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Menu Success Stories A look at menu “wins” resulting from commodity board and operator partnerships

More operators are beginning to tap into the menu-wide versatility of nuts. For example, walnuts can provide protein, texture and crunch to a kale salad (above), or substitute for dairy in flavorful vegan sauces, soups and dressings.
PHOTO CREDIT: California Walnuts

Educator, sourcing strategist, marketer, recipe consultant, menu collaborator. Commodity boards serve a diverse role in the foodservice community. In an age of shrinking profits and expanding food costs, boards also offer great resources for developing new, popular menu items. Here’s a look at menu “wins” and related success stories resulting from these commodity-operator collaborations.

Telling a Story
Increasingly, consumers want to know where their food comes from, and, in the case of proteins, they want to trust in its husbandry. According to data from Chicago-based research firm Technomic, more of today’s consumers are concerned with the welfare of animals. Two out of three consumers say that food described as “farm-raised” (67 percent) and “grass-fed” (66 percent) is healthier, according to the 2012 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report.

Matt Harding, corporate chef at Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, sees this first-hand. When looking to “premium-ize” the pork on Brio’s menu amidst rising beef and poultry costs, he worked with the National Pork Board (NPB) to source a higher quality breed and cut that would tell a better story about where and how the animals were raised.

“Our guests are looking for a great experience, so I didn’t just want to give them any run-of-the-mill pork,” he says. “They want higher quality meat, and they want to know the place, the story—the terroir.”

During an educational summit hosted by the NPB, Harding learned about the board’s series of new names and specifications for different types of chops—resembling steak nomenclature—such as the porterhouse, ribeye chop and New York chop. After an in-house demonstration conducted by NPB chefs at the chain’s headquarters, Harding chose to showcase a pork porterhouse for the 60-unit Brio Tuscan Grille, which revamped 13 dishes on its menu this summer.

In just the first week on the new menu, sales for the bone-in Compart Family Farms Duroc pork porterhouse were up 11 percent over the previous item, a more traditional pork chop. Harding also found he could charge more for this premium, slightly larger pork porterhouse (13-oz. for $20.95) than the regular chop (9-oz. for $17.95). The chop is first brined, then rubbed with olive oil and fresh herbs and grilled to finish. It’s served with seasonal vegetables and mashed red potatoes.

“The new pork name also helps tell the story of the dish because you can relate the word ‘porterhouse’ to a steak,” says Harding. “It gives the impression that there is a filet and strip loin in the cut and provides a point of differentiation from other basic pork chops.”

Harding credits the NPB for education and sourcing assistance; they helped him choose a fourth-generation Iowa pork producer focused on animal welfare, quality feed and heritage breed stock. Compart Farms also met Harding’s needs because, as a primarily pork ribs supplier, the farm had extra porterhouse cuts available.

“I told the Pork Board what I wanted, and they helped suggest producers while taking into account our need for consistency and the volume factor,” he says. “I was looking for a high-quality, heritage-breed pork cut that I could buy at a good price and sell as a premium cut. Commodity boards want to give you the best vendor you can afford as well as their inside knowledge.”

Jim Murray, foodservice manager for the National Pork Board, says sourcing assistance is one of the commodity board’s most important jobs. “Our role as a consultant is to help restaurants first find out what their quality points are going to be,” he says. “Then we go out and find producers with capabilities of supplying what they need, while maintaining perspective on their volume needs and the reality that they might go through a million pounds of the product.”

Sourcing for Function
Robert Pesch, vice president of culinary R&D for the full-service casual dining chain Cheddar’s, with 155 units throughout 26 states, knew he needed to step up his fried cheese appetizer—a manufactured product—as it seemed out of place on a made-from-scratch menu.

A Minnesota native, Pesch had the idea to serve fried cheese curds instead of the fried mozzarella sticks currently on the menu, but worried about shipping issues to Cheddar’s restaurants located outside the Midwest. Cheese curds have limited shelf life; they lose their fresh, milky taste and “squeaky” mouthfeel after just a day or two.

Pesch approached the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) for ideas on companies that could meet his needs. When the board came back with options, he chose a small company that uses a special nitrogen-based technology to vacuum-seal the fresh curds, which are then hand-breaded and deep-fried in house. The curds are chilled, not frozen, so they retain their structure, texture and taste when cooked, according to Pesch.

The Wisconsin Cheese Bites were introduced in the spring of 2013 and quickly became a top seller, Pesch says, even at the same price as the previous menu item ($6.99). “We struggled for a while to find the best replacement, but the cheese curds are selling a lot better than the mozzarella sticks,” he says. “It’s great to see people in Texas who don’t know a lot about cheese curds really enjoy them.”

Allen Hendricks, WMMB’s vice president of foodservice and education, was happy to help. “Many operators come to us looking for specific details and sourcing needs such as these,” he says. “It can be as simple as taking a look at their menu pantry and offering them ideas based on what they’re looking for, or working with the account in their facilities or at a third-party location.”

