Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Everything’s Coming Up Produce Now is the time to up your game with fruits and vegetables

The fast-casual salad put Mad Greens on the map, responding to consumer demand for easy but varied ways to get fresh produce into their day.

The fast-casual salad put Mad Greens on the map, responding to consumer demand for easy but varied ways to get fresh produce into their day.

Every now and then, a new term comes around in foodservice, and “veg-centric” is having its day in the sun. It’s no wonder. The emphasis on health and wellness, especially among the younger generations of diners, means that fresh produce has earned its prominent role on the plate. Most of the hottest dietary trends—from low-carb to vegan to gluten-free—all point to maximizing produce.

“It’s a great time for the fruit and vegetable industries and the intersection with foodservice,” says Cathy Burns, president of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). “Chefs are finding new, innovative and delicious ways to prepare produce.”

The current dining goals at Stanford University offer a glimpse at what the next generation expects: “Our culinary journey this year has been a deeper dive into serving more exciting, flavorful and interesting plant-based protein dishes with meat as a condiment,” says Chandon Clenard, senior executive chef of performance dining for Stanford University’s Residential & Dining Enterprises.

The time is ripe for operators to create new menu opportunities that showcase better-for-you options as well as fresh and flavorful choices. Sometimes that means adding vegetarian or vegan options; sometimes it means putting produce at the center of the plate. But oftentimes it simply means looking for those places on the menu where produce can shine.

Good Way to Start the Day
As both breakfast and brunch are becoming more important to diners, menu offerings in this daypart have expanded—often including more ways to showcase produce. Datassential reports that fresh produce is playing a key role in breakfast options, especially as a component of breakfast sandwiches inspired by lunch and dinner offerings. Use of cabbage, arugula and sweet potatoes on breakfast menus are each up by more than 200 percent compared with four years ago, and baby spinach is up 600 percent.

Florida-based First Watch Restaurants Inc. emphasizes locally sourced produce whenever possible. At the First Watch in Phoenix, Ariz., the breakfast menu includes an Elevated Egg Sandwich, which adds smashed avocado and arugula to the over-easy egg, bacon, Gruyère and lemon crema on a brioche bun. The brunch menu at Mission Beach in San Francisco is dominated by fresh fruits and vegetables, including a vegan-friendly dish combining sweet potato-butternut squash hash, spinach-mushroom-asparagus scramble and mixed greens.

At The Cheesecake Factory, create-your-own omelettes invite diners to pick from a selection of produce—which turns out to be exactly what diners want. “According to sales figures, 90 percent of the create-your-own omelettes are composed of all vegetables,” says The Cheesecake Factory’s vice president of culinary development Bob Okura.

Small Plates, Big Opportunity
The trend toward small plates—whether shareables or bar bites or tapas—means more opportunities for chefs to get creative with produce. These bite-sized chances to experiment appeal to Millennial diners in particular. “They seek variety and diverse flavors, and they view food as entertainment and self-expression,” says PMA’s Burns. Produce can be played with more freely when the serving size is small.

At Stanford University, small plates help put produce first. “We focus all our efforts on making the dish taste great by showing off the vegetables and the grains, so the animal protein is playing a supporting role,” says Clenard. He describes a Lamb-Eggplant Kafta where “the grilled-spiced carrots are so delicious with the harissa oil and lemon, and the kafta just becomes an added bonus.”

Root Down in Denver has a Share Plates section on the menu, and most of the offerings here involve interesting takes on produce, like the sweet corn risotto with Hazel Dell mushrooms, heirloom tomato salsa, kale chip, pecorino, mascarpone, corn pudding and kale pesto.

The list of sides at Fig in Santa Monica, Calif., demonstrates how appealing simple fruits and vegetables can be with the right treatment: Fried cauliflower is served with kalamata olives, Calabrian chiles, pine nuts and tahini. Local stone fruit comes with marinated halloumi cheese, watercress and toasted pine nuts.

When in Doubt, Ferment
Dan Long, co-founder and chief culinary officer of Mad Greens, knows the challenges of a limited growing season. The fast-casual chain with the “Eat Better” slogan is based in Colorado, where the growing season is limited. Long is finding ways to incorporate new technologies to increase his ability to tap into local, sustainable produce. He’s considering hydroponics and new greenhouse techniques, but there are no easy answers.

But Long does turn to other options: “A great way to extend shelf life on seasonal produce and impart flavor without adding calories is pickling,” he says. Mad Greens is working on incorporating more pickled produce to its veg-centric menu. “It adds so much flavor without adding anything unhealthy to the produce.”

At Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C., pickled tomato makes its way into the pimento farm bread, and pickled seasonal vegetables are a popular starter dish.

