Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Best of FlavorTop 10 Trends

Playing Up Produce

To reflect a move to fresh, house-made menu items, Sizzler recently revamped its legendary salad bar, which now boasts an abundance of freshly made salads and soups and on-trend ingredients. Photo courtesy of sizzler.
With fruit and vegetable consumption headlining nutrition policy, chains are putting produce to work

By Katie Ayoub

With MyPlate, the USDA replaced the old Food Pyramid with a user-friendly illustration of how America should eat. In clear, colorful expression, it tells consumers that produce should make up half of their plate. The MyPlate message is sure to have ramifications for foodservice.

Unlike menu-labeling laws, which aggressively mandate nutrition awareness, MyPlate takes a subtler tack, gently pointing Americans toward a more conscientious approach to meals. If consumers heed the advice, which is likely in these health- and obesity-conscious times, they’ll be looking to chefs to menu more produce in new and more-flavorful ways.

“MyPlate got rid of a complex graphic that no one understood and replaced it with one that’s actionable,” says Bryan Silbermann, president and CEO of the Produce Marketing Association. “MyPlate is a rallying point. It’s a simple, but powerful message. Never underestimate the power of the pulpit from Washington. Government has a critical role to play in nutrition promotion, and consumers are paying attention.”

Access to nutritional information from initiatives like MyPlate and menu labeling makes today’s diners savvier — and more demanding — than ever before. Pop culture also affects food culture, and today’s pop culture has elevated flavor to a contact sport. Once savvy diners have watched The Food Network’s Guy Fieri whip up whiskey-glazed sweet potatoes, they have a higher sweet-potato expectation when they dine out.

So, while they’re willing to eat more fruits and veggies, they expect chefs to make produce more flavorful, exciting  and even craveable. This is perhaps not too difficult a requirement for independents, but it does present a challenge for higher-volume and multi-unit operations.

“The tough part is replication. I’m only as good as my line cook,” says Ray Martin, corporate executive chef for BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. Still, Martin asserts that it’s worth putting in the time to create systems for success in meeting consumer demand for more and better produce on the menu.

Taking produce beyond a medley of steamed veggies on the menu presents a learning curve for multi-units. On the way to success are occasional missteps with dishes showcasing produce. But missteps can provide valuable insights into what works and what doesn’t.

Sizzler added a Caprese salad to its salad bar to introduce a more traditional Italian salad. This salad required an abundance and purchase of fresh mozzarella pearls. “When we put it on the bar, it did not have the immediate recognition of our previous featured salads,” says Angelina Maranon, purchasing manager for Sizzler. While the customers who tried it liked it, the movement was not at the level Sizzler anticipated.

“At this point, we had to retract and regroup. What we learned is that we have to inform our guests about what’s on our salad bar, especially when introducing less recognizable and more traditional ethnic salads,” says Maranon. “The salad might have done better had it appealed to a broader group of our guests.”

Cliff Pleau, corporate chef of Seasons 52, a 20-unit-and-growing Darden concept, had a surprising experience with produce. He ran a dish that featured a whole head of romaine, split in two and grilled. Grilled chicken or steak complemented the dish.

“It didn’t take off like we thought it was going to,” he says. Did he pull the dish? Rework it? Maybe lower the price? No. He raised the price by $2. “And then it took off!” says Pleau. “Maybe the higher price point made diners take it more seriously. Who knows?”

BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse learned the importance of paying attention to diners’ ordering habits in re-evaluating the full-size, shareable bruschetta on its menu.

“With the slow economy, we noticed diners didn’t want to waste food,” says Ray Martin, corporate chef. “They didn’t want to order too much. They wanted to get their money’s worth.”

He noticed a slow-down in sales of bigger appetizers overall, especially with two-tops. But, instead of killing the bruschetta, he reinvented it as a small plate, moving it to the newly introduced Snacks & Small Bites menu category.

Mini Bruschetta is four small pieces of grilled focaccia topped with provolone, roma tomatoes, sun-dried tomato, onion, basil, roasted red pepper and pesto vinaigrette — all for $3.95.

