One can’t think of the New York produce scene without thinking about restaurants and the broader foodservice industry. But one also can’t think about produce, about increasing consumption and about public health, without thinking about the USDA’s efforts to move produce to half the plate. It was with all this in mind that we made an announcement: IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum Unveiled: New Conference Will Tackle MyPlate Challenge At The New York Produce Show.
Our idea was to assemble an intimate group of industry players who would think hard about how to turn a government concept into a reality. After all, the world won’t change its eating habits on demand, the industry will have to make that happen. Fortunately we have a dynamic lady ready to instruct, inspire and encourage the effort to make the dream of increased produce consumption a reality — and to help us create a future that is not only healthy, but delicious as well. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get a sense of what the effort in New York will actually be like:
Q: We’re excited you will be speaking at the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum as part of The New York Produce Show and Conference. Could you preview the key points you’ll be raising? What are your thoughts on USDA’s MyPlate initiative, and how does this fit operationally within the foodservice industry?
A: We at CIA have known for many years we have to inspire the produce foodservice industry side to increase produce consumption to meet dietary goals. MyPlate is a fantastic visual cue of what a meal should look like; half should be fruits and vegetables. When talking about MyPlate to foodservice operators, we say the French phrase mise en place, which is used in professional kitchens when organizing ingredients and other components required for preparing menu items.
We try to translate the visual of the plate to what’s meaningful to a chef or menu planner. A fast service menu developer will say, ‘we’re doing more handheld and grab-and-go items.’ When referencing mise en place, we’re finding the language of the chefs so they really start to integrate this thinking in regard to increasing the amount of produce in menu items. They visualize being in the R&D kitchen arranging the ingredients, picking from the dry pantry and cold storage. When starting the process, they need to make half the ingredients fruits and vegetables and that concept resonates better.
Q: You describe tactical approaches to changing the mentality of foodservice chefs and menu developers in meeting the objectives of MyPlate. Do you encounter resistance and how does that vary within the different foodservice venues?
A: We’ve approached volume foodservice chefs with a focus on where they’re already doing well. Extrapolating on that is more agreeable and manageable to them than thinking they’ll have to change their whole way of operating.
For example, a chef from Chipotle developed a fajita-style burrito with sautéed peppers and onions. Take that one step further by switching out rice with beans, adding salsas and guacamole and all of sudden the item has a half a plate of vegetables.
Part of what we’re doing is educating chefs on what counts as fruits and vegetables and then encourage them to work with their marketing team to educate consumers.
We also convey what half that plate should look like; often it is all French fries and consumers love them, so instead of eliminating them completely, we recommend to reduce the portion of French fries and add a salad. It’s important the items we consider don’t drive up food costs. The key is focusing on what operators are doing well, providing positive feedback and showing them that it’s not about turning operations on their head.
Q: Restaurants are geared to making money and offering the dishes that customers demand. Can produce-heavy plates garner the same price? Do consumer perceptions of value on the plate change when the protein portion is reduced?
A: We see an opening with federal and state menu nutritional labeling mandates. Menu labeling gets foodservice operators’ attention. Volume service retailers with more than 20 units are required to list calories on menus. The other approach we’re taking is demonstrating the impact on sodium and fat when you add more produce and reduce unhealthy ingredients. We’ve done comparisons when bacon is replaced with avocado, and what that does to calories and salt intake. It shows how powerful produce is at changing these calorie counts.
In California, we’ve seen dramatic changes in menus because consumers won’t order the dish if they see it is 1,800 calories.
Q: Are there actual scientific-based studies out that measure the impact of menu calorie/nutrition labeling on consumer choice? Aren’t there numerous contributing variables? What kind of marketing research has been done? Is the evidence mainly anecdotal?
A: What research shows is that it depends on a lot of factors. For example, the time of day makes a difference. The menu labeling has more impact on breakfast and lunch, versus dinner. It also depends on who one is dining with, whether it’s a business lunch, and if it’s a celebration, all bets are off.
It also depends on menu design. Does the labeling blend in beside a tantalizing photo of a big juicy cheeseburger? Is it a drive-through menu? People on auto pilot with screaming kids in the back of the car tend to order what they’re used to. In some instances, restaurants have claimed a direct correlation between lowering calories on menu choices and ordering behavior and produce consumption. But there haven’t been enough studies to validly assess the impact.
