We have long focused on finding the angle that will lead to higher produce consumption. With decades of health promotion behind us, we feel comfortable in saying that selling fruits and vegetables as if they are medicine is not the answer.
As when we wrote in a piece titled, Two Cheers For Bacon, it has become clear to us that other ingredients and sophisticated culinary techniques have to be used to make produce taste better. We once wrote a piece titled Wendy’s Wake Up Call, where we mentioned that Wendy’s abandonment of fresh fruit salad was entirely unnecessary; it just had to add chocolate dipping sauce and it would have had a hit on its hand!
The IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum, a special event held the day after the trade show at The New York Produce Show and Conference, is specifically dedicated to help the foodservice industry find a way to increase produce consumption. This is the fifth year of the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum, and it has become increasingly clear that we also cannot rely on individual produce items becoming the “flavor of the month” to boost consumption.
Kale may boom, but all too often it just replaces spinach as a side with no net impact on produce consumption.
It seems the most likely path toward changing consumption patterns is to change the kind of dishes we serve to more plant-centric dishes. This has happened at upper-end restaurants and is slowly filtering down to the fast casual segment.
We have had many participants at the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum who are very far ahead of the curve and we ran a piece highlighting Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen, but we have been frustrated as many of these concepts seem to stop short of going mainstream.
So when we learned about a chef working for a mainstream foodservice distributor who is focused on researching and understanding the trends driving foodservice, and who believes that Veg-Centric Cuisine is the cuisine of the future, we were thrilled that he was willing to come to New York and speak at the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum for the second year in a row — this time as our keynote speaker.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get a ”sneak preview” of what Chef Garry Ludwig would talk about in New York:
Q: We are excited you will be sharing your latest research and strategic insights at this year’s IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum — identifying ways innovative restaurants are reinventing menus and pushing traditional boundaries with vegetable-centric cuisine. Veg-centric is a term you pre-emptively coined and advocated early on as an important emerging trend, to help your customers gain a competitive edge.
For this sneak preview piece, could you start by describing the scope of your job as Corporate Consulting Chef for Gordon Food Service?
A: My responsibility is to research and analyze consumer dining trends. Then we use that information for a variety of things. First and foremost, to keep all our customers in foodservice informed on the leading trends and the evolution of trends. We also use that information to create recipes to pull trends through their menus. Plus we use the information to incorporate in articles and marketing pieces internally for Gordon Food Service, as well as industry publications.
I’ve been a columnist and editorial board member for Flavor & The Menu magazine. I also do a significant amount of speaking at national conferences and industry events throughout the year. The New York Produce Show and Conference is really a great example.
Q: At Gordon Food Service, how do you translate your research to menu development? What players in the operations are involved in the process? Who do you partner with?
A: We do have a corporate test kitchen chef. He and I do the ideation together based on our trend analysis. He does the actual R&D on our menu resources. I really don’t do any direct customer work. Gordon Food Service is a $10 billion company encompassing the majority of the United States and Canada. My job is to do the analysis and create resources that are executed on the street level by our subject matter experts in our various divisions.
Q: How do you research and track trends?
A: What we do is a little bit unique, particularly in the foodservice distribution segment, because we base all of our trend analysis and resource creation on our own proprietary research, which we conduct each year. Obviously, everyone has limited available resources. Based on that, we shoot to focus on the evolving trends we see in new restaurants in the three primary trend rating cities in the United States, which in our experience have proven to be New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
It involves a tremendous amount of due diligence executed on a daily basis throughout the year. We very closely follow websites, emails, blogs, printed materials, and track restaurant activity in these three trend-driving cities, culminating in extensive onsite visits.
Q: Your focus on New York will certainly play to a captive audience at IDEATION FRESH, in addition to your Los Angeles and Chicago target markets, but could you be missing innovative hot spots and up-and-coming restaurant concepts generating a stir in other regions of the country?
