Naturally raised and slow braised, pulled pork stars in two new offerings at Noodles & Company — Barbecue Pork Mac and a Peppery Pork Sandwich. Photo courtesy of noodles & company. The recovering economy influences protein’s flavor and fit in modern-day menu development
By Karen Weisberg
The big protein picture is evolving with the times. As our economic landscape shifts, the tastes and moods of customers adjust accordingly. We asked a number of industry consultants to track those flavor trends most likely to affect the world of protein.
Food-trend forecaster Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends Inc., sees changes in protein consumption as largely related to economic conditions. “This has caused operators to experiment with new, less expensive cuts, smaller portion sizes and flavorful recipes that help stretch the meat — and they’re loving the tasty results,” she says.
Skewers and other forms of center-of-the-plate, street-food-influenced preparations will get customers’ attention, as will sandwiches. “Expect protein-based samplers and appetizers — from charcuterie to signature, bite-sized, protein-based hors d’oeuvres such as fish nuggets/dips — to move into the spotlight.”
Trends analyst Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, also links current consumer preferences to the recent economic recovery and the resultant uplifted mood. “During a recession, there’s a focus on braising, slow cooking, mac and cheese, meatloaf, chicken wings. In a recovery — and we’re still coming into it — everything gets wilder. Think strong citrus, peppers, curries, miso soup, etc.,” she says. “With proteins, consumers are still straddling the recession emotionally.”
Riffing on her “recovery versus recession” theme, Badaracco finds flavor cues to be more intense when the economy is more buoyant. “In a recession, all your senses shut down. In recovery, colors are bright — like lime green. But if you see earth tones coming back, panic!” she cautions lightly.
THE KINDEST CUT
Along the same lines, Badaracco says the change in public mood primes customers to feel differently about new cuts of meat. She cites the Vegas strip steak as an example of a newly embraced beef cut. “It’s competitively priced, but since it’s new, it’s ‘cool,’” she says. “Operators can charge more for it, guests can feel they’re cool because they ordered it, and the restaurant is cool because they have that new cut.”
As partner at The Culinary Edge in San Francisco, Steven Goldstein aims to help restaurant companies “connect their brand, menu and their operation to achieve their desired guest experience and drive sales.” Casting a knowledgeable eye on consumer protein trends, he sees now as the time for underutilized cuts to come to the fore. “That’s the biggest thing we’re seeing in the marketplace,” he says. “In chef-driven restaurant concepts, they’re serving more and varied cuts they can monetize [i.e., make them affordable and thus saleable]. In chains, they’re using more well-known cuts they can market more easily.”
A fan of the low-and-slow technique of cooking lesser cuts, Goldstein finds it’s “a great way to build flavor nuance, utilize flavors of other cuisines and build signature appeal.”
As the economic recovery progresses, consumers with a few more dollars to spend are gravitating to “experiential value” as opposed to only price value, he concludes. “Having that complete plate of food with all elements hanging together visually, flavor-wise and texturally — having that right portion and the right things to surround the protein — tends to drive sales.”
Sloan agrees that new fabricated cuts add reasonably priced excitement to menus and provide the “something new” that just over half of consumers say they want to try when dining out. She cites beef cuts like the Santa Fe cut, round petite tender and San Antonio steak as gaining momentum, while pork shoulder breast, pork shoulder petite tender, and pork leg cap steak as among the underutilized cuts gaining traction.
The National Pork Board (NPB) points to such cuts as a strategy for operators in the coming year. “While prices may be higher in 2013, operators can find value by introducing new cuts of pork to their menus,” says Stephen Gerike, NPB’s director of foodservice marketing. “Pork shoulder, pork knuckle, country style ribs and even ham can provide the protein patrons are craving with less cost to the operator.”
In Southern California, customers at Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill’s 20 fast-casual locations are asking for proteins with “clean” and “natural” labels, therefore Sharky’s menus boast a good number of attribute statements (such as “grass-fed” or “sustainable seafood”), describing the quality of items served. “Guests are also asking about chicken and seafood regarding exactly where it’s from, and even the size of the farm. People who are informed about their diet want to know,” notes Vice President/COO David Goldstein (coincidentally, brother of The Culinary Edge’s Steven Goldstein).
Goldstein also sees a movement toward nutrient-dense options to appeal to cost and health perceptions. Sharky’s promotes a menu of “Power Plates” — better-for-you builds of proteins like wild salmon, all-natural chicken breast, all-natural Angus steak or grilled organic tofu, available in half or full portions.
“Now, it’s the most flavor for even the smallest portion — guests want dense protein,” he says. “If, for example, you’re doing a braised short rib, it needs to have an unctuous, rich flavor, but you only need eight ounces of it. You’re serving smaller portions that are more satisfying, versus giving people a lot of luggage — and you can charge $18 instead of $50.”
Goldstein also has noted a trend of customers alternating traditional sources of protein with plant-based protein like tofu and beans, perhaps on different days of the week. “They’re moving into the mainstream as the general public becomes educated in regard to plant-based diets,” he says.