Here in California, we hear from foodservice operators that the menu labeling has led to them significantly changing the way they are forming the menu. Before, the top five items were heavy in calories, protein, flavor and portion size so consumers got a value proposition. After the calorie counts were listed, those top five went to the bottom. The top item included a pasta dish at 1,870 calories just for this entrée, and within two months of the labeling requirements, consumers stopped ordering it.
The Cheesecake Factory is known for large, large portion sizes, but it started a skinny menu because consumers were asking for it. Based on its brand proposition, diners preferred to forego a 3,000-calorie meal and save their calories for dessert.
Q: Have we reached a turning point? Despite long-term industry efforts to increase produce consumption, why do we still face a serious obesity epidemic? What solutions can lead to meaningful results when eating habits appear so engrained? And how important is the restaurant industry’s role in moving the dial?
A: Consumers do put a different value on a plate with produce versus protein. Flavor strategies are critical in making produce more appealing. For example, if you’ve had Pho Vietnamese soup, the flavor experience is so great it draws you in with its warm and comforting fragrances and the vibrant color of herbs and bean sprouts for texture. The protein portion is almost like a condiment. Diners are not going to ask where’s the meat because so many other things are entertaining the palate.
We’re talking to foodservice professionals… how do you make the dish so appealing that consumers are craving it and they’re no longer thinking I want a big steak? Create an experience around produce that’s memorable. The foodservice industry is doing a disservice when serving a side of steamed vegetables. Take some broccoli, sauté it with garlic and olive oil and top it with shaved parmesan. Make a Spanish Romesco sauce for dipping and dunking vegetables…
Q: How do strategies vary based on the different foodservice channels? Aren’t menu development choices limited to some extent by operational challenges?
A: The menu decisions are segment-dependent. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King are weighted with worries about controlling food costs, and how does this work in a drive-through setting. Is the product hard to eat in the car, versus developing menus in family dining restaurants with different parameters?
McDonald’s has been a great leader in premium salads, where it has made quality Number One. It had the salad shaker idea that came and went, and apple slices as finger food for kids. Sometimes, it’s not rocket science.
Fruit is especially challenging, because there is a premium for labor and doing fresh-cut fruit. Consumers ask, “Why would I pay this amount when I could make this at home for half the price?” Vegetables involve more culinary techniques. Finding ways to make fresh-cut fruit flavorful and juicy is the challenge. Too often the cantaloupe and honeydew mix is hard and tastes like cardboard.
The produce industry could help foodservice by doing more on the flavor side. The truth is chefs want to use more produce in their menus but face challenges with flavor, shelf life and packaging. There is a lot of room for innovation.
Q: Is one angle on innovation going after kids with programs like the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell initiative? What is CIA doing in this arena?
Scott S. Miller Photography
A: Our Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids initiative focuses on improving the flavor and nutrient quality of foods made available to kids in K-12 schools, campus dining and chain restaurants. We’re huge supporters of fresh salad bars, exposing kids to new fruits and vegetables while giving them choice, versus having to take the option of the day.
We encourage integration of culinary techniques, such as roasting vegetables to get caramelized flavors, or fruit salads with fresh mint to pique their curiosity and get them motivated to eat produce.
Q: Are you suggesting these salad bar options be prepared in school cafeteria kitchens or procured prepackaged? Aren’t there issues with cost, labor, training and food safety?
A: There is more and more cooking from scratch in the schools. In districts where they can accommodate the challenges, we are encouraging that. Some schools don’t have the cold storage or the equipment, and it does require labor expertise and food safety training.
Scott S. Miller Photography
In many parts of the country, kids expect more from food. They are exposed to more variety, eating out and trying foods from around the world, whether it’s Mexican with their family at an authentic local restaurant, or sushi from the supermarket. The ideal is to set up a salad bar in the cafeteria that tells a story about foods and cultures around the world and integrates back to lessons in the classrooms to make it more intriguing.
Q: What are some of the other initiatives you’re championing in your role at CIA?
A: We’ve run eight conference leadership retreats a year in San Antonio, Texas and in Napa Valley, California. We also have a campus in Hyde Park, New York, and another in Singapore, where we will start running a conference next year. Almost all our conferences include a produce focus.
