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Produce’s Foundational Four

A greater variety of leaf lettuces and the operator’s ability to customize blends to suit their needs are two of the biggest innovations in the lettuce category. Photo courtesy of markon. Potatoes, lettuce, onions, tomatoes — recent innovations are maximizing the flavor of these menu workhorses

By Katie Ayoub

When we think about menu innovations in produce, we tend to think about the new players on the scene: jicama, kale, pomegranate. These “exotics” certainly add interest, but they make up just a fraction of a typical produce order. What are the innovations within the produce categories that typically account for about 70 percent of the industry’s produce orders? We’re talking about potatoes, lettuce, onions and tomatoes — ingredients so integral to the menu that they have their own produce-speak acronym: PLOT. These are the volume drivers in foodservice. We consulted produce-industry authorities to get insight on the impact these “foundational four” ingredients have on the foodservice industry, and the innovations each category has seen over the past decade.

“In the produce business, PLOT used to mean iceberg lettuce, round mature green tomatoes, jumbo yellow onions and russet potatoes,” explains Tim York, president of Markon, a produce cooperative based in Salinas, Calif. Today, the grouping of produce essentials is much more dynamic and diverse. “Leaf lettuces were the No. 1 crop in Monterey County [Calif.] this year; potatoes are now Peruvian purples, Yukons and reds; onions have moved beyond the standard yellow; and tomatoes have undergone a radical flavor transformation.”

The quest for flavor is a significant driver of innovation in these categories. From the fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes drizzled with olive oil to the intensely sweet, oven-roasted tomatoes squeezed over pasta — diners demand flavor. Indeed, innovations on the supply side have helped preserve the peak of flavor. “There’s film now that manages respiration of the produce, which keeps it fresher longer,” says York. Also, the logistics of menuing fresh produce has improved over the last decade. For volume operators, value-added produce offers labor-saving fresh ingredients. “Ready-to-use produce was only 10 percent of the total product mix in 2006. Now it’s 35 percent,” he says. “Operators today can also spec a salad like they can spec a hamburger patty or bun. The options are tremendous.”

Fresh produce also ups the perceived value of a dish. “Using more fresh produce on the menu increases profits. There’s money to be made,” says Bryan Silbermann, president/CEO of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). The PMA, along with the National Restaurant Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association, set an ambitious goal in 2009 to double the use of fresh produce in foodservice by 2019. This initiative, combined with the new MyPlate program, in which produce is recommended to make up half the plate, is certainly ramping up awareness among both operators and consumers about the healthfulness, flavor and menu interest that produce brings to the table.

By their very nature, potatoes are inherently stalwarts — just their dense, satisfying makeup says “workhorse.”

Potatoes’ flavor story is not so much about the product itself, but about its ability to carry flavors. And flavor carriers are a menu developer’s trusted culinary companion. The potato dutifully delivers a platform for menu-development innovations, carrying flavor in a multitude of mashed, fried and baked forms. Today’s quest for differentiation is unveiling new uses for beloved potatoes, from housemade “tater tots” to “loaded” fries.

In addition to culinary innovations, the abundance of potato varieties emerging on the scene are invigorating the category. From fingerlings and Yukon Golds to red and Peruvian purples, new colors and shapes are adding interest and inspiration to the menu.

“A ton of different varieties are available now, many of them being grown for a specific purpose, like for fries and chips,” says Rich Dachman, vice president of produce for Sysco. “Varieties like fingerlings are a nice addition to the menu, as are different-colored potatoes. We’re also seeing potatoes moving to the center of the plate, stuffed and loaded as an entrée.”

Markon’s York agrees that the increase in varietal offerings is ushering in creative culinary uses. “At least at the independent level, there’s a shift toward applications with more flavor and culinary differentiation,” he says. “While it’s still a russet-driven category, we’re seeing a more creative and refined use of potatoes, like fingerlings with olive oil and salt versus a baker with sour cream.”

With new varieties and flavors inspiring creativity, menu developers are taking a second look at even the basic potato offerings. “It’s an ideal time to come back and re-engineer your bestsellers,” says Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission. As an example, he points to LongHorn Steakhouse’s recent limited-time offering (LTO) that spun surf and turf into the unexpected. The chain paired steak with a baked Idaho potato topped with lobster chunks and a lobster sauce. “It’s just as filling as a traditional surf and turf, if not more so,” he says. “You satisfy diners, but you put a little less protein on the plate and can charge more for it.”

