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Managing Myths Commodity boards help cut through misconceptions that can lead to menu-development obstacles

Operators concerned about sustainability can still feel good about serving Australian lamb, which is raised and shipped with attention to environmentally friendly practices.

Public misconceptions about foods and food handling can pose a challenge for menu developers. Diners might steer clear of dishes containing an unfamiliar product or one perceived to be unhealthy. In the same way, product misinformation among operators themselves can hold back menu development, a potential blow to the bottom line. In both cases, commodity boards can work as partners to resolve these challenges, turning formerly overlooked ingredients into best sellers.

Commodity boards are uniquely qualified to dismantle common misconceptions and bolster menu-development support. Here are a few examples of how boards helped clear up confusion and eliminate obstacles to menu innovation.

Challenge 1: Sustainability
Sustainability is an increasingly important concern to chefs and consumers. Local, in-season product may seem to be the environmentally friendly choice. But factors like consistency, sourcing complications, cost and quality can complicate an operator’s decision to favor proximity. In the case of Australian lamb, a commodity board is working to spread the word that sustainable options can indeed come from afar.

“There’s a lingering concern that lamb and other products from overseas aren’t sustainable. But in looking at the ecological footprint of Australian lamb in a comprehensive life-cycle assessment study, our process is actually extremely efficient,” says Catherine Golding of Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), representing the country’s beef, lamb and goat producers. “It turns out that raising animals on pastures with minimal inputs is most important. And shipping by boat contributes only a fraction of the overall environmental impact.”

To educate the public about its findings, MLA has invited chefs to see firsthand how farmers raise sheep Down Under. Dirk Flanigan, owner of Il Coniglio in Chicago, was one of several chefs who took part in a three-week trip last year. He left Australia impressed: “During farm tours, it was moving to see the way the animals were handled,” he says. “Whole families were working with them and really demonstrating a level of care that you rarely see. The whole process was inspiring.”

Australia prides itself on its pasture-raised lamb, which means the animals eat grass during their main growth period, and no chemical or pesticide “inputs” are used at any stage in the process. These chemicals can damage the environment and affect the health of the animals and the flavor of their meat. Grass-fed is also healthier: USDA researchers found that pasture-raised lamb contained
14 percent less fat and some 8 percent higher protein than grain-fed lamb. That news meets consumer demand for better-for-you sources of protein.

Back in Chicago, Flanigan used that inspiration in his ongoing pursuit of excellence. “I was already a proponent of local and sustainable foods, and I’ve always tried to integrate those values into my menu. The trip to Australia reinforced my belief in those values, and my belief in Australian lamb as a product that fits my values as a chef,” he says. “Every time we serve it, we pass that on to our customers, and it feels good.”

Challenge 2: Typecasting
Boards also focus on expanding a product’s versatility when it has been pigeonholed for only one of its many uses. In the case of soy, The Soyfoods Council found that the public simply doesn’t know many incarnations of their versatile bean.

“Lots of people associate soy with tofu and tofu with Asian foods,” says Linda Funk, executive director of The Soyfoods Council. “So we’ve been trying to take it out of that arena, to show how easy it is to add to other menu items. Soy is actually a great all-purpose, low-cholesterol, low-saturated-fat protein. With the elevation of the plant diet in the public’s consciousness, it’s an ideal alternative to red meat, or a healthy addition to a dish that already has meat.”

The Council sponsored a competition at last year’s Iowa State Fair—home to deep-fried butter—to see who could make the tastiest salad dressing out of silken tofu, a softer, almost liquid form of soy that most consumers aren’t familiar with. Many regular dressings contain huge amounts of saturated fat from oils, notes Funk. But silken tofu provides the base for a protein-filled, less-fatty dressing—without compromising flavor.

“Six chefs competed and came up with some phenomenal options,” says Funk. “The competition was a fun way to show how easy soy can be added to everyday meals to make them healthier and just as delicious.” Chef Cherry Mandole of The Tangerine Food Company, a catering company in Des Moines, came away with the top prize for a Creamy Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette, while chef Cori Albers of Hy-Vee grocery stores was the runner-up with a Creamy Miso Slaw.

“At The Soyfoods Council, we’ve worked hard to provide consumers and restaurant operators with the latest information on soy’s health benefits, as well as fun new ways to use soy as a substitute in well-known dishes.” Some of its surprisingly delicious soy-based recipes include pancakes, chocolate mousse, and a Caprese salad with tofu mozzarella.

Challenge 3: Fragility
If a product is too fragile, it can cause unnecessary waste or diminish the overall flavor experience. That was exactly what concerned Kevin Bechtel, senior vice president of purchasing and menu development at Shari’s Cafe & Pies, when he considered introducing fresh avocado to the menus of the Beaverton, Ore.-based chain’s 98 locations. He feared that they would bruise or rot and create waste, or they would be too difficult for cooks and prep teams to handle.

“We had used processed avocados in the past, but we wanted to try using more fresh ingredients. I wasn’t sure it would be feasible—in fact I had lots of trepidation about it at first,” Bechtel says. “I went to the California Avocado Commission, where I was provided with great information. They even facilitated a trip to see the product on a farm in Temecula, Calif. It really took going all the way to the source and talking to the producers to understand all aspects of the product. Also, the Commission’s website was extremely helpful in understanding the ripeness we would need based on our supply and distribution needs.”

From there, Bechtel started small: He began with a limited time offering—a spring omelette with spinach and mushrooms, topped with fresh avocado. It was such a hit, he made it a permanent menu item, where it’s a consistent top-seller. Since then, Shari’s has added four more fresh avocado items to the menu, including a spring strawberry-avocado salad, fresh slices atop a hamburger and turkey burger, and made-to-order fresh guacamole atop its Nacho Stack appetizer.

“We got past our fear of using the product,” Bechtel says. “And now, it’s made our menu much more attractive to folks who are concerned with health and well-being.”

Understanding a product’s true virtues and demystifying issues like sustainability, versatility and durability, is both good for boards and for menu developers’ bottom line. Considerate collaborations can clear up misconceptions and ultimately help operators leverage the best possible ingredients.

About The Author

Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos

Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos writes and edits stories about parenting, food and simple living for many national publications.