If the concentration is nutrition, we partner with the Harvard School of Public Health to run two events each year. Worlds of Healthy Flavors, held every January, is an invitational leadership retreat for volume foodservice professionals from chain restaurants, supermarkets (prepared foods divisions), campus dining, and contract foodservice. With an emphasis on Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean cuisines, we bring in leading nutrition scientists and volume chefs around the country, and people making menu decisions on behalf of millions of Americans everyday.
Q: What are the main issues that foodservice executives raise in relation to MyPlate goals?
A: One of the biggest apprehensions of any foodservice operator: If I put something on the menu, will the customers buy it, and if they buy it once, will they buy it again? There’s a concern that consumers aren’t demanding more produce on the plazA: One of the other traps the fresh produce industry gets stuck in is shunning produce in any other form, and it likes to think the optimum way is fresh to the end consumer. Often foodservice operators get better results from produce preserved in high pressure packages to prolong shelf-life and in frozen form, which makes it easier for foodservice people to use, extends product quality, and expands menu options.
Although it can be heresy to say so in the fresh produce industry, frozen is often better from a nutrition standpoint. Broccoli grown in Salinas, harvested, packed on ice, and shipped across the country could be two weeks old before it gets in the hands of the consumer, and any time there’s a fluctuation in light, temperature or other transport-related issues, quality could be deteriorating and the product could be losing vitamin content. These issues are minimized when product is flash-frozen two hours from being picked in optimum condition. Fruit picked for frozen is picked at its peak. People feel guilty when they buy frozen, but I’m pro frozen.
Q: Are there avenues the produce industry can tap to grow foodservice business?
A: Produce executives need to think in broader ways if they want to see more produce used in foodservice. They need to think how the chef will be most likely to use it, and how the end consumer is most likely to use it.
Anything that increases shelf life and decreases need for labor will be well-received in quick service operations. One example is Dunkin’ Brands breakfast flatbreads with omelets inside. Those vegetables aren’t being sautéed on the site.
Scott S. Miller Photography
CIA conducts challenges to encourage volume foodservice operators to think about fruits and vegetables first in menu innovation and to stimulate solutions in a variety of ways. Sometimes teams will be given certain ingredients and must find creative ways to increase produce in the dish.
Last year at our Worlds of Healthy Flavors conference, we asked, “How do you get more fruits and vegetables on pizzas for K-12 students?” A chef from Aramark wowed a room of cynical chefs by combining barbeque sauce with applesauce, adding caramelized onions and chicken on a whole wheat flour crust that was healthy, kid-friendly and delicious.
We need to increase dialogues between foodservice operators and produce suppliers, and finding middlemen to help with processing and packaging solutions is a critical piece in meeting MyPlate goals.
What a catch to have Amy Myrdal Miller leading this effort. She is, to use a foodservice analogy – both the steak and the sizzle! Substantive and strong, understanding the culinary possibilities while confronting the business issues straight on. We are really lucky to have her.
And she doesn’t mince words. It is nice for the produce industry to think that the whole world wants fresh, but the challenge from frozen and other forms of produce is growing. From consumers who want frozen fruit available to make smoothies anytime to chefs who need frozen vegetables because their menus are uncertain, the fresh industry needs to recognize that the most direct competition may not be chips or cookies, but frozen versions of our own products.
It will not be easy to get to where we need to be. With consumer value perception focused on protein and food cost concerns encouraging lots of cheap starch, the danger is you get a big steak, a mountain of mashed potatoes, then a spear of asparagus and a cherry tomato for color.
New laws requiring calorie counts on menus may be a game-changer. Best indication? Houston’s renamed some of its units to get under the 20-unit limit. They must think it makes a difference.
What is 100% clear is that we won’t increase sales and usage just with promotion. We need ideas that will change menus. Starting in restaurants makes perfect sense because they have chefs. But these ideas will flow into the way people eat at home as well.
Please join us and contribute your ideas. Be a part of the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum and help us come up with the ideas that will make produce half the plate. Many thanks to Amy and the Culinary Institute of America for helping to guide this process.
You can register for the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum and The New York Produce Show and Conference now.
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