Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Flavor-Filled Partnerships Commodity boards help operators innovate around flavor-forward menu items

Smart use for dried plums: Pork shoulder marinated in prune juice becomes irresistibly sweet and tender.

Commodity boards and trade associations provide invaluable support in developing innovative flavors. They help operators key into different applications, maximizing the benefits of the product while delivering a flavor-forward dining experience. We asked four boards to share insights into recent winning partnerships.

Flavor Building Blocks
Boards and associations work with operators by presenting concepts and identifying original items that can add flavor and interest to their menu. The California Strawberry Commission (CSC) offers a five-step approach reflecting the general method that facilitates a productive relationship between boards and brands:

  • Understanding of the restaurant concept by working with their team and immersing in the brand
  • Brainstorming specific concepts that best fit the brand and the line
  • Streamlining the concepts based on the operational set-up of the restaurant
  • Understanding broad food trends and narrower consumer trends to key in on flavors
  • Understanding the versatility of the product and how it can be incorporated into specific concepts, cooking platforms and dayparts

“Each operator obviously has a unique concept and menu, so we’ll customize our approach depending on an operator’s needs and wants,” says Chris Christian, CSC’s senior vice president. For instance, not every project involves menu ideation. The Cheesecake Factory was interested in promoting strawberry LTOs, so CSC participated in a Cheesecake Factory chat on Twitter. Facts about California strawberries were posted, and a discussion with Cheesecake Factory Twitter followers was started on favorite ways to eat strawberries.

“With this type of social media interaction, it’s best to do it ahead of the LTO’s launch to build excitement among Twitter followers,” says Christian. In addition to the discussion, some sort of contest could be included, such as every so many minutes a follower will be selected at random to win a gift basket. “Simple prizes work really well on social media, and create engagement,” he says.

Expanding Awareness
Sometimes flavor building begins with educating operators. “Most menu development chefs are not aware of the 10 varieties of USA pears,” says Kathy Stephenson, marketing communications director for USA Pears/Pear Bureau Northwest, representing pear growers, packers and shippers in Oregon and Washington, the nation’s largest pear producing region. Each pear has a unique flavor and texture, which is of interest in the R&D process. However, depending on the size of the restaurant concept and whether they’re adding a permanent menu item or developing a seasonal LTO, they need to recognize availability of each variety. “Larger operators tend to consider varieties such as Green and Red Anjou, Bosc and Bartlett, while smaller chains or independents have more flexibility to use varieties such as Comice, Seckel or Starkrimson,” Stephenson says.

A few years ago, Panera Bread was in the research phase of adding a fresh pear salad to a seasonal menu. USA Pears provided the purchasing team with information on pear varietal characteristics, availability by month, handling information and a contact list of pear shippers.

In the case of Rosemary Shrager from The Cookery School in Kent, England, the California Dried Plum Board (CDPB) announced a partnership with the U.K. celebrity chef after she approached them at the 2013 U.K. Cake and Bake show through its European public relations agency. She was impressed by the taste and quality of California dried plums. Since then, she and CDPB have worked together to promote dried plums as a versatile, quality culinary ingredient through a private event for journalists, unique recipe development, creation of video assets highlighting recipes and excitement on social media platforms.

Flavor Innovation
Boards and associations are always looking for ways to align with chefs who are pushing flavor boundaries. When identifying operators to build out flavors on the menu using dried plums, the California Dried Plum Board looks at more than just adding sweetness to menu items. They also look at ways to complement savory dishes in marinades, balancing salty dishes and adding texture and moisture to baked goods.

“Once we find these operators, we approach them to determine if the relationship is a good fit,” says Donn Zea, executive director for the CDPB. “We believe in giving the operator creative freedom to develop what they know their customers will enjoy and find authentic to their brand.”

CDPB worked with Mark Liberman, executive chef/owner of AQ Restaurant & Bar and partner of Bon Marché Brasserie & Bar, both in San Francisco. He applied dried plums as a way to add moisture to a pork dish, using prune juice to marinate pork shoulder, breaking down the collagen and tenderizing it as it cooked. CDPB also wanted to showcase the versatility of dried plums. Liberman made a radish carpaccio finished with a dried plum and miso dressing.

Another interesting menu concept is dried plums paired with chocolate. Partnering with the International Chocolate Awards winner of 2013, Paul Young of Paul A. Young Fine Chocolates in London, England, allowed CDPB to develop its dried plum portfolio beyond adding sweetness to desserts but as decadent accessories. Young touts the natural flavors of dried plums to mirror a deep and lovely port and caramel, which is a perfect match for the flavors of chocolate. However, what adds to the flavor-building program for Young is the texture that dried plums bring to chocolate. From this inspiration, he hosted media events where he walked guests through recipes such as a California Prune and Black Pepper Caramel Brownie. “The combination of black pepper and prune created a dish that is delicately spicy, not too hot and has notes of fruit to round out the entire dessert,” says Zea.

From an operator’s standpoint, rather than just promoting a summer- or spring-type LTO, boards and associations help look at a much bigger picture and allow them to be more creative in developing new recipes.

“It’s always good to get an outside perspective on your operation, because that allows you to create recipes that stand above the competition,” says Doug Czufin, director of culinary and corporate executive chef for The Egg & I, with 115 locations nationwide.

A flavor collaboration between Czufin and the California Strawberry Commission involved working with a CSC chef-consultant, who came up with 20 initial concepts specifically geared to The Egg & I’s breakfast menu. Those 20 ideas were narrowed down to 10. One concept involved a new waffle: the Strawberry Fields Waffle, which accentuates the flavors of strawberries by building layers of flavor.
The consultant recommended adding a strawberry purée swirled into a waffle batter. Czufin liked the idea, but determined it didn’t deliver the full strawberry flavor, nor the desired visual effect. He tweaked the idea by instead using fresh-diced strawberries that were baked into the waffle, which was then topped with strawberry sauce and whipped strawberry butter.

This application resulted in a layered effect of strawberries. “Baking the strawberries in the waffle was a new concept for us, which put the focus on the strawberry rather than the waffle,” he says. “The strawberry butter was not a new idea for us, but doing it in a way where it was layered was a new application.”

Easy Appeal
Spanish cuisine remains one of the hottest trends in foodservice, fueled by the social dining culture and bright flavors of Spain. “Spanish olives are an easy point of entry for any chef looking to tap into this trend and add a Spanish appeal and flavor to everything from bar bites and pizzas to robust salads and entrées,” says Ignacio Perez, marketing director for Olives from Spain.

In addition to imparting hearty umami flavor, each of the 10-plus Spanish olive varietals infuses dishes with a unique sweet, salty, bitter or sour note. “Each has its own unique flavor profile that chefs can pair with and integrate into their dishes, much like a sommelier would pair a wine,” Perez explains.

Last fall, Olives from Spain partnered with leading restaurants from across the country, all of which featured Spanish olives on their menus. Osvoldo Blackaller, chef and owner of Cueva Bar in San Diego, menus a popular Spanish starter, the Papa Aplastada, with a spiced, blended green and black olive tapenade over roasted red potatoes.

Jose Garces of Amada in Philadelphia offers a unique treatment to his olives by smoking them. His Mejillones en Escabeche dish combines Blue Bay mussels and smoked Spanish olive escabeche served with saffron toast, offering a distinct and memorable flavor experience using familiar ingredients.

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