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Power Couple The produce-centric trend draws strength and balance from well-placed protein

New York-based Dig Inn showcases the modern produce-protein partnership in its Marketplate, with two servings of flavor-forward vegetables, a base of grains or rice and a serving of protein in creative applications, like these five-spice meatballs with harissa.
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While consumers embrace better-for-you options and propel produce to the center of the plate, they are not abandoning protein altogether. Walking this line between emphasizing vegetables yet incorporating meat is a welcome challenge for chefs. They’re finding a new balance, where produce elevates a dish and protein rounds it out—all in an integrated, flavor-filled package.

“In the last few years, there’s definitely been a shift toward produce-centric dishes,” says Chris Casson, chef and produce sales and marketing manager with foodservice distributor Shamrock Foods, based in the Southwest. “I’ve seen this wave, both on the industry and on the culinary side. It’s not necessarily marketed as: ‘Hey, this is a vegetarian dish.’ It’s about dishes that have a lot of flavor, and where you can get it with or without protein. But the protein is not just plopped on top.”

Certain menu categories lend themselves particularly well to translating this trend. The bowl, for one, is surging in popularity, in large part because of its healthful reputation and its ability to layer varied produce with touches of protein. Salads, of course, are the go-to method of delivering abundant produce, and operators are finding new ways to make them appealing via protein add-ins. Global cuisines traditionally have higher veggie-to-meat ratios, and invite flavor innovation. And small plates can offer an indulgent taste of meat accompanied by a creative produce treatment. Whatever the form, the balance is starting to shift from a large serving of meat with a side of vegetables to a more thoughtfully balanced presentation of the two.

One of LYFE Kitchen’s biggest sellers, the Quinoa Crunch Bowl is a model of produce-centered layers that incorporate alternative proteins, including edamame hummus.

One of LYFE Kitchen’s biggest sellers, the Quinoa Crunch Bowl is a model of produce-centered layers that incorporate alternative proteins, including edamame hummus.

Bowling a Strike

The bowl is a format that’s tailor-made for this balance of produce and protein. Not only are bowls associated with healthful eating, the actual shape of a bowl naturally guides a more controlled portion of protein.

“Bowls provide a balance of grains, meats and vegetables, and they fit squarely into this trend,” says Paul Pendola, Mintel’s director of foodservice. He says menu mentions of bowls have increased
38 percent from 2012 to 2015.

“Bowls are showing up more in emerging chains and multi-units because you can execute them quickly, the ingredients aren’t expensive, and they can be made fresh to order in large quantities,” says Shamrock’s Casson.

Tokyo Joe’s, a Colorado QSR concept, started in 1996—before the current bowl craze—with the goal of offering healthy, quick food. The build-your-bowl option is straightforward: Pick a protein, a grain, a sauce and vegetables. “It’s such a simple concept,” says Casson. “Every one of the dishes has a lot of flavor, yet the sauces are not sugar-laced. It goes far with customers, who can get it with or without protein. Interestingly, about 90 percent still pick a protein.”

LYFE Kitchen, well known for its produce-centric menu, also ensures that proteins are part of the package. “Customers today are looking for produce to be the center of the plate, the ‘star,’ as choices in this arena are flavorful and healthier—but without giving up the creative, craveable options,” says Faye Greenberg, LYFE’s director of culinary. The Thai Red Curry Bowl with broccoli, eggplant, peppers, peas, wheat berries and Thai basil in coconut curry sauce can be paired with grilled chicken or shrimp. Non-meat protein alternatives are also plentiful, such as LYFE’s popular Quinoa Crunch Bowl, which features protein in the form of edamame hummus.

Other operators have added bowls to a more traditional menu in order to address the demand for new ways to deliver more produce in a flavorful, appealing dish.

BJ’s Restaurants has made a concerted effort to introduce new items to an increasingly health-conscious clientele. “In general, produce is considered to be better for you. So instead of just a house salad, we have options now, and customers are very appreciative of that,” says Scott Rodriguez, BJ’s VP of culinary and kitchen innovation. “But keeping protein is still critical as this adds value to produce-centric options.”

Now on BJ’s menu: a Roasted Chicken and Spinach Quinoa Bowl and a Roasted Salmon Quinoa Bowl (both in lunch or dinner portions). The emphasis on both bowls is the harmonious medley of grains and vegetables, but the protein ties it all together. “With a third of the recipe built around produce, the protein brings the value to the guest for these types of dishes,” says Rodriguez. “In addition, there is a customizable feel when guests can choose or add a protein to these menu items.”

Firebirds has made mindful adjustments to its meat-oriented menu to include dishes like this Sorrento Chicken Salad, where produce gets equal billing.

Firebirds has made mindful adjustments to its meat-oriented menu to include dishes like this Sorrento Chicken Salad, where produce gets equal billing.

Next-Gen Salads

The salad is home base for produce, but nowadays it’s scoring with more. We’ve seen the progression from standard house salad to more meal-like concoctions featuring grilled chicken or more interesting vegetables. Now, salads are seen as a place for culinary innovation that reflects the produce-with-protein trend.

Mintel data says that center-of-the-plate salads are growing in popularity—up 26 percent from 2012 to 2015—which are perfect forums for a protein add-on. Side salads, meanwhile, are down 5 percent in that time period.