Hand-cut fries are a big happening on menus today. They speak to rustic artisanship, which holds sway with today’s diner. So, how do multi-units jump on the hand-cut fries trend? Five Guys and Elevation Burger have done it successfully, but when you get up to the 300-plus unit chains, hand-cut presents significant logistical challenges. Odiorne makes a case for calling out other attributes. “You can point to the variety of potato, its history and details of preparation,” he says. “Or you serve the fries with sea salt, or source the frozen products that have skin-on, which gives them a hand-cut feel.”

Seasoned fries have moved well beyond Cajun on today’s menus. “Seasoned” now means fresh herbs and/or spices that move the American classic into far-flung ethnic regions or elevate them to higher-end fare. At Yard House, an upscale-casual eatery based in Irvine, Calif., fries fit into the snack menu as Truffle Fries, which are tossed in light truffle oil, fresh parsley, fresh thyme and shredded Parmesan. Guests pay $4 for a snack portion, but they can also switch out their meal’s accompanying fries for these premium ones for a $1 up-charge.

The boom in sweet potatoes is one of the biggest happenings in the potato category, and experts credit smart marketing on the part of boards and suppliers like Mann Packing. “They were very effective in promoting the nutritional aspects of sweet potatoes, which was key in driving that category’s growth,” says York.

At 36-unit Olga’s Kitchen based in Troy, Mich., sweet potato fries are doing really well on the small-plates menu. “Sweet potato fries are one of the most compelling starch success stories over the last decade,” says Quinn Adkins, executive chef of Olga’s. He tosses them with Mediterranean seasoning and feta cheese, drizzles with olive oil, then serves the fries with rosemary-aïoli dipping sauce. Guests pay $2.99 for a 6-oz. portion or can switch out regular fries for a $2 up-charge.

“Loaded” fries on menus are taking their cue from street food. At Spitz in Los Angeles, Street-Cart Fries are fries loaded with aïoli, onion, green pepper, feta, tomato, kalamata olives, pepperoncini and chile sauce. Across town, Roy Choi’s Chego serves Ooey Gooey Fries, topped with sour-cream sambal, Monterey Jack, cotija and cheddar cheeses, chiles, cilantro and pickled garlic.

Housemade tater tots, ramped up mashed potatoes and oven-roasted potatoes are enlivening the category, too. At newly opened Cape Cod Fresh in Brewster, Mass., a savory Napoleon layers grilled potatoes, tomatoes and goat cheese with a complementary sweet balsamic-basil vinaigrette, while at 1500˚ in Miami, chef Paula DaSilva moves potato hash from breakfast to dinner. Served as a side dish, she boils fingerlings with thyme, bay leaves and peppercorn, cools them, smashes them and adds crisped bacon and raw leeks. “The bacon is smoky and salty and just goes so well in the hash,” she says.

In Los Angeles, A-Frame’s Kitchen Fries with kimchee sour cream are a creative and craveable take on a side of fries. Photo courtesy of eric shin. LETTUCE: LEAF LEADS
Over the past two decades, there’s been an obvious shift in lettuce, away from the iceberg of yesteryear to leaf lettuces like romaine, and, now, lettuce blends. Even iceberg is making a comeback, in modernized applications and “baby” form.

As evidence of the shift from an iceberg-dominant industry to leaf-lettuce blends, Markon’s York points to a recent crop report showing acreage dedicated to lettuce over the past two decades in Monterey County, the “salad bowl” region of California. In 1991, head lettuce (iceberg for whole head and processing) took up roughly 63,000 acres while leaf lettuce had 26,200 acres. In 2001, the acreage was almost even, and in 2011, head-lettuce acreage was just 34,800 while leaf lettuce grew to 98,000 acres, making it the region’s No. 1 crop last year. While this doesn’t factor in efficiencies made for more productive yields, it does give a good reading on market demands.

“What’s happening with lettuce today is more about lettuce variety, and the industry’s ability to create customer-specified blends. Operators are looking for more color, flavor and different textures in lettuce,” says York, who notes that Markon shipped its first spring mix in the late ’80s, and today, offers about 15 different lettuce-blend SKUs. “We’re seeing innovation in that space where operators are wanting to create their own mixes,” he says, citing mixes that leave out the bitter greens like frisée and radicchio.