Raising the perceived value makes customers feel that they’re getting a good deal. And a produce-heavy menu is also a good deal for operators.

With MyPlate reinforcing the idea that produce should take up a significant portion of the plate, protein size may shrink, saving dollars for the kitchen.

“We don’t need a 14-ounce rib-eye,” says Seasons 52’s Pleau. “We’ve done a lot of work figuring out what consumers think a portion is with protein. It’s a natural size of a chicken breast, we’ve concluded. Six ounces is what we can mindfully get away with in restaurants.”

Pleau is a master with plate composition, making the food look delicious and abundant. “Don’t hide your protein,” he says. “Presentation is everything, especially if the amount is smaller than the norm. You have to illustrate the value on the plate. Fresh produce helps immensely with that — it’s vibrant, fresh, colorful.”

But with less protein on the plate, the produce has to shine. The menu at Seasons 52 is rich with examples — from its Grilled Chipotle-Glazed Shrimp with guacamole and tomatillo salsa verde to its Cedar-Plank Roasted Salmon with whole-roasted sweet carrots, fresh asparagus and red bliss potatoes. And accompanying Ruby Tuesday’s Chicken Bella are sautéed baby portobello mushrooms and artichokes.

This spring salad mix with diver scallops and yuzu vinaigrette is a good example of how flavor is driving fresh-produce consumption and healthful dining. Photo courtesy of markon.
“It’s a natural instinct for the diner to focus on the protein,” says BJ’s Martin. “So you have to present the vegetables on the plate beautifully.” He does this across the menu, through thick-cut slices of avocado on sandwiches to a flourish of greens or a spoonful of fresh salsa as a finish to an entrée.

Martin also stresses choosing produce to complement the protein. “If you’re running a smaller portion of protein, think of what vegetable will satisfy,” says Martin. “I love portobellos for that reason; you can run a lower portion size if you serve it with a grilled portobello, because they’re meaty and satisfying.”

Value is also expressed through variety, says David Springett, vice president of culinary operations for Planet Hollywood International, which includes 15 global units of Planet Hollywood, 13-unit Earl of Sandwich and Buca di Beppo, with more than 80 units across the United States.

Earl of Sandwich’s Orlando, Fla., Disney location does more than $8 million in annual sales. “We’re paying more attention to fresh produce,” says Springett. “And we’re using it to offer variety. Variety is key to the diner who comes in two or three times a week for lunch.”

One way the concept cross-utilizes produce is to run it on both the salad and the sandwich board. “Our Caprese sandwich is really popular. It does very well for us,” Springett says. The Caprese sandwich features fresh mozzarella, roma tomatoes, fresh basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette in a toasted artisan loaf. The same ingredients appear in the Caprese salad with field greens and romaine.

The Earl’s Cobb Salad — with grilled chicken, smoked bacon, Swiss and cheddar cheese, field greens and romaine, cranberries, roma tomato, cucumber and buttermilk ranch dressing — shows up in the Earl’s Cobb Wrap.

Springett explains that cross-utilization is particularly important with fresh produce because it helps the concept use it at peak freshness and avoid waste. “Produce also expresses ‘fresh’ really well for us,” he says.

Fresh is what produce expresses best, along with perceived value and less processed — important buzzwords in today’s culinary climate. And for some chains trying to modernize and respond to these values, produce is the golden ticket —  an argument the PMA has been making for years.

Sizzler revamped its mainstay salad bar to reflect its move into fresh, house-made dishes. And it’s not just the salad bar that’s getting a facelift. Sizzler is subtly rebranding, focusing on food made in house that is flavorful and offers great value. Although fresh produce is more expensive, it’s great for the brand.

“We don’t mind paying extra for quality,” says Angelina Maranon, purchasing manager for the 174-unit chain. “The salad bar is our showpiece,” demonstrating Sizzler’s move into fresh, on-trend menu development. The salad bar boasts freshly made salads and soups, variety and an abundance of fresh produce.

The visual cues provided by fresh fruits and vegetables express an operation’s commitment to freshness and nutrition far better than any marketing promotion.


About The Author


Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.