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Artisan Analysis

Au Bon Pain is placing more emphasis on artisan breads and cheeses, as in its Tuna Melt with farmstead cheddar from Vermont’s Shelburne Farms. Photo courtesy of red robin GOURMET BURGERS. Operators develop smart menu strategies around America’s fixation on all-things artisanal

By Monica Kass Rogers

Perhaps more than ever before, consumers want transparency, authenticity, honesty and less spin when it comes to their food. And chains are paying attention to this slow turn away from commodity product and toward smaller-batch, handcrafted, “here’s-where-it-came-from-and-what’s-in-it” menus.

While multi-unit operators can’t do their own charcuterie, fresh cheese and 10 kinds of pickles in-house, they can embrace and communicate “hand-made,” “from-scratch,” “to-order,” “farm-sourced,” “locally grown” and “signature-recipe” messages. But just how much can operators say about what they’re doing without desensitizing consumers or roiling suspicions of false claims?

“You do need to be very conscious of how you say what you say,” says Jeff Drake, co-founder and president of six-unit Go Roma, a fast-casual Italian concept that is one of San Francisco-based Forklift Brands’ two concepts. “You have to be honest, but say too much and you overwhelm people.”

“I think we have to be really careful in the industry to have integrity with this, or ‘artisanal’ loses its specialness,” agrees Eric Justice, vice president of culinary development for PFCB Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz.-based operator of 200 full-service P.F. Chang’s China Bistros and 160 fast-casual Pei Wei Asian Diners.

“There’s definitely been a genuine increase in interest in a smaller-batch, more-artisanal approach, but there are also big companies that are more about using ‘artisan’ for marketing power than about giving guests a true bang for the buck,” says Justice.

“It’s not really a problem for the truly niche-y independent places to do it all in-house, but as you go up that chain a little bit, you’re not going to have that expertise from the unit staff, or the space in the kitchen,” he adds.

For these reasons, large chains or restaurant groups have to pick and choose what they can really do at the unit level.  “The skill,” says Justice, “comes in finding the item that adds pop, buzz and punch and the ability to still make it profitable.”

To add that pop and sizzle at Pei Wei, Justice’s team is honing in on house-made, quick-pickle garnishes and fresh, chilled, composed salads on top of entrées — “things where there’s no doubt you created it in-house, something a little different than the guest would normally get.”

One example is Pei Wei’s new, limited-time-offer Korean barbecue dish, patterned after bulgogi but prepared wok-style and topped with a pepper-paste and apple-vinaigrette-seasoned mizuna, sprout and apple salad. The dish comes with a choice of veggies and tofu, chicken, beef or shrimp, with prices ranging from $7.50 to $9.25.

At P.F. Chang’s, the company is testing  Pacojet ice-cream makers and sous-vide equipment — items usually associated with high-end restaurants. If adopted, the  ice-cream makers will allow P.F. Chang’s to offer three house-made ice creams or sorbets every day, “a unique talking point for the server that illustrates we are doing something special, more boutique and customizable on the unit level,” says Justice.

Meanwhile, at Big Bowl, a Chinese- and Thai-themed concept with eight units in three states (Minnesota, Illinois and Virginia, with plans to launch a new quick-service outlet at St. Louis grocery stores), locally grown vegetables are the artisanal focus.

“You do have to focus somewhat on making your highest-volume items better, and on what you get the most credit for,” says  Marc Bernard, executive chef.

“Twenty-two percent of our guests order from our stir-fry bar, which is where we have been putting locally sourced produce, and guests really give us a lot of credit for that,” says Bernard, who reports that sales went up 15 to 30 percent in some units directly in response to the addition of local produce.

And to make things even better,  starting with its four Chicago-area stores, Big Bowl is buying into what may be the Midwest’s first example of RSA (Restaurant-Supported Agriculture), an extrapolation of CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture), in which people put up money to buy shares in the produce of a specific local farm. Big Bowl has contracted with LaFox, Ill., farmer Bronwyn Weaver for a percentage of her Heritage Prairie Farm crops this season.

Even more buzzworthy than bringing the farm to Big Bowl, the restaurant will be bringing its staff to the farm. Throughout the 2011 growing season, “Farm Mondays” will see Big Bowl’s Chicago-area staff driving out to the farm to weed, water, hoe or harvest — a day of work that will culminate in a festive farm dinner prepared by Bernard.

“We’re really excited about this opportunity to involve the staff in the production of the food, for the experience they’ll get, and because they’ll be really invested in telling people about those vegetables when they come into the restaurants,” says Bernard. If RSA and the “Farm Days” program works in Chicago, the plan is to extend it to the rest of Big Bowl’s locations, with each connecting with local farms.

