San Francisco, California
Andrew Freeman is the founder of af&co., the celebrated hospitality and restaurant consulting and marketing firm based in San Francisco. Freeman — who says he was “born with a fork in my mouth” — has been named one of the Top 25 Most Extraordinary Minds in Sales and Marketing by the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International. Freeman was vice president of public relations and marketing for the relaunch of Windows on the World after the 1992 Trade Center bombing, and he opened the cabaret at the Russian Tea Room.
He spent 10 years as vice president of public relations and strategic partnerships for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, during which time he helped launch more than 40 hotels and restaurants. Freeman will headline the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum Dec. 14 at the New York Hilton, offering his take on produce, food trends and attracting the consumers’ attention. On the eve of the release of af&co.’s influential 2018 Hospitality Trends Report, Freeman shared some highlights and perspective with Joyce Reingold, contributing writer for Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS.
Q: What trends do you see resonating in the foodservice industry during 2018?
A: Overall, because of the nature of the world right now, the theme of the report is “Change Is The New Black.” We have to be prepared to change at a moment’s notice because the world is changing that rapidly. We can look to so many things, even the natural signs the world is changing … hurricanes, global warming, the fires in the San Francisco Bay area … I think everyone has been a little thrown.
Everything is a little unbalanced. People are striving for anything they can hang on to, like foods they know, foods from their childhood. This is where you can create comfort, but it’s being done in a much healthier, more sustainable way. And so, think about green bean casserole at Thanksgiving, only being done with fresh ingredients. Think modern takes on classics.
The whole world of delivery is another big trend. It’s not just CSAs, or home-meal cooking kits; it’s also restaurants. They’re really getting into it, and offering high-quality delivery.
Q: Where are today’s food trends originating?
A: In the past, when we looked at trends, they always started on the coasts and moved in. But now coastal living is way more expensive, and a lot of talented people have moved to places like Cincinnati, Boise, Minneapolis. They’re starting to lead the trends now.
People also look to Europe as getting there first, in some respects. And anything coming from Asia. There’s a whole sense of digging deeper into where the food comes from. We’ll see a lot more international influence.
New American food is really this balance of all these ethnic cuisines. When you think of American food, you think of apple pie, hamburgers, meatloaf … Everything else came from somewhere else and made it here. Vegetables have always been at the basis of all these cuisine types. Everyone has their version of a potato dish. Culturally, we all use potatoes. It’s the same thing with apples. Everyone has an apple dessert. When you really look at the universality of produce, you see it pop up in many different cultures.
Q: What role do you see produce playing in the year ahead?
A: One of the overlying trends is vegetables. The good news is, vegetables and produce are not just for people who are vegetarians or vegans anymore. A good example is how five to 10 years ago, there would be one vegetarian entrée on a menu. Now there are really innovative, delicious, vegetable-based entrees, appetizers, etc. Even people who aren’t vegetarian or vegan are enjoying these options. It’s giving chefs the opportunity to have some fun.
There’s a popular restaurant here [San Francisco], Al’s Place, where vegetables are first, and meat and fish are side dishes. They’ve flipped the whole thing. They’re vegetable-driven. That’s going to get more and more popular.
Have you heard of the Impossible Burger? It’s a much more developed version of a veggie burger. But it bleeds like a burger. People are going to challenge the norms this way.
You have to decide what kind of restaurant and foodservice you want. If you want to be completely vegetable- or plant-based, you’re catering to a more limited crowd.
I’m a little mixed on the vegan lifestyle. I don’t think a lot of restaurants are set up to cook vegan. If you’re a restaurant of a certain caliber making an effort to be vegan, you shouldn’t even have butter in your pantry.
Q: What sort of innovations are you seeing in produce?
A: Probably the most amazing trend that has really impacted produce is with social media — Instagrammable items. What vegetables and produce allow is color. And color is really key in assembling a plate now. In fact, one of our trends is colorful foods, like organically grown, wonderful, rich vegetables and fruit.
Part of the innovation that foodservice operators look for is a vegetable or two that makes its mark. This year it’s cauliflower. It’s being served as a main course — cauliflower steak, for example. And farmers are figuring out ways to give it some color. Purple is the color of the year, and we’re seeing it in cauliflower, yams, asparagus.
Microgreens, eating edible flowers… It used to be farm-to-table. Now it’s garden to table.
