Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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The Payoff of Partnership Boards and operators team up for business-building ideas

The National Mango Board’s recent “Mad About Mangos” promotion with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst resulted in dishes that maximize the fruit’s versatility, like this cashew-crusted pollock with mango.
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Developing out-of-the-box menu promotions for operators means that commodity boards can’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. A promotion for peanuts is not necessarily going to work for walnuts, and a mango campaign will, of course, not look like one for beef.

We spoke with four commodity boards and affiliated operators to get the latest on unconventional partnerships that have produced sound results.

Mango may be the world’s most popular fruit, but it’s still considered an exotic fruit by some Americans. It’s the National Mango Board’s mission to “bring the world’s love of mangos to the United States.” The board is doing that by partnering with operators on LTOs with the hope that mangos get a permanent place on the menu, says Rachel Muñoz, director of marketing for the National Mango Board, based in Orlando, Fla. The board helps operators with product education, including handling methods, harvest information and recipe development.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst Dining Program worked with the National Mango Board to produce a “Mad About Mangos” promotion in mid-April. It was the third year the board worked with the university on an LTO, and the campaign has helped the fruit gain menu acceptance and favor other times throughout the year, says Martha Monaghan, special events manager at UMass Dining.

The most popular recipes included the breakfast mango-banana smoothie, the fish tacos with mango and avocado salsa and a mango cream pie served at lunch, and the dinner offering of a quinoa-mango salad. Other dishes included baked French toast with pecans and mango, a Cuban mango chicken, and pollock with cashews and mango.

“Mango is fun and not something every household buys on a regular basis. [The mango campaign] gives diners a chance to try it, in fresh and other forms. We try to make life here exciting and interesting,” says Monaghan. The UMass Dining Program serves approximately 45,000 meals per day across four dining commons on the campus.

The program works with a variety of commodity boards on an annual basis throughout the year, including avocados, blueberries, watermelon and sweet potato, and those partnerships help with recipe development, educational information and marketing materials. “We’re always looking for new [ingredients] to work with that we can promote and partner with,” said Monaghan.

Powerful Peanut Prevails
In April, the National Peanut Board launched its new campaign, “The Perfectly Powerful Peanut,” which includes an educational campaign for food bloggers and chefs that shows how peanuts can be incorporated into everyday recipes.

“It really is a perfectly powerful peanut. We’re trying to really emphasize the health benefits,” says Keegan Treadaway, marketing and communications coordinator for the National Peanut Board.

When the board saw the variety of recipes that chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson from The Cecil and Minton’s in Harlem, N.Y., was menuing with peanuts, they reached out to him for help with the campaign.

The program launched at The Cecil in April and features recipes developed by Johnson, a 2015 James Beard Award Rising Star semifinalist. Some of the recipes include Peanut-Powered Breakfast Cookies, Spinach Salad with Roasted Peanuts, Slow Cooker Thai Noodle Soup and Chipotle-Orange and Peanut Chicken.

Local ingredients are celebrated at Ulele in Tampa, Fla., so they take pride in serving Florida-raised fresh beef like this New York strip loin, sourced with the help of the Florida Beef Council. Johnson is inspired by West African cuisine in Ghana and cooking at Villa Monticello, Ghana’s premier luxury boutique hotel and spa. West African cuisine has a unique flavor profile and incorporates peanuts, so the partnership was a win-win for the chef and the National Peanut Board.

“I like the peanut; it has a distinct flavor and a good fattiness,” notes Johnson. He was able to show the board different recipes the peanut can be incorporated into, and in doing so, he learned much more about peanuts—including that there are four varietals (Runners, Virginia, Spanish and Valencia) and that they have different flavors depending on where they’re grown.

“It’s like wine; where grapes are grown gives you different varietals. Different states have distinct flavors of peanuts,” says Johnson.

Pairing a fine-dining chef with a mainstream ingredient has had its payoffs. “It’s not just about the peanut. It was interesting that [the board] understood food, and they wanted peanuts to go well with what I’m cooking. That was a nice part,” says Johnson.

The campaign’s marketing includes posters in the New York subway featuring the peanut plant and how peanuts grow underground, which is a surprising fact for many consumers, says Treadaway. The posters also feature peanut farmers and the health benefits of peanut consumption.

Another campaign element was the successful partnership with Project PB&J, which aims to bring comfort food to those in need, including the homeless and those affected by natural disasters. The “pop-up” campaign with casual-dining chain Which Wich Superior Sandwiches has handed out PB&J sandwiches to the homeless in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles.

The Peanut Board’s work with operators since it was founded 13 years ago has resulted in a 22 percent increase in peanut menu mentions at America’s top 500 restaurant chains, says Treadaway. He sees untapped menu opportunity in the breakfast daypart. As a good source of vegetarian protein and an ingredient that helps with satiety, peanuts tell a compelling wellness story for that morning meal period.

Beef Brings Families Together
A Florida restaurant sourcing beef is not necessarily a menu challenge, except when the restaurant wants its supply chain to focus on beef produced in-state. The majority of Florida’s cattle are shipped to feeder lots in the Midwest and processed out of state. It was serendipitous that the Florida Beef Council arranged a meeting between Strickland Ranch and Columbia Restaurant Group last year. The Florida Beef Council, funded through the Beef Checkoff and overseen by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, represents the interests of the state’s 15,000 cattle ranchers.

“We’re a relationship facilitator: We make sure people who need to know each other do,” says Ashley Hughes, director of marketing and promotion for the Florida Beef Council in Kissimmee, Fla.