A: Due to limited time and treasure, we really do have to concentrate on the largest cities. We’d like to research Miami, Austin, New Orleans and Portland, etc., but we only have so much time and treasure. Why new restaurants? While it’s intuitively obvious, those are the places most likely doing things a little bit differently than what we’ve seen before.
Q: Will you be revealing new research at the Foodservice Forum to give attendees a cutting edge advantage?
A: We’re going to be doing our next round of research in November and December, which makes things extremely exciting for the Foodservice Forum. I will have just completed my latest internal research in New York a couple of weeks before the conference.
It is my intention to have the framework of the presentation based on proven trends, predominantly this unbelievable surge in veg-centric menus, but I’m going to weave this latest research through the presentation, so people can truly see what is on the leading edge in new restaurant menus.
Q: Could you walk us through your research process?
A: Right now I’ve been tracking restaurant activity in all three cities. I’m currently working on what will be our first internal research in Chicago the first week of November. I’ve identified 113 restaurants that really qualify as new establishments that might be able to provide seeds for new ideas, and show us new variations on the leading edge trends.
However, in each of those cities, we’re only able to visit about three dozen in the space of that week. I’m in the process of researching those 113 websites, and based on what I find, the philosophy of the restaurant, its mission statement and menu, I’ll whittle down that number to 36, and that happens for each of the cities.
In November and December, we will go to those three cities, each of the 36 restaurants, and basically dine our way through the menu, scan the menu, photograph and document every one of the dishes we taste, and then talk with everyone within that establishment who will talk to us — management, chefs, wait staff, regarding their restaurant, their philosophy, the new approach they are taking as far as their specific menu theme, as well as any observations they may have of the restaurant environment in their cities.
Q: How do you absorb and analyze all that information and varying sensory experiences? And are you comparing and contextualizing it to past research and trends?
A: Once we’re through the entire process, we’ll have personally visited well over 100 restaurants, and on average we taste between 1,200 and 1,400 dishes. We’ve been doing this for 14 years now. What that does for us, we’re really digging in and making sure we are carefully targeting the leading edge of menu innovation and going to these same cities year after year. It gives us a very accurate street level real world view of what is happening with the evolution of food, menus and trends in these major cities.
Q: It can be tough in cosmopolitan cities like New York with myriad restaurant options to stay fresh and relevant. How can your research keep foodservice operators ahead of the curve?
A: For example, one of the foodservice trade magazines recently had an article about the emerging trend in meatless, vegetable-based sandwiches, using the term veg-centric, and in fact we first reported on what we call meatless and matchless sandwiches as a result of our 2014 research. So it truly does allow us to stay on that leading edge of those trends because we’re getting into these restaurants within a year, sometimes within just months of their opening.
Q: So it’s always new restaurants? You never go back to follow how a restaurant has evolved?
A: Every once in a blue moon there will be the exception that proves the rule. And it’s kind of interesting because probably the preeminent example of that involved a restaurant that is so tremendously innovative in creating unique vegetable-based dishes. It’s called Gjelina in Venice, California, and we’ve been visiting them every two years. They opened six years ago. The chef is Travis Lett, and he really is the father of vegetable-centric cuisine in the casual segment in mainstream dining.
You could make a strong argument that the genesis of veg-centric cuisine started with Charlie Trotter. He was the first chef who really took vegetables and pulled them into the center of the plate in a meaningful way. The only thing is that Charlie Trotter’s cuisine was at the very top echelons of haute cuisine and not really accessible to the general public.
Q: What makes Gjelina stand out?
A: The veg-centric dishes Chef Lett created when Gjelina opened included 16 different vegetable dishes offered daily at $7 each, and now $9 each, which is an unbelievable bargain, when you consider the freshness and the skill that goes into the preparation of the dishes. It was a game-changer as far as fresh produce was concerned. That is probably the prime exception to our rule, only visiting a restaurant once, where we went back every other year to watch how he was evolving his menu.
