Claim Jumper’s Beefsteak Tomato Salad is a study in innovation. The cool summertime salad includes white balsamic ice cream, as well as flash-fried onions, fresh basil and balsamic-ranch vinegar. Fresh fruits and vegetables are more than just ingredients in salads, sides and plate garnishes. They have become implements of marketing strategy and drivers of menu development, helping brands deliver freshness cues and frame a narrative.
“Fresh, unprocessed and transparently sourced ingredients are more important to consumers than ever before,” says Eli Rosenberg, vice president of marketing for Food Genius. “In the fast-casual segment, which has shown massive growth, a lot of the growth is coming from concepts where operators are focused on differentiating their offerings with these attributes and focusing on quality,” he says. “If the old guard of fast-casual operators doesn’t quickly innovate to keep up with these new entrants in terms of their use of quality, fresh ingredients, they will find many of their consumers fleeing to the LYFE Kitchens of the world.” Newer brands like LYFE Kitchen position themselves entirely around feel-good food, but the values inherent here—fresh, nutrient-dense, high quality—resonate with customers beyond niche dining experiences.
Changing with the Seasons
For Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, a 36-unit polished-casual concept headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., seasonality is a tool for carving out a competitive edge. Its robust features program, which refreshes approximately five times a year, highlights the produce of the season in several menu categories, as well as cocktails. “We’ve been doing features for 10 years,” says Corporate Executive Chef Steve Sturm. “But in the past two years, they’ve really become a tool for differentiating ourselves from the competition and showcasing our fresh, scratch cooking.”
Items like this spring’s Cocoa Spice-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin garnished with asparagus and cherry tomatoes, Griddled Corn and Goat Cheese Polenta, and Fresh Strawberry Shortcake and Custard turn menu staples into seasonal specialties. In the summer, for instance, that mainstay pork tenderloin could be finished with an ancho demi and a quesadilla starring height-of-the-season produce. “Spring ingredients like mint, asparagus, blood oranges, spinach and strawberries infused with Firebirds’ fresh herbs and spices give these selections an invigorated, bold flavor this season,” says Sturm. Abundant use of the grill as both a cooking technique and a flavor profile further differentiate these specials.
The time for elevating produce into a true flavor experience is here. “Consumers have high expectations of the foods they consume, and they look to fruits and vegetables to help them stay well,” says Eileen O’Leary, research manager for the Produce Marketing Association. “Chefs are always using their artistry and creativity to create dynamic and exciting flavor profiles by combining the perfect balance of spicy, sweet, sour, salty and umami. And they can apply those skills to fresh produce to create exciting menu offerings that support a healthy lifestyle.”
“The great part about Moe’s [Southwest Grill] is that most of our items are produce-driven,” says Pat Peterson, executive chef of the 580-plus-unit Focus Brands concept. From fresh guacamole to roasted corn pico de gallo, all are in their glory on the display assembly line. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are really the paint on our canvas.”
In order to build on that and its “honestly fresh, handcrafted” image, Moe’s puts great effort into its salsa bar—an important element of the concept, since every order comes with complimentary chips and salsa. The bar features an array of five different salsas, including three freshly made staples (such as tomatillo and the tomato-based El Guapo) and two seasonal specialties. It’s these specialties that allow Peterson and his team to flex their muscles, as with this spring’s pineapple-cucumber salsa or summertime’s mango-habanero.
“In a sense, we’re re-educating customers as to what salsa can be,” notes Peterson. “It’s not just tomatoes, onions, cilantro and jalapeño, although we certainly offer that. It’s any combination of fresh ingredients.” The mix of vegetable and fruit in the pineapple-cucumber is a perfect case in point. “Not everyone ‘gets’ it, but they certainly think it’s pretty cool,” explains the chef. “And the salsa itself is wonderful—just the perfect combination of delicious sweetness and crunch, with beautiful colors and a refreshing flavor.” And with 25 other seasonal salsas in the library, guests can look forward to additional distinctive products.
With each season, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill refreshes its offerings. The Fresh Strawberry Shortcake and Custard takes advantage of berries at peak ripeness.
Produce that Elevates
For many chain chefs, it is indeed that interplay of flavor, color, texture and even temperature that fresh produce can bring to elevate a mainstream menu. “Yes, we’re a chain, with traditional chain favorites like Buffalo chicken wings and burgers, but we can still do chef-driven, food-pleasing specialties with the twist of a few ingredients,” says Scott Castell, concept executive chef for Claim Jumper, with 43 locations, mostly on the West Coast. Fresh produce is a big, exciting part of that.
For instance, can you say Beefsteak Tomato Salad with White Balsamic Ice Cream? Or Jamaican Sweet Potato, stuffed with jerk chicken, diced red and yellow bell pepper, cilantro, green onions and papaya relish? “That dish is really alive in your mouth,” says Castell. “The sweetness of the papaya complements the spice of the jerk seasoning, and the color of all those fruits and vegetables keep it from being orange sweet potato with brown chicken. The produce gives it a story.”