And superfoods. If you look at the popularity of juice bars, five years ago there was no such thing as juice shops. Now all these wonderful items have really come through.
There are mushroom teas, coffee being infused with mushrooms. It’s primarily because of the health benefit of these items.
What I would say I’m really excited about in the fine dining world is the really unique use of produce. We’re seeing ceviche made with hominy, and tacos being stuffed with delicious vegetables and fruit. I think that’s where you’re really going to see exciting things coming. The world of produce just gives you so many opportunities.
As kids, in my generation there was a whole sense of “eat your vegetables,” that sometimes contributed to a hate of vegetables. But that’s gone. Kids are seeing vegetables the same way as they see all the other food they like to eat.
Also, in terms of innovation, there are probably going to be more vegetable-based chef competitions. You’re going to see more of it on the Food Network. It is sort of the year of produce. There’s just so much more of an interest. It’s not going to turn back.
Q: Given the growing interest in eating local, what options are available in the middle of winter, and early spring, when fresh produce isn’t readily available in many parts of the country?
A: Farms are growing all year-round. If you’re going to make a commitment, you follow what the farmers can grow. And there are ways to get the food here, like flying it in. Now, fast casual chains are not going to stop using tomatoes on their burgers. But as you go up to fine dining — right now we’re seeing apples, pears, root vegetables — certain items do go away.
One restaurant actually takes its Bloody Mary off the menu when tomatoes are out of season. It all depends on the level of commitment by the chef.
And there are more hydroponic and aquaponic farms. Indoors, you simulate the same environment as farming. You’re recreating the seasonal weather conditions year-round.
Q: So how important is the “eat local” movement to consumers?
A: Probably up until five years ago, 80 percent of the world at large didn’t care as much about where vegetables were grown, or the quality. I’d just say the biggest warning I could give everyone is that things are really going to be pushed — to ensure they’re using quality ingredients.
Q: What about organic produce? How important is that to customers?
A: I think what you’re seeing in the world of fast casual, when you go in there now, are menus talking about ingredients that are organic. We’re on a path where there is no turning back. That volume will command the farmers to modify their efforts to grow everything as sustainably and organically as possible.
There are always challenges. Suppose someone grows organic tomatoes in a foreign country that gets flown to the United States. How much does it cost to fly these thousands and thousands of pounds to the U.S.? I would imagine these companies are constantly looking at where they can source these ingredients … and they are looking to see how they can get them with the least amount of pressure on the environment
I think fast food and fast casual restaurants will start to look at if an ingredient is not readily available to them during a season they may decide to take it off the menu. The public is more educated now and will understand and appreciate it.
They going to be challenged today, that’s for sure. Millennials have driven this quest of knowledge, and knowing where things are coming from and wanting to be part of the conversation.
Q: Since the launch of af&co., how have you observed the role of produce changing in foodservice?
A: Looking back, 13 years ago we didn’t have social media, and the Millennials were just babies. If you’d asked me then about produce consumption, I’d think it was probably going to stay the same. Everyone would have the mandatory vegetable entrée for people who eat vegetables. But thanks to organizations that have really supported our farming culture, coupled with these really creative chefs who have come up, and the public getting a lot more educated on quality vs. quantity, vegetables and produce have taken their place on the menu and are as popular as everything else.
Q: In your report you say, “There’s one thing we can count on for next year, and it’s … nothing.” What can foodservice operators do to stay current, and what are the risks if they don’t?
A: I think there’s a lot of information out there for people who are keeping up. That’s why I’m excited about the New York Produce Show and Conference. I’m going to learn stuff at that show. But there are always going to be stragglers, who are going to get lost and they’re going to get left behind.
I think about some of the bigger chain restaurants. They have their set menu profile; they know what people want. But as their consumers change, if they’re not changing with the times — not caring what the public cares about right now — they’re going to get stuck. The ones that are changing are going to move up the ladder. The ones who aren’t are going to be left behind.
Editor’s note: The 2018 Hospitality Trend Report is available at www.afandco.com and af&co. is raising money for those affected by the fires in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Donate at www.gofundme.com/california-north-bay-fire-relief.
You can count on this being a most stimulating discussion. Please join us in New York as we try find ways to put produce fisrt in the foodservice world.
You can register for the Ideation fresh Foodservice forum right here.