Lettuce innovations are primarily driven by sandwich and salad menu usage. According to Technomic’s 2012 Salad Consumer Trend Report, more consumers are eating salads at restaurants (47 percent in 2012, up from 34 percent in 2009). It looks like there’s ample room for growth — more than half of those surveyed still feel there’s room for improvement on salad menus.

At Olga’s Kitchen, Adkins calls out seasonal greens on the menu. “It gives us the flexibility of changing out our blends, depending on what’s at the peak of season,” he says. He recently swapped out spring mix for a blend of whole-leaf baby lettuces, such as red oak and Lollo Rossa. “Diners want something different. And whole leaves stand up on the plate, so we can use less product but get the same plate coverage.” The California Coast Salad sports the seasonal greens, with blueberries, pomegranate seeds, Mission figs and blueberry dressing rounding out the profile. “It’s definitely a niche salad, but I think when we expand into other markets, it’ll do well for us,” says Adkins. “The salad plays well with the consumer looking for healthier attributes.”

The iceberg wedge, long a steakhouse classic, is enjoying a renaissance. For instance, the iceberg wedge at Postmasters Grill in Camden, Ark., features baby iceberg, blue cheese crumbles, bacon, boiled egg, tomatoes and roasted garlic ranch. At Yard House, Executive Chef/Partner Carlito Jocson also sources baby iceberg. He serves it with beefsteak tomatoes, onion, blue cheese crumbles and dressing. “The baby iceberg is slightly more tender, sweeter and really nice and crisp,” he says.

At Foodlife and its takeout arm Foodease, both Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises concepts, customization is king. The salad bar boasts more than 100 items including field greens, kale, spinach, romaine, Bibb lettuce and baby arugula. “We have so many repeat customers that we have to offer them variety,” says Executive Chef John Chiakulas. “They don’t want the same flavor experience every day, but they might want a salad every day.”

Back in Brewster, Mass., chef Julie Thompson changes up Cape Cod Fresh’s salad offerings by balancing the sharpness of arugula with the sweetness of grilled watermelon, all topped with crumbled blue cheese and a sweet balsamic glaze.

At Bijoux in Dallas, chef/owner Scott Gottlich turns to lettuces for earthy, complex sauces to accompany proteins, such as lamb or pork belly. For the lamb, he blends red-leaf lettuce with avocado and a bit of butter or stock. For the pork belly, he purées Swiss chard with cauliflower or potato. “You get a wonderful leafy taste when you purée lettuces,” he says. “It’s earthy, subtle and delicious, and more fun than ‘let’s just have a salad.’”

According to the National Onion Association, about 92 percent of foodservice operations include onions on their menus. This should come as no surprise, given the onion’s role in providing a well-loved flavor balance to most savory applications. From the supply side, onion innovation efforts have largely been about product form, and providing operators with value-added, ready-to-use products for versatile use in all forms and for all concepts.

“The biggest thing happening in onions over the past five years is the processing — more options in packaging, form and an expanded shelf life,” says Sysco’s Dachman. “Chain operators are now able to use onion rings that are fresh, and a chain restaurant is able to have a more consistent product.” Processed offerings provide the operator with labor savings and a longer shelf life (21 days, says Dachman), and even a pre-seasoned product.

“The creases in a chef’s toque symbolize how many ways a chef can prepare an egg,” says Bijoux’s Gottlich, “but they could represent onions.” He serves an onion trio appetizer, building on three crostini. The first sports fava-bean hummus and roasted pearl onions. The second is topped with onion jam and fried onion rings and the third stars caramelized onions and crispy mushrooms. “I wanted to showcase how versatile and wonderful onions can be,” he says. “This dish shows them as sweet, savory, soft and crispy.”

Black Angus Steakhouse, with 45 units throughout the west, ran a recent LTO that featured steak served on a bed of sizzling onions. Back at Yard House, one of the signature appetizers is the Onion Ring Tower, beer-battered onions dusted with Parmesan and served with chipotle and buttermilk ranch dipping sauces.