If there were ever Gordon Food Service customers in the Los Angeles area, we would either take them there personally or steer them to that restaurant so they could see what was happening with this unbelievable trend, where produce is no longer playing a supporting role and actually establishing itself in the same way proteins are in the center of the plate.
Q: How is this concept connecting to consumer demand?
A: Forget about the fact we’re doing a preview piece for the New York Produce Show, and this is a primary topic. If you were just an interviewer calling me and saying, talk to me about the most significant trends driving the commercial foodservice today, the number one trend I’d talk about is vegetable centricity. And how a growing number of chefs today are now finally following Travis Lett’s lead and adopting this veg-centric mindset, to give produce its rightful spot in the center of the plate.
You ask how it relates to consumer acceptance. It’s really interesting, I do believe, as you work your way through the various demographic groups, the younger the group the more health conscious they are. However, while vegetable-centric cuisine carries with it a healthy halo, it is much more than about health, and it is very different than vegetarian cuisine.
Q: In what ways?
A: The primary reason being that not only many, but the majority of the veg-centric dishes we see contain some kind of protein elements. I don’t think if you were going to create broad, long lasting mass appeal for veg-centric cuisine, you could do it strictly with produce, just as you couldn’t serve just protein on the plate. It truly involves taking all of those elements and combining them in innovative ways. The protein as opposed to the produce now takes a supporting role.
This may involve taking a little crumble of a highly flavored sausage, or thin slices of a flavorful ham. There are many seafood ingredients used in veg-centric cuisine; small amounts of shell fish, fish roe, definitely anchovy and anchovy paste. Why are you adding it to the dish? To make it more fishy, no, but to bring out the flavors of the produce.
Q: Doesn’t this strategy change the conventional thinking on who to target with veg-centric dishes?
A: We know statistically, through three decades of consumer research, the number of vegetarians in America never really rises above the three percent level. It fluctuates between two and three percent of the population at any given time. That said, if you’re a college or university, vegetarian cuisine is definitely more of an opportunity because that particular group of diners, college age kids in a university environment, is more prone to eat vegetarian. If you decide to focus on a vegetarian group in a commercial setting, that is definitely a sales opportunity. But for the rest of the full service segment or channel, vegetarian is not one of the greatest sales opportunities.
Veg-centric cuisine on the other hand really presents an opportunity to appeal to that other 97 to 98 percent of the consumer dining community that would eat more vegetable-based dishes in restaurants if only they had flavors as compelling as their protein-based counterpart. That truly is the sea change we are seeing with the veg-centric trend.
It’s always important to have a meatless dish on your menu to satisfy those folks who look for something that doesn’t have a meat element, whether they’re doing that for moral or nutritional reasons. It’s satisfying a niche demand. I am in the business of bringing concepts and trends to operators that are going to appeal to a very, very wide base, and to present something new to diners they haven’t seen before.
Q: You’ll be addressing foodservice produce executives across the supply chain and in different channels. What advice do you have for the produce industry to best capitalize on this veg-centric phenomenon?
A: I will say this time and time again, and it gets down to one of the main messages I have for attendees during my presentation at the Foodservice Forum. That is, as chefs have changed their mindset to a veg-centric one, I truly believe produce marketers, suppliers and growers need to change their mindset as well.
For better or worse, when I hear presentations from leadership and authorities within the produce community, there’s often this semi-apologetic mindset that produce is the supporting product on the menu. It’s always, how can we get people to eat more produce and how can we make it more appealing.
There is no reason why produce on the menu should be less appealing than meat items. There’s no reason why you can’t make produce every bit as appealing and indulgent as the meat. Believe me, at full service restaurants, you want those items to be indulgent. You want produce to be a treat, not something the diner might necessarily be able to prepare at home.
We all need to change our mindset and stop thinking of produce as an adjunct to meat-based items on the menu. We’ve seen one chef blaze the trail, but we are now seeing a legion of chefs following that lead.
