment, anyone on menu development, anyone who’s in charge of a culinary team, to focus and slow down, and say, hey, we’re going to put more care and effort into this; we’re going to try new techniques, but it’s not going to require new training or equipment. We’re just going to do things with produce we haven’t done before. Instead of every vegetable steamed and tossed in garlic butter and put on the plate, we’re going to change them seasonally and use roasting techniques, and look at how caramelization can improve the flavor and texture of something.
We’re going to use some spices, some herbs, some aromatics so that when food is brought out to a dining room or put on a serving line at a college campus dining environment, the aromas are making people feel there’s something exciting going on.
Q: This whole discussion is taking concepts from a high-end fine dining experience and translating them to more mainstream channels…
A: Absolutely. In high schools across the country, they’re roasting some carrots. Roasting is an awesome technique. When you oven-roast a vegetable, in a little oil, even something simple like some pepper and Italian seasoning, once you start roasting something, you get what is called the browning reaction, you get those caramelized edges and you get the sweetness from the natural sugars in the item.
But if the high school says, we’re going to roast all of our vegetables at 9:00 in the morning and start putting them on the line at 10:30 and we’re going to hold them until the last student goes through at 1:30, all of a sudden you’ve killed the benefit of taking the time to roast them. It needs to be done in batches so the flavor is brought out, and you still maintain that crispy exterior and texture. So some of this process is just slowing down and taking a little more time and care and effort.
Giving the example of high schools, people think they have so little time and so little money, and labor and equipment. And all of that’s true. But if you really care about students eating more fruits and vegetables, then you have to care how they are prepared and presented. That’s true in any environment, whether it’s our home kitchens, campus dining, or restaurants. You want food to look good, to taste good, and to smell good.
Q: Can we tie in your background and give attendees meeting you for the first time a sense of who you are, and how it’s informed your industry guidance?
A: I love for people to understand who I am because I’m not your typical dietician. I’ve always been interested in culinary. I really am a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota. My business name, Farmer’s Daughter Consulting isn’t clever; it’s just a descriptor of who I am. I spent seven years at the Culinary Institute of America, where I was immersed in these issues, learning ways to make food that’s better for you more craveable and delicious.
Q: Tell us more about your collaboration with Chef Suvir Saran.
A: I’ve been working with Suvir eight years now. We’re like a brother and sister team on stage. We work well together. We think a lot alike, but we also have areas where we disagree, which make things kind of lively for an audience.
Q: Where are you compatible on thought process, and I can’t help but ask, where do you disagree? What are some of the debates you have?
A: We both believe you have to give all this more attention and more effort. But Suvir will go to a point of time and effort that I know is no longer practical.
Suvir also is very much a fan of the very small local producer, and I’m a fan of all forms of farming. Our global food system needs everybody. We need very large scale, very efficient, and we also need small scale. We need farmers people can meet at the farmer’s market and know them by name. We want people connected in that way. But we also need more efficiencies in the system to continue driving quality, to continue pushing for health and wellness with these better-for-you items, with produce being part of that.
We need to insure food is affordable, so no matter who you are, you can buy high quality, good-foryou food. And that doesn’t mean fancy preparations, and I’m not talking about the level of fine dining, but that you can go into a QSR and get a great salad, just as easily as you can go into Whole Foods and buy it there.
Q: So, you’re trying to democratize fresh produce, drawing in the masses, while Chef Saran is more an idealist, with a drive for perfection? It sounds like you’ve developed an endearing relationship…
A: It is a really meaningful relationship for me. When we first met, I was kind of offended by some these things he was saying, thinking, who is this man? And over the years, I just adore him, and I welcome any opportunity to work with him. He’s very inspiring, and he pushes me, and he’s very complimentary and warm and caring. I get a lot out of our opportunities to work together.
Q: How did you first meet, and why were you offended?
A: I met him at the PMA Foodservice Conference. He was on stage making some crazy claims about health and wellness. Whether he realized it or not, he was making false claims to the audience. He was talking about turmeric, the spice that gives curry powder its yellow color, and saying it cures cancer. I said, no. That’s when I decided I needed to work with him and set him straight!
Q: That’s funny. You do hear many unscientific health claims bantered around these days… Actually, there’s a strong contingency in the produce industry that questions the marketing virtues of playing up the health attributes of produce, perhaps actually turning people off when they hear the words, it’s good for you… What is your view on that?
A: People inherently know fruits and vegetables are good for them, but how do we get them to fill their plates with them? We should show them how, or give them opportunities to try them in new ways to say, wow this is awesome, I want more of this, versus I should eat more of this because it’s good for me.
I’m not a believer of tricking people, of hiding fruits and vegetables in food, but can you put better quality produce on a club sandwich or a burger, or a ham and cheese, whatever? Can you create sauces and dips out of fruits and vegetables that add to the deliciousness and improve the texture?
I had a burger in a restaurant yesterday where the bun was dry. Why do they do that? Is a whole bunch of mayo the solution? If they had offered a roasted red pepper spread, that would have been awesome. I understand that this was a midscale family restaurant, but you have to try a little harder in food. I could go on and on.
Q: What is the key message you want people at the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum to embrace?
A: If you’re in the produce industry and want to do a better job selling your product in foodservice, you need to attend this event because it’s going to help you better understand what’s going on in the minds of chefs and menu developers.
On the flip side, if you’re a culinary professional or a foodservice professional, you need to be there because you’re going to leave with a ton of new ideas, you’re going to leave inspired, you’re going to have connections with people who believe in the power of produce as much as you do.
We need more of us working on this, standing together in solidarity to move the needle on produce consumption in this country. There’s huge potential, and a lot of room for leaders in this space on the culinary side.
It was Cornell’s Ed McLaughlin, who is spearheading this year’s Foundational Excellence program, who introduced us to a graph that showed a 100-year history of the percentage of dollars spent on foodservice as opposed to retail. The growth has been on the foodservice side. Though, as they say, past experience is no guarantee of future results — still, that is the way to bet.
Obviously this is a program for foodservice operators, but retail foodservice is the hottest part of the food retailing business, so every food retailer should be a part of this program as well. And, of course the production base that is searching for better ways to engage with the foodservice sector should also engage in this conversation.
Request an invitation to the Foundational Excellence program here.
Register for a discounted hotel room at our headquarters hotel, right here.
Get travel discounts here.
So come to New York, help us build demand for produce in foodservice — then try some of the hottest produce centric New York restaurants on the free nights!