Meanwhile Red Robin, Corner Bakery, Mimi’s Cafe and Au Bon Pain are all interested in sourcing local produce where they can. Boston-based Au Bon Pain tested bringing locally grown apples and pears into its Boston stores last fall and is expanding the test to include more markets and more produce this year.

“I thought it would cost more than the fruit we sourced before, but it didn’t,” says Thomas John, executive chef and senior vice president of food and beverage for the 230-unit chain. “Guests loved that we did this, and the fruit — even though it was less uniform in size — was tastier and fresher.”

He adds that in-house baking communicates an artisanal message guests can grab onto.

“Artisanal is what the competition is about in the marketplace today; everybody wants to give, and get, better quality. For us, fresh breads baked throughout the day is a big thing, because we want it to be special; it is our point of differentiation,” says John. “Bottom line? Whether we call the bread artisanal or make it look artisanal, guests respond to both.”

Asian-inspired Big Bowl is one of a growing number of high-volume operations forming closer ties with farms through an RSA (Restaurant-Supported Agriculture) program and farm field trips for employees. Photo courtesy of big bowl. For its part, Irvine, Calif.-based Mimi’s Cafe recently shaped two Arizona prototypes for future store designs that put some bake ovens up front next to a boulangerie-styled bakery case to greet guests with the sight and smell of freshly baked goods.

“Our regular users like us for different things, but at the end of the day, it’s the muffins and breads that speak loudest,” says Adam Baird, vice president of food and beverage and executive chef for the 145-unit chain.

Some purchased products, such as farmhouse cheeses and more-established artisan brands, also communicate artisanal cachet.

Au Bon Pain is revisiting an artisanal, farmstead-cheese focus, John says, “because guests are more interested in these types of ingredients.”

A few years ago, the chain featured Shelburne cheddar, from Shelburne Farms in Vermont, as part of a year-long limited-time-offer showcase where the cheese was served with albacore tuna for $5.99. But Au Bon Pain ran into operational snags: The cheese tended to crumble and couldn’t be cut evenly, prompting the concept to discontinue its use.

“We’re looking for another cheese — this time playing with different levels of aging — that will also have exceptional flavor, without the textural issues,” says John.

Pricing can be a hurdle. While Au Bon Pain was able to sell the Shelburne cheddar without raising prices, artisanal ingredients usually cost more. And not all guests are willing to pay more for top-line goods.

Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Red Robin’s year-long tests with Niman Ranch hormone/antibiotic-free hot dogs, for example, have had mixed results. “Some people are thrilled and really appreciate the high-quality dog, but others don’t know what Niman Ranch is,” says Dave Woolley, executive chef. “So do they think paying a little extra for a Niman dog is worth it? We’re not sure.”

Red Robin will continue to test Niman Ranch and other artisanal-niche products as part of the 430-unit chain’s scratch-made platform.

One cost-cutting tactic is creative ingredient use. At P.F. Chang’s, for example, rather than put Niman Ranch pork at the center of a costly entrée plate, the concept is testing appetizer-sized pork dumplings made from Niman Ranch kurobuta pork trim (kurobuta — or “black pig” in Japanese — is actually the Berkshire breed). The appetizer-size dumpling showcases this specialty pork well; and the price of kurobuta trim is more reasonably priced than an entrée cut of Niman Ranch pork.

Beyond big-name artisanal products, niche items that carry the clout of “all-natural” “hormone-free,” “locally grown” or “humanely and sustainably raised” count with guests.

“I think more and more people are looking for reassurance that restaurants are looking into these things,” says Go Roma’s Drake. “Our all-natural chicken and nitrate-free/hormone-free turkey breast — even our organic milk on the kids’ menu — guests have given us real positive feedback on those.”

By virtue of quality and higher yield, these niche items actually can prove cost-effective. Big Bowl’s Bernard says the concept initially worried about the price when considering the switch from commodity to all-natural chicken.

“At first look, the all-natural product was $1.50 more per pound than the commodity product. But once we tested the two, we were shocked to find that the organic product had a much higher yield.”

According to Bernard, 5 pounds of the all-natural yields over 4 pounds of cooked chicken, while 5 pounds of commodity chicken yields about 3.5 pounds prepared.

Of course, operators point out that “made in-house” artisan goods don’t always mean better, and don’t equate with products made by artisans who have perfected preparation techniques for specific foods over generations.