I am an unapologetic carnivore. I am a meat-eater. And the veg-centric dishes I’ve tasted in these restaurants in these past couple of years and in the past six years, I’ve never, ever missed the meat. Never did I say, oh, this would be great if only there were eight ounces of meat in the center of this plate.
So the real opportunity now is to bring to the dining public these produce-based dishes that, believe me, consumers will come back time and time again for, using the same kind of cooking techniques and skill chefs are using in protein-based dishes.
Q: Where do you see veg-centric five to ten years from now?
A: It’s my personal belief that we’re just on the very bleeding edge of innovation in the veg-centric space, and it’s a macro trend playing out for at least the next decade and potently influencing commercial venues.
Q: Is it more complicated or challenging for chefs to switch over to veg-centric from the meat-centric side?
A: Let’s put it this way: Is creating a really craveable produce dish more complicated than a really craveable protein-based dish? I would say no. Is creating a more veg-centric dish more complicated then serving steamed broccoli with hollandaise or creamed spinach? Most definitely.
That is the difference. For the chefs creating veg-centric dishes on their menu, the vast majority are eliminating the side dish part of the menu. They’re now building an entirely new menu category with these innovative vegetable dishes. And these are pulled up higher on the menu, rather than relegated to that classic menu part of side dishes, which are traditionally at the bottom of the menu.
Q: Are they marketed as vegetable dishes?
A: Yes. And as you read the menu descriptions, you’ll see in this particular dish, the vegetables were poached in a chicken stock, accompanied by house-made chorizo, or this one is topped with thin slices of a Spanish ham.
There was this wonderful new restaurant in Los Angeles called Cadette. The chef on his vegetable menu had spears of Belgian endive poached in a chicken stock, and layered in between paper thin slices of grilled country ham and then topped with gruyere cheese, but it was listed as a vegetable dish because it was truly the chicken stock-poached Belgian endive that was considered the center of that plate.
Q: Do you have some favorites in New York?
A: If you really look at the leaders in this emerging trend, what I would consider one of disciples of Gjelina’s veg-centric cuisine, is Chalk Point Kitchen in Soho, New York. You’ll be in for a treat. What chef Joel Isidori did there was create a category — vegetables to share, squarely in the middle of his menu. He just started serving lunch, but I’ll only talk about what I experienced when I visited. On the dinner menu, every day, there are 18 different vegetable dishes to share.
Likewise, in the West Village in New York, there is Via Carota, an Italian gastro pub. The two chefs, Rita Sodi and her partner and chef Jodi Williams, have established a category they call vergeure, an Italian term for green or fresh or spring, once again right in the center of the menu.
They don’t take reservations and it’s an explosively popular restaurant, so if you want to avoid very long waits, I would get there when they open at 5:30 pm, because by 6:00, they’ve already got a line, unless you don’t mind standing around with a cocktail for a couple of hours.
These are not only examples of how chefs are innovating their menus, but showing there is absolutely rising consumer interest and acceptance of these vegetable-type dishes.
In our research this past year, where within three major cities we visited 108 restaurants, there were 16 that abandoned the category of side dishes at the bottom of the menu, and had established vegetable categories. Did they all have 18 different vegetables dishes on their menus? No, but they had 4, 6 or 8 different ones.
Q: Could you elaborate on techniques chefs are using to boost taste and flavor profiles when moving produce to the center of the plate?
A: At the heart of veg-centric cuisine is treating vegetables in the same way you treat proteins, be it chicken, fish, etc. You employ the same aggressive cooking techniques that in the past chefs basically reserved for their meat-based dishes. So we’re seeing a lot of pan searing and frying, and wood grilling and smoking to intensify the flavor of the vegetables; caramelizing, smoking, and charring them as much as possible.
The other key element is pulling the vegetables and to a lesser degree fruit to the center of the plate, and then using protein elements in very creative ways to round out the flavor of the dish. In that realm, chefs are now increasingly using the technique of cooking the vegetables in a meat-based stock or broth before they assemble the plate to increase the substantiality of the vegetable itself.