“Shrimp is just one protein showing growth as entrée salads increase in menu incidence, but also increasing are beef and salmon in the past three years,” says Mintel’s Pendola. In fact, salmon in salads increased 43 percent in that period.

Many operators offer a variety of creative salads that include an optional protein. Flower Child, a fast-casual chain in California and the Southwest, lists salads like Organic Kale (with pink grapefruit, organic apple, blackcurrant, smoked almond, white cheddar, apple cider vinaigrette) and offers add-a-protein choices of all-natural chicken, sustainable salmon, grass-fed steak or organic non-GMO tofu.

Salads are a centerpiece at LYFE Kitchen. “We have been produce-centric from the beginning. In fact, our diners even order salads for breakfast,” says Kim Buchanan, LYFE’s culinary manager. But she notes that as much as customers are demanding more vegetables and more healthy options, “meat is never going to go away in the United States.” The key is to strike a well-considered balance of produce and protein.

“We love being able to offer a variety of dishes that our guests customize, adding a protein to our already produce-heavy signature dishes.” She says one of LYFE’s most popular items is the Kale Caesar Salad (romaine, baby kale, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, Parmesan, bread crumbs and Caesar dressing). “Our customers love to pair that with our salmon in West Coast markets, shrimp in Texas and Tennessee, or our antibiotic-free, hormone-free chicken.”

Even meat-oriented menus are finding a place for interesting new salads. Firebirds Wood Fired Grill is embracing this new emphasis. “We’re a fairly protein-heavy concept—meat is at the center of what we do,” says Steven Sturm, Firebirds’ executive chef. “But we’ve seen the evolution of people wanting to eat healthier. So we give them some indulgence that they crave, like grilled chicken, plus great-tasting produce, which adds color, texture and overall appeal to our guests. It’s been very successful.” One specialty salad that fits that description is Firebirds’ Grilled Shrimp & Strawberry Salad with mixed greens, goat cheese, jicama, spiced pecans and balsamic vinaigrette.

Dig Inn, a New York-based fast-casual chain, puts the emphasis on vegetables but keeps protein in the menu mix by offering a medley of different smaller plates, many with just vegetables, others with meat. Sautéed Cauliflower with preserved lemon is one dish; Five-Spice Meatballs is another. But Dig Inn’s salads integrate the two. The Wild Salmon Salad combines miso-marinated wild Alaskan salmon with cucumber brunoise, red bell peppers and cilantro tossed with a red wine vinaigrette. The Field Salad offers a base of local greens, chervil and mint, a choice of roasted seasonal vegetables, and a protein: grilled organic tofu, charred chicken, grilled flank steak or wild sockeye salmon.

The Albacore Seaweed Salad at Sunda in Chicago integrates Asian ingredients, with the seared chile albacore nestled into mixed seaweed and other vegetables.

The Albacore Seaweed Salad at Sunda in Chicago integrates Asian ingredients, with the seared chile albacore nestled into mixed seaweed and other vegetables.

Way of the World

The shifted ratio of protein to produce may be a newer phenomenon in the United States, but it’s simply the way people eat in much of the world. Whether Mexican tacos or Vietnamese noodles, many global cuisines have always used protein as a complement in produce-dominant dishes. That explains the strong global influences that show up on menus with veg-centric options.

“The rise of Asian cuisine and flavors connects other notable trends, including the rise of raw preparation, increased flavor profiles and more vegetables on the plate,” says Mintel’s Pendola. “Asian cuisine brings a diverse flavor profile to simple ingredients, while also introducing new vegetables to the mix.”

Sunda in Chicago features an Asian-inspired menu with produce-centric offerings like the Albacore Seaweed Salad, which showcases seared chile albacore, but surrounds that with mixed seaweed, watercress, frisée, cucumber, red onion, crispy shallots and a ginger-yuzu vinaigrette. Sunda’s Thai Beef Salad also makes the most of its global inspiration with its selection of produce—papaya, chayote, cucumber, pea shoots, tomatoes, basil, mint and cilantro—while also featuring a protein boost of grilled Wagyu beef with chile-lime dressing.

At LYFE, diners can choose dishes that marry vegetables and protein with global flavor profiles, from the Ancient Grain Stir Fry to the Grilled Pepper Quesadilla.

BJ’s Chicken Lettuce Wraps reflect an Asian influence: The proportions are produce-heavy—they’re sautéed with mushrooms, water chestnuts, celery, green onions and garlic, then topped with wonton strips and served with sesame-soy sauce and hot Chinese mustard.

Mediterranean Chicken Pita Tacos are also on the BJ’s menu, with grilled chicken breast, cucumber, tomatoes, red onions, feta cheese and cilantro, tossed in red wine vinaigrette and drizzled with Greek yogurt crema in a chargrilled pita. “It’s one of our best sellers,” says Rodriguez. “Global items rely heavily on produce as these are flavor carriers and typically cost effective. In order to balance the cost and increase value to our guests, we add protein. This also adds uniqueness to ethnic items such as the Mediterranean Chicken Pita Tacos.”

In addition to merging global flavors, the taco leverages the appeal of produce. Plus, it’s simply smart business, says Rodriguez. “People are very, very responsive to having an option: with or without protein. Without protein, we can offer a dish at an attractive entry-level price point, so it’s up to the guest to decide if they want to add three or four dollars by adding a protein. We can build an item so that they can add what they want while not feeling gouged. It leads to customization, and it’s a very successful approach.”

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.