Root Down in Denver strategically adds pickled onions to its plantain hash, and pickled ramps to its meatballs. Applebee’s is also catching the pickling wave with its new Sweet and Spicy Pickles bar snack.

The Cheesecake Factory loaded this almond-crusted salmon dish with “super” produce, including kale, Brussels sprouts, arugula, avocado, quinoa, cranberries and radishes.

Going Global
Compared with traditional meat-and-potatoes American cuisine, dishes from other countries are invariably more produce-oriented. Most of the trending global cuisines, from Hispanic to Southeast Asian to Mediterranean, make good use of fruits and vegetables. Try to imagine a banh mi sandwich without the bright cucumber, carrots and daikon.

Tacos are an easy entry-level dish for operators looking to add global flair. “People like that our tacos have a good amount of produce in them,” says Okura. He is considering ways to freshen up The Cheesecake Factory’s taco options, perhaps using a light, fresh fruit salsa instead of tomato-chile sauce, or offering a no-meat taco.

Nordstrom Restaurants also emphasize produce via global-style offerings. Cilantro Lime Chicken Tacos get updated with romaine, yellow pepper, tomato, cilantro-lime vinaigrette and queso fresco. Asian influence is evident in the Szechuan Chicken Lettuce Cups with iceberg lettuce, julienne vegetables, scallions and Szechuan glaze.

Fast-growing fast-casual chain Luna Grill lists plenty of produce on its menu, touting the heart-healthy benefits with the directly stated slogan “It’s good for you!” The Mediterranean-influenced dishes include spinach pie with a cucumber-yogurt dip and an apple-walnut salad with organic spring mix, fresh seasonal apple, crumbled Gorgonzola, candied walnuts and dried cranberries.

Salad on a Slice
Pizzas have always been a good vehicle for trending ingredients—and that means produce toppings are becoming more widespread. The popularity of cruciferous vegetables now has them moving onto pizzas: Motorino in New York features a Brussels sprout pizza. Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Calif., showcases rapini alongside sausage on one pizza, and roasted eggplant with ricotta and mint on another.

Some of the most popular pizzas at Otto, based in Portland, Maine, feature produce, including: mashed potato, bacon and scallion; pulled pork and mango; and butternut squash, ricotta and cranberry.

Pizza Hut is also embracing produce with its new Garden Party pizza, which combines crushed tomato sauce, fresh green peppers, fresh red onions, fresh mushrooms, diced Roma tomatoes and fresh spinach—pretty much a salad atop a pizza crust, complete with a drizzle of balsamic sauce.

Better-For-You Bowls
The simple, comforting delivery system of a bowl makes it easy on operators to combine crowd-pleasing ingredients in infinite combinations. From breakfast bowls featuring a medley of fruits and berries to rice bowls topped with steaming Asian vegetables, the format is perfect for produce.

Starbucks now offers a few different bowls brimming with healthful ingredients, such as the Hearty Veggie & Brown Rice Salad Bowl, which includes roasted butternut squash, beets, kale, red cabbage, broccoli florets, garden peas and roasted tomatoes, served on brown rice with a side of lemon tahini dressing.

Avocado is a star ingredient for its health halo, unique flavor and silky texture, making it one of the no-brainer ways to add produce to just about anything. El Pollo Loco makes it the main attraction in the Grande Avocado Bowl, which offers diners a choice of chicken or shrimp with slices of avocado, sour cream, sweet corn, cheese, cabbage, pico and rice with pinto beans.

And at Panera, the global trend plus the bowl craze come together in the Soba Noodle Bowl with Edamame. It’s a veggie-and-umami-packed combination of soba buckwheat noodles, fresh spinach, napa cabbage blend, roasted mushroom and onion blend, fire-roasted edamame blend, sesame seeds and cilantro in a soy-miso broth.

Menus can draw customers to produce-centric options, such as the Buff Bowls at Noodles & Company, where spinach is the base and the vegetable toppings are doubled.

Produce-Centric Desserts
While many diners will always seek out the chocolate cake, there is a place for variety or experimentation at the end of the meal. Introducing produce in creative ways elevates a dessert—and gives it a healthier spin.

“Chefs are embracing the earthiness, subtle sweetness and even the bitterness that some vegetables bring to desserts,” says PMA’s Cathy Burns. She says vegetables such as celery, beets, eggplant and winter squash are being featured in desserts at restaurants. At Sixteen in Chicago, executive pastry chef Aya Fukai created a pineapple-celery granite. Another dessert includes compressed watermelon. Produce can introduce an unexpected surprise element, as with the Tomato Upside Down Cake at A16 Rockridge in Oakland, Calif., which is accompanied by lemon curd, thyme cream and olive oil.

Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass., features produce in interesting ways throughout the menu, and it doesn’t end with the desserts. Cornbread Pain Perdu consists of poached peaches, berry coulis, and sweet corn and thyme ice cream. Other places take a traditional dessert and mix it up a little, such as the Warm Garden Rhubarb Crostata with oven-roasted strawberries and vanilla gelato at Primo in Rockland, Maine. It’s a twist on the strawberry-rhubarb pie, but it pumps up the produce and makes it memorable.

Of course, a simple dish of berries and cream still puts the focus on fresh produce—and makes diners happy. Any way you serve it, more prominent use of fresh fruits and vegetables on the menu makes sense for today’s changing foodservice landscape.

Look for the Produce Section
In order to put the spotlight on produce, some operators set aside a special section of the menu just for veg-oriented choices. It’s a different emphasis than the “diet” sections of yesterday; the focus is on the positive.

The Cheesecake Factory started its “Skinnylicious” section a few years back, with menu offerings that are lower-calorie but still satisfying. Now, moving beyond the calorie counting, a new “Super Foods” section allows the chain to highlight dishes that include such health-halo foods as avocado, kale and beets. “We wanted to put it on the menu as its own section because of all the buzz around super foods,” says chef Bob Okura. He says items like the Super Antioxidant Salad offer “a ton of flavor” and also make guests feel good about their choices. “We took away the salmon that’s been on the menu for 20 years, and no one said ‘boo’ about it because the new one [an almond-crusted salmon on a bed of kale, Brussels sprouts, arugula, avocado, quinoa, cranberries and radishes] is so delicious.”

At Noodles & Company, a new category of “Buff Bowls” takes some of the chain’s top sellers and swaps out the noodles for spinach, then doubles the vegetables on top. Diners can then add tofu or meat for protein.

Fine-dining operators are also emphasizing vegetables on the menu.

Fig in Charleston, S.C., offers a separate “Vegetables to Share” section that includes dishes such as: cabbage with butter, bread crumb and black pepper; delicata squash, fromage and honey; and okra, Sun Gold tomato and garlic confit.

Zaytinya in Washington, D.C., specializes in small plates, many of them featuring produce, but there’s still a separate “Vegetable Mezze” section to really call attention to veg-oriented creations, from a vegetable-laden kabob to a dish called piyaz featuring warm giant beans, kale and oven-roasted tomato.

Produce like these romaine leaves are being rescued through Compass Group’s Imperfectly Delicious Produce program, which utilizes otherwise discarded fruits and vegetables.

Minimizing Waste
Food waste is a hot topic today and those on the forefront are taking steps to address it, whether in the kitchen or in the fields. Foodservice management company Compass Group has spearheaded a program called Imperfectly Delicious Produce (IDP), which rescues fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste.

“Our chefs were visiting local farmers and seeing how many vegetables were going to the trash bins. The amount of produce wasted nationally is about 40 percent,” says Christine Seitz, Compass Group’s vice president of culinary business excellence. The group decided to find a better way.

Produce is trashed for various reasons: Sometimes it doesn’t meet the high aesthetic standards that have been imposed by consumer expectations; other times it might be from a second-cut crop.

“With broccoli or cauliflower, anything that’s not the perfect floret might be discarded,” explains Seitz. “Or with pre-cut celery sticks, the top and bottom are cut off—some five inches might end up in the compost or garbage.”

She says organic farmers often sell to high-end restaurants that might have even higher standards of perfection.

The IDP program brings together distributors, growers and chefs to find the best way to utilize produce—and save money and resources. Rather than discarding pieces of good produce, IDP chefs find best uses for them, such as in soups, salads or entrées like stir-fried dishes where their appearance is not an issue. “There is really no difference in flavor,” says Seitz. And rather than only harvesting the first-cut produce, making use of the second-cut drastically reduces the amount of water needed for the crops—which is critical with current drought conditions.

More than 200,000 pounds of produce have been saved through IDP so far, and Seitz says the program—which is in 16 states with another 10 or more on the way—is aiming for nationwide reach by the end of 2016.

About The Author

Cindy Han

Cindy Han studied journalism and has worked mostly as a magazine writer and editor, covering topics from animal conservation to interactive desserts. She is also a producer for a public radio news program and is working on a documentary film. She has lived in some great food cities—from New York to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh—and now Portland, Maine. She loves simply being with her family, enjoying nature, art, travel and, of course, good eats. Given her Chinese heritage, Cindy’s favorite dishes are anchored in the classic Asian flavor trio of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar.