Almost as soon as winter released its vicious grip on the growing season, menumakers leapt into action. Excitement among chefs builds as the seasons change, and their awareness of what’s available year round becomes more acute. They’re treating fresh produce as a tool to express their creativity.
But there are some missed opportunities for that produce on the menu—places where a bit of cross-utilization can pick up the slack. It’s critical to pinpoint these gaps because, according to Datassential, more than 50 percent of consumers are more likely to order an item featuring seasonal, local or organic produce.
On the Juice
While cold-pressed juices may have started out as a fad for health zealots and Hollywood celebrities six years ago, in the past two years fast-casual concepts like Sweetgreen and LYFE Kitchen have been crafting their own juices in-house, utilizing the same produce found in their entrées and salads.
“The diversity of flavor you can get out of fruits and vegetables is endless,” says Jeremy Bringardner, executive chef of LYFE Kitchen, an emerging better-for-you fast-casual concept. “About 40 percent of our foodspend is on produce, and all those vegetables really drive the menu.”
Bringardner developed the Banana Kale Smoothie to get a full cup of raw kale into guests’ daily diets in a delicious, user-friendly way. “People just don’t eat enough vegetables, and kale is so nutrient-dense,” he says.
The sweetness of bananas and apple juice combined with the acidity of lemons balances out the bitterness of the kale. The addition of ginger syrup creates a warming sensation and gives the drink a spicy little kick. It’s served with frozen cucumbers instead of ice cubes, so as not to dilute the flavors.
Beets remain an “it” root vegetable—served cooked or pickled, hot or cold, or, in this case, raw and juiced. LYFE Kitchen’s Hibiscus Beet Cooler starts with whole beets, peeled and puréed in apple juice, then added to a tart hibiscus tea along with a bit of acidic lemon juice and spicy ginger syrup, before being left to infuse overnight. When the solids are strained out, what remains is an intense, bright red flavorful juice.
“Chia seeds have been one of my obsessions for the longest time,” admits Bringardner, and he sprinkles them throughout the menu. Not only are they infused with ginger, lime and mint and added to a pair of filtered waters, they can be found in bowls of Greek yogurt or infused with pomegranate juice and served with a chocolate budino.
Top O’ the Mornin’
The breakfast segment continues to grow, and guests are looking for menu items with a nod to fresh and healthy. Incorporating produce into the breakfast menu can be an easy addition to appease diners while tapping a growth opportunity.
“We made a really big impact last year when we added simple mixed greens, lightly dressed in a lemon-white balsamic dressing, in place of our breakfast potatoes on one of our LTO items,” says Shane Schaibly, director of culinary and corporate chef of the breakfast, brunch and lunch chain, First Watch. “Guests went crazy for it.” Today, the greens are offered as a side option on the menu; they make up 50 percent of the side-dish sales and are cross-utilized across the menu.
First Watch also began roasting the vegetables for their omelettes in the oven before sautéing them in the pan to bring out an additional layer of flavor. The change created a better dining experience and met with great success among the guests. “They’re not crunching into that raw pepper or broccoli, and they’re getting that little bit of caramelization,” explains Schaibly. “It just makes for a better dish.”
But the company’s latest blockbuster has been its Pesto Chicken Quinoa Bowl, which started out as an LTO earlier this year. “This bowl sells 50 percent better than the Cherry Chicken. It utilizes kale, which is going crazy right now,” he says. “Everyone is on the kale train, and we like to think we’re on the front end of it.”
To bring out the earthier flavor of the quinoa, it’s mixed with chopped kale and shredded carrots in a quick sauté before house-roasted tomatoes and all-natural chicken breast with lemon balsamic dressing are added. It’s finished with basil pesto sauce, feta cheese and fresh herbs. “The kale is still crunchy, and all the additional ingredients together take the less desirable flavors out of the equation,” adds Schaibly.
Hot for Hot Sandwiches
The loose, stackable nature of sandwiches—as well as wraps, tacos and other handhelds—lends itself to flavor exploration with ease. At the same time, research shows that consumers increasingly demand the best in meats, cheeses, breads, condiments and garnishes—so the time is right to aim for new, improved sandwich options.
Try maximizing the flavor of this ultimate comfort food with roasted eggplant and grilled tomatoes, or adding asparagus, baby spinach or arugula for a more herbaceous bite.
A good example is LYFE Kitchen’s Pizzadillawich—a vegetarian masterpiece of ooey, gooey satisfaction. Roasted eggplant, grilled onions and peppers, basil and goat-cheese mozzarella are layered pizza-style on a gluten-free flatbread crust, then folded and cooked like a quesadilla on the griddle, but served like a sandwich with a hot pomodoro sauce for dunking. It’s a high-flavor, decadent sandwich that happens to be vegetarian, gluten-free and only 531 calories.
“We’re still trying to figure out what it is with our new BLT Benedict that makes it so popular,” says Schaibly of First Watch’s new open-face sandwich, which sold 50 percent higher than projected in its first two weeks of testing. Built on ciabatta bread, with crispy bacon, sliced tomatoes, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce, it cross-utilizes the chain’s arugula with lemon-white balsamic dressing, topped with fresh avocado, chives and parsley with a side of fresh cut fruit.
“It highlights arugula, which, up until recently, was something just thrown into spring mix lettuces. You’d see arugula in higher-end, white tablecloth restaurants, but now it’s started to show up more in casual and fast-casual concepts,” says Schaibly. “I love the product itself, and I’m glad that it didn’t scare people away to see it on our menu. In fact, it seems to be doing the opposite and really attracting them to that item.”
Global Flavor Combinations
Consumers continue to fearlessly plunge forward into new cuisines and flavors at a dizzying pace. Datassential’s MenuTrends report shows that nearly 60 percent of consumers would be more likely to order an ethnic item with more produce.
At The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, Va., fresh seasonal vegetables from the expansive 50-acre farm are featured on every menu of the eight separate on-site concepts, and the 100-year-old main dining room. “People around here, they love it,” says Bryan Skelding, the resort’s executive chef. “That’s why we built the farm. The guests enjoy it a lot, but honestly, when we go recruiting at schools, it’s one of the first things the students ask us about.”
At Greenbrier’s In-Fusion Restaurant, the Asian-themed seasonal concept, the farm’s bounty finds a way into everything, from the build-your-own ramen to the broccoli in the Szechwan-Hunan Pork Tenderloin. The Togarashi-Spiced Vegetable Skewers, on the other hand, are a simple but creative use of the farm’s produce. The chefs grab whatever is in season—eggplant, zucchini, squash—and dust them with the peppery condiment before cooking them on a konro grill over Japanese charcoal. They’re served with orange sauce, soybean purée, and a peach and kimchi purée for dipping.
“We just started selling the skewer at the end of last year and it sold pretty well, so I put it on the menu again for this year,” says Skelding.
LYFE Kitchen’s best-selling fish tacos have a slight twist—a slaw made with chayote squash. “Everyone does a slaw on their fish taco,” says Bringardner, “But I like to incorporate lesser known vegetables and root them in a more familiar dish, which I think is really important. Chayote has a really interesting taste and texture.”
The grilled mahi and chayote slaw meet fresh avocado, cilantro, green onion, and chipotle aïoli in warm corn tortillas, with salsa fresca on the side. The dish works so well, the chain noticed parents were ordering it for their children—so they made a kid-friendly version, holding off on the herbs and toning down the spices.