The board also conducts market research as needed and offers ongoing education through national seminars, newsletters and other communications via the website for chefs looking to source specific cheese products.

Says Pesch: “I like that I was able to get a unique, Midwestern, all-natural product with a great story and history. It’s great that Allen offered me options to choose from that would meet my quality and volume needs, rather than pushing one brand over another.”

Nutrition and Education
At Google’s YouTube campus, many customers are not only interested in learning more about the nutritional value of their food, they’re looking for more plant-based vegan and vegetarian items, according to Trent Page, chef de cuisine for Bon Appétit Management Company, which manages the company’s foodservice accounts.

After attending a nutrition education seminar last spring, hosted by California Walnuts at The Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus, Page discovered more about the heart-healthy nut. The inspiration he gained led to a new Kale Caesar Salad using nuts in place of oil and eggs for the dressing.

“I was looking for a non-dairy, gluten-free alternative that would create the same consistency of a dressing or sauce,” says Page. “I found that walnuts offer that functionality, plus they’re high in omega-3 fatty acids and offer a little extra protein. I’m not working in a traditional restaurant—I’m at a company where our younger customers are looking for food that’s exciting but also needs to be healthful so they can perform at their best every day,” he adds.

The result? A just-as-creamy but dairy-free option. In addition to blending the nuts in the dressing, Page incorporates whole, toasted walnuts as garnish for crunch and texture. He leaves out the Parmesan for vegan customers.

Page has also used walnuts as a vegan-friendly, gluten-free thickener for sauces and soups in place of traditional roux made with butter and refined flour. Recently, he made a miso-walnut broth as the base for ramen and vegetarian main-dish soups, replacing the need for chicken- or other meat-based broth. Page plans to continue working with California Walnuts for more ideas.

The board has also worked with Guckenheimer Corporate Dining, a foodservice management company focused on natural, nutritious meals, to develop a series of LTOs last October as part of National Walnut Month and the nut’s prime harvest time. The walnut-focused promotion, which took place at 160 Guckenheimer cafes throughout California and the Pacific Northwest, featured an appetizer, salad, walnut-crusted whitefish dish and a dessert, complete with nutritional information and take-home recipe cards.

“We’re always looking to partner with local sources, including commodity boards, and run promotions based on what’s available in our different regions,” says Doug Setniker, regional executive chef for Guckenheimer’s Pacific Northwest region.

Setniker says online customer feedback collected through Guckenheimer’s website was extremely positive. The top three dishes included: a walnut, fig and fennel oat muesli; a salad with shaved fennel, pears and anise glaze; and a dessert flatbread spread with Nutella and topped with toasted walnuts, apples, pears and a creamed honey drizzle. The muesli was such a standout that Guckenheimer has since introduced the LTO as a permanent item for its espresso bar kiosks. “The kiosks already had steamed milk so it was an easy fit,” he says. “It has gotten some great exposure beyond the normal breakfast crowd.”

Setniker plans to work on another series of promotional LTOs featuring walnuts again this fall harvest season. Though Guckenheimer’s cafes run on cycle menus that change every five or six weeks, the walnut recipes have been added to the company’s permanent recipe files so chefs throughout the 325 units nationwide can use them as often as they would like.

Promotional Philanthropy
Commodity boards have even assisted operators with promotional marketing, including philanthropic goals, around menu development. The American Egg Board (AEB) recently partnered with Dunkin’ Donuts and Denny’s to support their charitable endeavors, while also showcasing the use of eggs.

“Partnering with chains in this way is a win for everyone,” says John Howeth, senior vice president, foodservice and egg product marketing for the AEB, describing the board’s work with operators, particularly high-volume chains. “The chain attracts positive attention by helping people with its program and new menu items, while America’s egg farmers get to showcase the versatility of their product.”

Through the Good Egg Project, AEB supported Dunkin’ Donuts’ launch of its Eggs Benedict Breakfast Sandwich by donating one egg for each sandwich sold. He says a total of 750,000 eggs were donated during the event. Meanwhile, the LTO offered that flavor component consumers were looking for: an oven-toasted English muffin topped with Black Forest ham, a soft cooked egg and creamy Hollandaise-flavored spread.

The AEB also supported a similar promotion to help feed the hungry, introduced by Denny’s last fall with Share Our Strength. For that event, the board donated 600,000 eggs for Denny’s build-your-own omelette, with one egg donated to Share Our Strength food bank distribution centers for each omelette sold. Plus, what started as an LTO has since become a permanent menu item.

Menu success depends on the perfect pairing of flavor with volume, quality and other operator needs. Commodity boards have shown they can serve as the collaborative arm that helps achieve those needs.

About The Author

Amelia Levin

Amelia Levin, a Chicago-based freelance writer and food writer, has contributed to a variety of local and national newspapers, magazines, and trade journals.