Q: In addition to the veg-centric theme, could you pinpoint other key trends related to produce?
A: An off-shoot of veg-centric that is produce-related is the tremendous creativity around meatless sandwiches in commercial restaurants. Once again, if you go to a whole food restaurant, you’re going to find vegetable sandwiches, but now we’re seeing mainstream commercial restaurants creating vegetable-based sandwiches and weaving in all sorts of unbelievable flavors, and having a lot of success with those, whereas the rest of the menu is not necessarily produce- or health-related.
One quick example… there’s a fried chicken shack in Chicago called Parsons Chicken and Fish. They do a roasted vegetable sandwich, and the ingredients change with the seasons. When we were there, the sandwich was basically layers of house roasted beets, roasted eggplant, a variety of greens, and a brightly flavored cream cheese.
While it wasn’t a vegan sandwich, it was vegetable-based. Oh, and before they closed the sandwich, they drizzled it with a sherry vinaigrette, which they made in house. When we tasted this on our research trip to Parsons, it was such an unbelievably delicious sandwich; there was no way you’d wish there was a slice of ham on it. It was just beautiful in its meatless form. We’re seeing examples of that all over the country.
Q: Could you pinpoint the new, hot produce items?
A: First off, I want to say, there is nothing new under the sun. So everything we see is going to be based on taking familiar or somewhat familiar produce items and really giving them a new twist. For the past few years, the top items were kale and Brussels sprouts.
The biggest innovations we’ve seen have been with carrots and cauliflower. I truly believe we’ve seen the last peeled carrot in commercial casual and casual upscale dining for restaurants dong it correctly. Carrots are served in their natural state with the stem on; they have little hairs, and if they’re bumpy, even better. And then they are very aggressively roasted and caramelized.
Contrary to the old likes, if you served a whole vegetable unpeeled, people would run screaming. Now consumers are being attracted to these carrot dishes in their most rustic state. And I think that speaks to the freshness, farm to table. Even though you could ship that carrot across the country, it speaks to local when you see it in that rustic and natural state.
The most desirable carrots today are the least uniform, and have the little gnarly bumps and root shoots. That’s what chefs are looking for and consumers are gravitating to.
Q: And what’s happening with cauliflower?
A: Bigger is better. We’re seeing whole cauliflower served at tables and cauliflower steak, which has been around for a while, and now creatively cauliflower wedges, following the wedge salad trend. We’re seeing cauliflower being cut into large wedges and grilled, roasted or cooked in meat-based stock and served in the center of the dish.
We’re also seeing a lot of sunchokes being used, much more than in the past. Primarily, chefs are taking the sunchokes and scrubbing them up, splitting them in half, oven roasting them, and giving them a flavorful sauce or condiment treatment.
Another vegetable emerging is cabbage, which is really exciting, because cabbage has always been considered a bland vegetable ingredient associated with stuffed cabbage or corned beef and cabbage. It’s now being cut in large wedges, wood-grilled or oven-roasted until it’s extremely caramelized and then brushed with various sauces and glazes leaked into the cabbage leaves to give a tremendous flavor.
We’re seeing examples where chefs are taking whole heads of cabbage and putting them in a barbeque smoker like they do for ribs. Smoke it for hours and cook it down until it’s nice and soft, and serve the whole head at the table.
Q: Could you talk more about how these trends differ based on demographics, restaurant channel, and price?
A: Price we won’t talk about that much. What I think is more significant are the demographics and the restaurant segments or channels. That said, I do believe if you appeal to the younger demographics, the opportunities with fresh produce do increase, although baby boomers still have the vast amount of spending power, particularly when it comes to full service restaurants.
Baby boomers are flocking to this vegetable-centric trend. But once again, just based on what we’ve seen with the behavior of millennials and gen z, if you target the younger demographics, it becomes easier to weave produce through the menu.