At Foodease, Chiakulas twists the classic French onion soup into both a flatbread and a burger. For the French Onion Flatbread, he caramelizes the onions and lays them over artisanal lahvosh with Swiss, mozzarella and Asiago. “It tastes like French onion soup,” he says. He also ran an LTO burger called a French Onion Patty Melt. “I pressed a combination of toasted onions and beef base into the burger, then cooked it,” he says. He added Swiss and mozzarella, as well as more onions, and served it on rye bread. “It was more successful than the flatbread and really delicious.”

At Miami’s 1500˚, DaSilva serves a wildly successful Sweet Onion & Potato Gratin as a side dish. She cooks the onions in milk with thyme, peppercorns and bay leaf, then cools them. She hollows them out, stuffs them with potato gratin with horseradish and Gruyère, then roasts the onions until golden brown.  “We prep them ahead of time and then bake them off per order. They hold really well for us,” she says. “I can’t take them off the menu!”

At Miami’s 1500°, one of Executive Chef Paula DaSilva’s signature sides is a creamy and luscious potato gratin baked in a sweet onion. Photo courtesy of national onion association. TOMATOES: FLAVOR REFORMATION
Of all four categories, tomatoes have undergone perhaps the biggest transformation over the past decade. What’s more, these changes have been primarily led by flavor.

“When you’ve tasted a good tomato, there’s no going back,” says Leslie Phelps, Markon’s marketing director. “Onions and lettuce might be more crisp, but for tomatoes, it’s all about the flavor.”

Chefs whole-heartedly agree. “Today’s core food consumer has high expectations with flavor,” says Adkins of Olga’s Kitchen. “Pink, hard tomatoes just don’t cut it anymore.”

“Tomatoes are the poster child of terrible taste — highlighting the great opportunity of putting flavor back into the menu,” adds Markon’s York. “In terms of flavor and varieties, tomatoes have seen the most radical transformation.”

A stroll through the supermarket produce section will reinforce the state of tomatoes today — from sweeter grape tomatoes to bright red, vine-ripened varieties. Experts agree that the increased offerings of greenhouse-grown varieties over the past decade continue to fuel the flavor demand.

“One of the real drivers of the change in tomatoes is hothouses,” says York, “because of the controlled environment, improved seed varieties, and the tremendously efficient growing methods, from a labor and acre standpoint.”

While field-grown, gas-ripened  “conventional round” tomatoes are still the predominant players in high-volume foodservice, varieties like greenhouse-grown tomatoes on the vine (TOV) are making inroads onto more menus. “The story really is the quest for flavor and finding the right variety that works for foodservice,” adds York. “Conventional rounds are still the big players, but look over the fence at retail and the number of options like Romas, teardrops, and proprietary varieties like Tesoro and Campari — these will start creeping into foodservice.”

While flavor is the obvious driver, cost is the primary obstacle to a greater foodservice usage of such varieties. “Foodservice will absolutely follow retail’s lead, but it’ll take a lot longer because of the greater expense,” says Sysco’s Dachman.

For LTOs and specialty items, Olga’s Kitchen brings in vine-ripened or hothouse tomatoes. “We can charge a little more for those to make up the cost,” he says. “But our expectations are higher now when it comes to regular tomatoes, too.”

Yard House uses beefsteaks for the most part, but is switching over to vine-ripened for all of its salads. “Making the switch is going to have a huge cost impact in the excess of a few hundred thousand dollars, but we think it’s worth it,” says Jocson. “Tomatoes have to be juicy, red, sweet. It’s just another quality statement, saying that we care about the produce we serve,” he says. Yard House works closely with its produce purveyors, even installing a supply-chain department to manage that relationship soundly.

Heirloom tomatoes are the darlings of the tomato family, bringing provenance, flavor and uniqueness to the plate. Foodlife creates an heirloom festival every year, celebrating their short run in the Midwest. In Mar Vista, Calif., Pit Fire Pizza showcases them on a white pizza dotted with marinated cherry tomatoes. At Wild Sage Bistro in Spokane, Wash., an heirloom tomato Caprese features wild arugula pesto, fresh mozzarella, pea vine salad and heirloom tomatoes.

“In produce, everything’s built around people looking for flavor and appearance that’s affordable,” says Dachman. Considering the produce industry’s innovations, along with today’s flavor-forward culinary creativity, there is plenty of excitement within the “foundational four” produce items.


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.