As for the summertime Beefsteak Tomato Salad, it’s an idea Castell took from Brenner’s Steakhouse, another Landry’s concept, whence he came. As exotic as it sounds, the balsamic ice cream is a couldn’t-be-easier mixture of vanilla ice cream and white balsamic vinegar, kept at the consistency of soft-serve. On the pickup, the dish also gets flash-fried onions, fresh basil and balsamic-ranch vinegar. Coolness, sweetness, acidity, creaminess, freshness—add in the red, white and green color and Claim Jumper has a signature dish that helps position them as innovators.
Kneaders Bakery & Cafe, with 33 locations across five Western states, started life as a levain-based bread bakery, so when founders Colleen and Gary Worthington developed the café component, they had an act to follow. “We needed to match the fresh, handmade quality of those breads with our soups, salads and sandwiches, and we’re doing a lot of that with fresh produce,” says Colleen. The company’s spec sheet includes no fewer than 72 different seasonal produce items, not including fresh herbs and garlic. The focus on quality and freshness is so important, moreover, that even the garlic is hand-chopped and roasted in store, and the rosemary in the focaccia is fresh.
It makes a difference, says Gary. Kneaders used to source pre-chopped romaine lettuce, but a “field” trip to Salinas resulted in the revelation that truly fresh lettuce is moister, crisper and more flavorful. Now the Worthingtons have a “first pick of the field” with a new vendor, getting romaine the very next day and chopping it in-house. Not only does it taste better, but there’s less waste because it’s fresher. Of course, training and forecasting are very important, so the kitchen crew in each unit doesn’t over-prep or miss the specs.
Guests get the message not only with the flavor and the appearance of Kneaders’ fresh fruits and vegetables, but also via in-store TV sets that loop through videos of field tours, back-of-house prep and luscious food images. This marketing tactic also has the advantage of being nearly instantaneous. “If I see a really wonderful new vegetable or seasonal fruit, I can have it in the system within two weeks,” says Gary—not just the menu item development and execution, but also the in-store messaging.
“As a brand, we take the idea of using organic produce and products very seriously,” says David Goldstein, COO of Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, with 22 units in California and four more underway, including a first out of state, in Portland, Ore. “Our location in California pretty much dictates this—it’s what our customers expect.”
Sharky’s menu has thus evolved along with the availability of organic produce in the Golden State; what started with organic beans in 1994 has since become a program that approaches 70 percent organic and continues to grow. Recent menu additions center around such Superfood Salads as Sharky’s Quinoa (a vegan mix of organic red and white quinoa, organic baby spinach, cabbage, jicama, cucumber, sweet peppers, cilantro, green onion, and avocado vinaigrette topped with avocado slices and a sprinkle of toasted flax and chia seeds) and Harvest Quinoa (the same quinoa mix, plus organic baby greens, apples, strawberries, dried cranberries and blueberries, golden raisins, pecans, almonds, goat cheese, toasted flax and chia seeds, and sweet lemon vinaigrette).
Fresh, local and organic produce are among the signature ingredients in the vibrant and healthful Quinoa Salad and Chicken Tostada Salad at Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill. Interestingly, these did not originate as vegan/vegetarian options, according to Goldstein, but as a heartier, full-meal salad choice. As the team continued to play with the ingredients for the right interplay of textures and flavors, the V-designation became more obvious. In response to the appeal of these new salads, the category has grown to 16 percent of the total menu mix (up from 8 percent).
Yes, there are challenges to relying upon fresh produce, especially if organic or local are part of the story. But some say it’s getting easier. Goldstein notes that organic produce can run 25 percent more than commensurate quality conventional, and local weather—from fog to the drought—can wreak havoc with quality or availability. “Our customers are Californians, though, and they understand,” he says, referencing a recent occurrence when staff had to tell them the spinach would not be in the mix that week. “But it’s a perfect example of what you have to work around if you’re committed to fresh, local and organic.”
Firebirds’ Sturm is careful to develop cross-utilization into the features plan, should there be, say, an overabundance of the watermelon in a watermelon, tomato and fresh mozzarella salad this summer. “We can completely change up something like salmon or pork with seasonal ingredients, but by the same token, we have to utilize those ingredients in as many ways as possible.” Working closely with the beverage department on a bar program that can accommodate items like watermelon, blackberries and peaches gives the team another avenue, and so do desserts and a big selection of side dishes, including a fresh fruit mix.
And over at Claim Jumper, Castell works as closely with his vendors as he ever did at Brenner’s. “Our main produce vendor is in California and also handles our Arizona and Nevada units, so it turns out that a lot of our fruits and vegetables are sourced locally,” he explains. “But I’m not going to do local if it’s not the best product for our needs.” Sweet potatoes are one example. Castell has concluded that the best ones—those of consistent size, texture and flavor—come from North Carolina.
And what about the cost to the consumer? “These established chains can focus on sourcing fresh ingredients in smaller quantities, highlighting the details of these fresh ingredients on menus and playing up their addition in dishes,” says Food Genius’ Rosenberg. “While this might lead to increased prices, our view is that consumers will stomach slightly higher price for a marked increase in quality and freshness.”