As far as the restaurant segments, the sweet spot for veg-centric is truly full service, when you take into account the creativity, the labor, etc., that’s required to properly execute a vegetable-centric dish. However, when you look at fast casual, there are a lot of very high power chefs working in that segment now. I believe they will be taking a look at what’s happening with the veg-centric trend in full service and pulling that into fast casual as time goes on. I can’t speak to QSR because I don’t research that segment.
Q: What about ethnic trends, and the fusion of cultural food traditions?
A: We are seeing a lot of different influences in veg-centric. We are doing our best to abandon the term ethnic. I think a turning point was with Chef Roy Choi, who developed the Korean taco trucks. America has always been a melting pot, and that’s true more than ever with all these cultural groups immigrating to the U.S. And he said we have to come up with a better terminology than ethnic because Korean people don’t consider Korean food to be ethnic. That really resonated with me. So the term we’re using going forward is global as opposed to ethnic.
We’re seeing the integration of many international cooking techniques. Chalk Point Kitchen’s veg-centric cuisine is heavily influenced by Latin and Asian cues. A lot of global cuisines are based on starting with starches and vegetables and building in a little bit of protein, so veg-centric is a bit inspired by those global cooking traditions. Of course, from a demographic standpoint, millennials and gen z’s are global-savvy. One of the other macro trends we’re seeing is globe streaming, where what used to be obscure ingredients are turning mainstream.
Q: What is involved in developing menu items that give your customers a unique edge amid a highly competitive landscape?
A: Through a couple of decades of research, sitting down opening a menu and having someone take your order and serve it to you, particularly in a full service restaurant, is not a frequent dining experience. The average American only dines in a full service casual restaurant 21 times a year. They dine in a full service family style about the same amount. It adds up to be only a couple of times a month.
When people are going to a full service restaurant, they give it a whole lot more thought than when they’re going to a McDonalds or Wendy’s, which the average American does two to two-and-half times a week.
The thing we know is when consumers are making a decision on where to dine at a full service restaurant, the two most meaningful things they’re looking for are, one, the types of foods and flavors they can’t easily execute at home. But secondly, and even more significantly, what matters to consumers is looking for foods and dishes and flavors they cannot find at another restaurant in their area.
That may seem intuitively obviously, but it’s not that easy to make happen. You really have to keep your eye on the ball. And ask yourself, is my competition doing something similar, because most likely your chance to gain that competitive edge is going to be eroded.
Make differentiation a primary goal in development. That is the best way you’re going to beat your competition. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you have to do something that is a little bit different than consumers have seen in the past, and it’s got to be different than your competition.
A lot of times I’ve developed a new menu concept and we’ve given it to customers. Do I recommend you put this on your menu? The first thing you need to find out, has anyone in your direct competitive area jumped on it first, because if they have, find something else.
Q: Do you think independent restaurants can out-maneuver the big chains on veg-centric as a winning differentiator?
A: Veg-centric is emerging from the independent restaurant segment. Traditionally, chains are the followers. The classic example of that is the lettuce wrap. The whole idea came from Betelnut restaurant in San Francisco. Someone from one of the chains, and I’m not naming any names, saw that, and they took the concept nationwide.
That happens day in and day out. The chains are followers. Opportunity for independent operators today to capitalize on the vegetable-centric concept is prime because I’m not sure how long it’s going to be before you see the chains jump on it. But they are a trailing indicator, and it’s going to take some time before they wake up to this trend.
Q: Aren’t there more challenges in dealing with fresh produce, the perishability, seasonality, volatility with pricing, as well as availability issues particularly confronting the big chains? Could you talk about balancing trends, new/interesting items and forward-thinking concepts with logistical realities?
A: In my opinion if you develop an item with produce, I understand availability is challenging with seasonality and all. I’ll tell you, if you go to a restaurant in Chicago in the wintertime, you have a hard time finding a tomato on the menu. I suppose that could be a good thing, but so many produce items have year-round availability.