“Americans sometimes give credit, or assume better quality, just because a restaurant says that something is house-made. But in reality, a lot of house-made food can be terrible,” says Raimondo Boggia, president of B Ventures USA, operator of Obika Mozzarella Bar, a Rome-based concept that now has three U.S. locations (two in Los Angeles, one in New York City and more coming).

“Even if you are a niche independent with the time to make cheese and charcuterie, is it really going to be as good as what you’d get from a true artisan? Probably not,” he points out.

Rather than make key artisanal ingredients in-house, says Boggia, bringing in higher-cost, proven ingredients or working with a vendor to create an item to specification means better quality.

Corner Bakery Cafe’s new Green Chile & Chicken Panini includes chiles grown especially for the chain. Photo courtesy of corner bakery cafe. “Take mozzarella,” says Boggia. “It’s not rocket science to make it, but to really perfect the process, you have to have the right milk, from the right buffalos that have eaten the right grasses, and the cheeses must be cured at the perfect temperature with vegetal enzymes. The same is true with 20-month-aged prosciutto. Generations of knowledge have gone into this.”

For these reasons, the mozzarella and the prosciutto sold at Obika stores is brought in. “The price may be 30 to 40 percent more, making our profit margins somewhat lower, but it’s worth it,” says Boggia.

Other fine ingredients, such as Obika’s wild-caught, smoked salmon, which is slow-smoked without sugar using a B Ventures recipe, Boggia outsources. “We developed our own recipe for this, and have it smoked at a little, chef-overseen firm in Seattle,” says Boggia.

In fact, outsourcing — working with vendors to make food items to restaurant specifications — has come of age as chain operators continue to up the ante on quality and vendors improve on what they deliver.

“It’s a thought process you go through: Do you want to teach 145 prep cooks how to do artisan-quality ravioli by hand?,” asks Baird of Mimi’s Cafe. “If not, the next best alternative is to go to a small custom house and have them make the item from your recipe.”

Since it started having a small vendor handcraft its seasonal ravioli using fresh, organic ingredients, Mimi’s Cafe has seen ravioli sales quadruple. “Butternut squash, tomato-jam basil, asparagus-mozzarella — does the average Joe realize exactly what goes into these? Probably not, but we sell the heck out of them,” says Baird.

Dallas-based Corner Bakery Cafe worked hard to find a domestic producer that could grow and oven-roast the Roma tomatoes for its best-selling Chicken Pomodori Panini.

“Those tomatoes are incredibly expensive — three times more costly than other roasted tomatoes out there — but when you taste them on that sandwich? It’s just real food,” says  Ric Scicchitano, senior vice president of food and beverage for the 118-unit chain.

Likewise, the company searched far and wide to find a New Mexico grower, roaster and processor that could do an oven-roast Anaheim green chile with a flavor profile closely matched to the Hatch chile, which has a cult following in the Southwest.

“Ingredients like this work for us two ways,” says Scicchitano. “They make that extra-quality statement for us, and they get special attention from our guest.”

Roasted green chiles are now being featured on Corner Bakery’s Green Chile & Chicken Panini — sourdough bread layered with the chiles, all-natural roasted chicken, house-made jicama slaw, tomatoes, white cheddar cheese and house-made roasted-garlic mayo. Moving forward, the chiles may also be featured in Green Chile Mac ’n Cheese.

But the message chains communicate on outsourced items must be carefully worded. Phrases such as “sustainably raised,” “locally grown,” or “hormone free” earn points with guests, but “made for us off-premises” doesn’t. Chains focus on the source of the ingredient, spotlighting family farms and organic purveyors on signage and websites. But the companies/concerns that put those ingredients together for restaurants stay pretty much invisible.

“Let’s face it: 95 percent of the people out there have no idea that chains don’t make all of their stuff on-premises,” says Justice. “By calling yourself out, there’s no upside to that.  So you just don’t go there.”

Corner Bakery’s Scicchitano agrees. “Outsourcing? There’s no sexy way to say that; you don’t get credit. But, then again, you don’t want to get noise on that — just silently get the job done and let the taste of the food communicate.”

Outsourced, in-house or artisanal, operators agree that the flavor of the food speaks loudest.

“Is somebody from Tulsa going to rush out to Mimi’s because they read we are hand-breading our chicken tenders? Probably not,” says Baird. “But they will if the taste of those tenders is exceptional.”

“Ultimately, you just have to have great food,” concurs Justice. “That, at the end of the day, will serve past any marketing or messaging you have to do.”


About The Author

Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer based in Evanston, ill.