Both companies are family-owned and have a passion for fresh food from Florida. Jim Strickland and his wife, Reneé, co-own Strickland Ranch, a fourth-generation cattle ranch in Myakka City, Fla. Richard Gonzmart is CEO/president and the fourth generation to run the 105-year-old Columbia Restaurant Group in Tampa, Fla. Its brands include Ulele, Cha Cha Coconuts and seven Columbia restaurants, one of which is known as “Florida’s oldest restaurant.”

Michael Kilgore, CRG’s chief marketing officer, says having more than a business connection makes a difference; it’s a tremendous advantage to know the cattlemen who are providing the restaurants with beef.

“Family and history are important to Richard and the restaurant group,” says Kilgore. “Being able to work with the Stricklands was a bonus, in addition to getting great quality beef.”The relationship began before last year’s opening of Ulele, a new restaurant that celebrates Florida ingredients from land and sea located on Tampa’s Riverwalk. The Ulele concept doesn’t have freezers on site, so sourcing fresh beef regularly is especially critical to them. CRG sources all of its beef from Strickland Ranch, which is 45 minutes away. “It’s an extension of our philosophy and dedication to providing fresh-from-Florida food,” says Kilgore.

The Ulele menu calls out the Strickland Ranch brand with a logo, and offers a 10-oz. filet mignon, a 14-oz. New York strip loin, a 2.2-lb. “kilo porterhouse” featuring dry-aged filet mignon and New York strip cuts, an 8-oz. flank steak and Water Works meatloaf made with ground dry-aged strip loin, fresh vegetables, Cabernet-garlic demi glace, a white cheddar popcorn mash and onions.

The two families are busy planning the next element of their working relationship: the Strickland beef that will be used on the menu at the Goody Goody hamburger chain that CRG is slated to re-open later this year in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village. The iconic Florida chain opened in 1925 and closed about 10 years ago. CRG bought the rights to the chain last year and is looking forward to opening later this year, says Kilgore.

One component of the California Strawberry Commission’s recent Foodservice Field Tour was seeing the versatility of strawberries in food and drink applications like this refreshing strawberry-mint cocktail served at Montrio Bistro in Monterey, Calif.

Walnuts Fly High
It’s not every day a commodity ingredient gets to take flight, but that’s how California walnuts are traveling through the end of this year. Launched in June, passengers on Delta flights that are more than 1,400 miles are being given the Delta EATS inflight menu that features California walnuts on the cheese plate served at breakfast. The airline has been adding more healthful, whole-food items on its EATS menu for longer flights. Christian Hallowell, customer dedicated executive chef for Delta Air Lines at gategroup, says putting walnuts on the menu’s breakfast plate was an “obvious fit.”

“Walnuts offer the health benefits that speak to our initiatives around healthier food,” says Hallowell. Walnuts are not only gluten-free and high in protein, they are also high in ALA omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium and phosphorus.

Hallowell has been an “enthusiastic ambassador” of walnuts since attending a foodservice education program sponsored by the California Walnut Board a few years ago. The program taught chefs how to properly store walnuts; how they are grown, harvested and processed; the science of oils; and the potential health benefits related to walnut consumption.

Seasonality, price and menu fatigue all are factors that go into making changes to the Delta EATS menu, notes Hallowell. “The walnut is a high-quality ingredient that fits into our strategy,” he adds.

One of the clear benefits of working with the commodity board is its support in conveying the health message to the consumer. “I love that they’re willing to work with us — [the walnut is] not just a logo; they’re letting us engage with them,” says Emily Nordee, public relations director for the California Walnut Board’s PR firm. “It’s a great opportunity for the brand itself and to educate consumers about walnuts and what they offer on a nutritional platform.”

The Delta EATS menu is in the economy class cabin of approximately 650 of 800 aircraft and receives 13 million “brand impressions” per month. In August, the airline planned to roll out a label on each of the cheese plates that calls out the ALA omega-3 fatty acid content of 2.5 grams per 1-oz. serving. Walnuts will remain on the Delta EATS menu until January, when the airline will conduct its semi-annual review of menu items.

Hallowell is no stranger to commodity boards: He’s working with the National Pecan Shellers Association on an October event and has also done workshops with the U.S. Potato Board. His work with commodity boards allows for a synergistic approach to disseminating information relevant to the commodity.

“It empowers chefs to educate and advocate for the product while encouraging a vibrant exchange of information and learning of techniques,” says Hallowell.

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Strawberry Fields
Commodity-sponsored foodservice tours are one of the best means of connecting operators with a board and the product it promotes. The California Strawberry Commission hosted its Foodservice Field Tour in July, bringing a group of foodservice professionals to Watsonville, Calif., to demonstrate how California strawberries are grown, harvested, processed and shipped.

The tour included a visit to Ed Kelly’s fifth-generation strawberry farm, where attendees saw sustainability and food-safety initiatives in action, and learned of the community support farmers like Kelly provide through scholarship foundations for farm workers and their children. The group also visited Cal Pacific Specialty Foods, a state-of-the-art frozen strawberry processor, and Berry Chill Cooler, a cooling facility/shipper, where they witnessed firsthand the impressively short time from field harvest to cooling and shipping. The minimal handling and same-day harvest-to-shipping (or processing for frozen applications) timeframe help ensure a premium quality strawberry, whether fresh or frozen.

Other takeaways from the tour:

  • California is the top producer of American-grown strawberries, supplying nearly 90 percent of the country’s crop.
  • More than 400 farmers grow strawberries in five distinct regions, mainly along the California coast, supplying fresh berries year round.
  • California strawberry farmers are pioneers in sustainable farming practices commonplace in the produce industry today, such as drip irrigation and integrated pest management.

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