If you’re going to have a cauliflower wedge on your menu, you’re probably going to be sourcing cauliflower from wherever it happens to be, but you’ll get it. However, there are going to be elements of those dishes that are more seasonal.
If I were a chain operator, or a chain corporate chef, I’d develop veg-centric concepts primarily built around the territorial monthly, year-type produce, and tweak those dishes according to what sorts of things are available. Seasonally, you’ve got all these multi-colored peppers, but if they’re out of season, you might just be using a green pepper instead of all the colorful ones.
I think regardless of what segment you’re in, and that includes fast casual and the big casual chains, there are formulas you can develop and tweak those recipes just enough to keep them on the menu for an extended period of a time.
Q: What are some of your most successful produce-related recipes/menus?
A: We’ve had a lot of fun with a number of different citrus items as the category has expanded, granted that’s wintertime and mostly seasonal, whether Meyer lemons or blood oranges, pulling citrus to the center of the plate. One of the best examples, using whatever seasonal oranges you have, clementines or tangelos, etc., segmenting and slicing them for a savory dish, using a vinaigrette, and garnishing the plate with pickled vegetables, so dynamite together.
Another concept is creating vegetable tartars. Steak and lamb tartars, and the various chopped seafood, Ahi tuna tartars are huge on menus. You can do the same things with vegetables; many times it’s going to be the root-type vegetables. You can use a mandolin slicer for very fine julienne, and create a micro fine dice of the vegetables, toss in a flavorful dressing or sauce, perhaps give them some type of crunchy element and turn them into a beautiful vegetable tartar.
We’re also seeing a lot of vegetable-based schnitzels, the Austrian term for taking a thin slice of meat, breading it and pan frying. If you’re part of the Midwest, a classic schnitzel is breaded pork tenderloin. If you’re in Spain or South America or Mexico, that same dish would be called a milanesa.
If you were in Japan, tonkatsu. You’ve got all these different variations, and now rather than thin slices of pork, veal or chicken, chefs are making vegetable schnitzel. For example, using eggplants, and slicing very, very thin. We’ve seen several chefs making schnitzel out of celery root, where they poach the celery root bulb in a meat-based broth to add flavor, slicing thin, breading and pan frying. The same thing is happening with colored beets, roasting them, cutting them thin for a beet schnitzel, as well as sliced thicker or in logs, and deep-fried served as a bar snack. Those are some cool examples.
Q: When you’re building these concepts, who are your target customers, and what feedback do you receive?
A: We’re a broad line foodservice distributor. The sweet spot for us, our largest and most profitable segment, is the full service independent, mid-scale to casual upscale operator. These folks are constantly looking for trend information as well as fresh ideas, so this is where the information primarily flows to. However, as dining consumers are becoming more sophisticated, they’re demanding better flavors in food at noncommercial places, be that hospital cafeterias or universities, and because Americans are getting older, needing long term care and assisted living, where the food really used to be an afterthought, we’re seeing a lot of great innovation and higher quality food in those segments. They’re also looking to us to provide innovation to help them improve their menus.
Q: What input have you received on trends like local, organic, fair trade and sustainability?
A: From everything we’ve seen, I don’t think dining consumers are as engaged as far as organic is concerned, especially since reports are showing organic produce cannot be proven healthier for you, and secondly it’s not necessarily more environmentally friendly from a carbon footprint standpoint to produce it. I don’t see organic that relevant anymore.
Obviously local is huge, but there’s only a certain level you can reach in a commercial restaurant as far as utilizing local produce, unless you don’t ever want to serve tropical fruit or citrus or things like that. But people do value when local corn is in, and it’s absolutely sweet as sugar, or local tomatoes or berries, etc. Here in southwest Michigan, we are kind of a breadbasket for fresh stone fruit and berries, but the strawberry season is three or four weeks. From a realistic standpoint, there is only so much of that you can do.