When it comes to sourcing, Sloan cites Technomic research that finds about half of consumers say it’s important to them that meat comes from animals that are humanely treated; about 40 percent of consumers emphasize a preference that the animals roam free.
“What’s interesting is that many of these characteristics are being equated with ‘healthier’ foods — and perhaps the most welcome news for protein [on the menu] comes from changes in priorities among those trying to eat more healthfully — and a willingness to pay more for those descriptors in restaurants,” Sloan says.
For beef as well as other proteins, Technomic’s Executive Vice President Darren Tristano envisions the next trend being an emphasis on purchasing local, followed by organic and chemical-free.
“We’re also starting to see more grass-fed beef, but there’s a premium price for that and the flavor [versus corn-fed] may be a negative,” he adds.
EYES WIDE OPEN
With a menu that spans healthy to indulgent, Tessa Stamper, R.D., is a very happy camper while she’s in the kitchen each day at Noodles & Company headquarters in Broomfield, Colo., working to expand the fare offered in approximately 328 fast-casual locations in 26 states. As executive chef/director of culinary for the past four-and-a-half years, she’s overjoyed to see “an overall increasing number of customers seeking quality and transparency — they want to know what’s in their food. They’re keeping an eye on their wallets, so value is important, but the food must taste good. So their priorities are: quality, flavor, transparency, whole and unprocessed.”
A Peace Corps volunteer some 15 years ago, Stamper has worked on farms in Guatemala and also attended her fair share of Sustainability Institutes. She says she’s “so excited to be finally moving with the current — now, there’s a whole growing movement in this country that supports those earlier things I was doing.” As she repositions the Noodles & Company menu to include “Your World Kitchen” (which moves beyond its previous focus of Asian/American/Mediterranean-inspired recipes), she’s added a new pulled-pork item — pork being one of the most widely consumed proteins in the world — prepared sous-vide to her specs by an outside vendor. It’s naturally raised on a plant-based diet and is hormone- and antibiotic-free. By keeping the seasoning minimal (salt, pepper, oregano), Stamper can create innumerable recipes from the same product, finished in-house — including Barbecue Pork Mac, recently menued as an LTO, or a Peppery Pork Sandwich with coleslaw. “Your World Kitchen platform makes recipe development limitless, and customers are looking for very developed, complex flavors,” she says. “They’re more adventurous than in the past — they’re willing to try things.”
To deliver tasty protein options in smaller portions, Brick House Tavern + Tap offers a meatball menu, including a Buffalo Chicken option. Photo courtesy of brick house tavern + tap. HANDS-ON TREATMENT
With many of today’s consumers looking for fresh and interesting protein treatments, operators are finding ways to deliver through made-in-house or customized preparations. As culinary manager for Houston-based Ignite Restaurant Group, Tim Griffin’s focus is on improving the food and operations of the organization’s 15 Brick House Tavern + Tap locations. The gastropub menu aims to provide high quality yet approachable items, and Griffin believes his made-in-house meatloaf wrapped in prosciutto is just what today’s guest craves. A mix of ground sausage, beef and veal, served two slices per portion, is featured as a daily special. “We have a better quality protein item by preparing our own in house, and customers realize it. We’re very hands-on with all our executive chefs to make sure product is consistent,” Griffin says.
Understanding that Brick House customers would appreciate additional small-portion, high-quality protein options, he recently introduced a meatball section on the menu featuring four variations on the theme. The classic meatball is served in basil marinara sauce with a breaded mozzarella stick plus a baguette, thus providing a DIY hoagie option. The Keftedes —a Greek minced-lamb meatball — features many traditional accompaniments, all housemade, including tzatziki sauce. “It’s nice to see lamb highly approachable in this market, versus high end, plus it has a nice perception of being healthy,” Griffin says. The Drunken Pork Meatballs with whiskey barbecue sauce features ground pork, also used in the classic version, “along with bacon chopped up in the mix, topped with breaded and fried shallots, plus big pieces of bacon-jalapeno cornbread — a Southern-inspired dish,” he adds. The lineup also includes Classic Buffalo Chicken Meatballs.
Indeed, smaller plates are a growing trend across the country and, as Griffin notes, bigger is not always better. “We want everyone to recognize they get good value for their money and we haven’t downsized portions. But we leave it in their hands; smaller portions like sliders are available, or they can get a regular hamburger plus three patties on their order, so we’re giving consumers a variety of options to satisfy them.”
But even with downsized portions, research shows that consumers are ready for more protein. “That’s among the newest and strongest health trends in America today,” Sloan says. “Fifty-five percent of consumers are ‘making an effort’ to consume more protein; 39 percent a ‘strong effort’ (Gallup 2012) — and it’s for various reasons, including weight management, to help build or tone muscles, and its general benefits to the body as we age.”
Looks like customers are ready and willing to try protein in all of its new and improved forms and flavors.
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