Fair trade I can’t really speak to, as I haven’t done a lot of research on that. Sustainability is like Jell-O on a tree. If you ask people about sustainability, they can’t define it, I don’t know if I can. We’re seeing more and more chefs moving from root to stem cooking, and I will be talking about that in my presentation.
Briefly, chefs are now treating fresh produce in the same way chefs treat an entire animal, using as much of the plant as possible. And they’re using very innovative ways to make that happen, seasoning and roasting and simmering vegetable peelings to turn them into vegetable broths, taking fruit peelings to make a topping on a dessert, or pickling charred stems and rinds. Not only breaking up the stems and tops in small pieces as a sprinkle garnish, but incorporating them back into the dishes.
Awhile back, dining consumers would have been offended by that. Now we’re finding because they are more interested in sustainable food and practices, they like the idea if you’re serving roasted carrots there might be some of the tops lightly sautéed and tossed into the dish.
Q: Has the increased attention on health and nutrition dietary issues/addressing the obesity epidemic influenced your menu development?
A: It all depends on dining frequency. Because all service dining is an infrequent experience and is the place where people are most likely to treat themselves, I’m not saying health concerns are non-existent, but they’re going to be less focused on the health aspect. Whereas when you get to the fast casual and QSR, the sweet spot there is fast casual — although it’s difficult to get statistics where it breaks out fast casual from quick service dining or fast food, because those are much more frequent dining experiences. I think there is an opportunity there to capitalize on diners’ desires to have something healthier beyond burgers and fries.
Q: What is the overriding point you want attendees to take away from your talk?
A: The main point, and it may sound simple, but everyone needs to get it in their heads that produce is no longer the supporting act. These are no longer products taking second stage to proteins. The time has come where there’s this convergence in consumer dining interest in consuming more fruits and vegetables, along with this increased creativity from chefs, creating the perfect storm for the rise of veg-centric cuisine in foodservice.
This truly is a rather comprehensive answer to this long sought-after thing I’ve seen from presentations in the produce industry, how can we get dining consumers to eat more produce. The first thing you have to do is stop throwing yourself into the idea that produce items are supporting products. They are squarely in the center of the plate.
Q: What advice do you have for restaurant executives to excite their diners and draw in new ones?
A: If you’re innovating your menus with veg-centric dishes, I would try and trumpet it, especially if the restaurants in your direct competitive area are not doing it. And you cannot over-promise and under-deliver. You have to be sure the dishes you’re doing have the complexity and flavor, and the excellent execution, so when people come to your restaurant and taste them, you truly deliver on that promise.
Q: And what advice do you have for produce suppliers wanting to build their presence in foodservice? Where do you see the biggest growth opportunities for the produce industry?
A: The products you’re supplying have all the potential to be menu superstars. They are not to be relegated to a small part at the bottom of the menu.
We look at statistical tools from these different organizations telling us at any given time what diners are looking for. The only problem with statistics is they are trailing indicators. By the time you apply numbers to a dining trend, the opportunity to be on the leading edge and create true menu differentiation is over. That is why almost exclusively the menu development and trend analysis we do is based on this street level research.
It really boils down to spending all of this time — hundreds of hours between identifying the restaurants, whittling them down to the ones that are best — and actually going out and visiting them. I think the reason you don’t see other people doing the same thing is because it’s just too much work. Of course, the other tricky part is creating our own conclusions, looking at patterns and putting our heads on the chopping block and saying this is what’s going to happen. Nobody was telling me veg-centric was emerging as a macro trend for the next decade.
Come and be a part of the discussion on how we, as individuals, as companies and as an industry can move together to boost produce consumption both to expand the industry and to improve the health of the general public.
You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference and the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum right here.
The IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum is held at The New York Hilton, which is the headquarters hotel for The New York Produce show and Conference. You can reserve your room in our discounted room block here.
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