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LAS VEGAS -- A panel of restaurant and foodservice industry experts at the United Fresh Produce Association convention, held April 21-25, here, agreed that one of the key growth trends in menu development is the use of fresh ingredients. They all agreed, of course, that this bodes well for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry.

A presentation developed by Maria Caranfa, director of Menu Insights for Mintel International, based in Chicago, revealed that 60 percent of fast- casual restaurant patrons would like to see more fresh ingredients on their menus, and 77 percent of consumers want more healthy items on all restaurant menus. To these consumers, healthy means fresher, fewer calories and the use of more vegetables.

Specifically, consumers want more locally grown product, organic produce and a nutritionally balanced child's menu. The use of fresh ingredients in cocktails is also growing exponentially, although it started from a very small base. Many restaurants are tying in themes throughout the menu. For example, during the Thanksgiving holiday, some restaurants will serve a fresh pumpkin pie along with a pumpkin martini.

Ms. Caranfa said that restaurateurs understand these trends and are trying to capitalize on them by adjusting their menus and using words such as "fresh" or "farm fresh" on their menu. She said that many words conjure up different meanings, but fresh isn't one of them.

"Fresh is a simple word that doesn't need a lot of explanation and resonates very well with consumers," she added.

Steve Grinstead, president and chief executive officer of Pro*Act in Monterey, CA, agreed that restaurants are looking for fresh items, especially if they are unique. He acknowledged that the economy has delivered a blow to the foodservice industry, but added that "if you are waiting for a spurt in the economy to grow your business, you are focused on the wrong thing."

As far as helping his firm better represent their products, he told suppliers, "We have hundreds of suppliers in our program. We look for growers that have something different, unique and special. Those are the products we can do something with."

Kevin Ryan, executive director of the International Corporate Chefs Association in Winter Park, FL, noted some of the trends and agreed that consumers want locally grown produce. But he said that restaurant chains are not set up to purchase locally. He said that many chains do not have a high- caliber chef available at store level to check the local product and make sure it meets the chain's specifications.

In the current economy, Mr. Ryan said that the sustainability movement has also lost momentum, as it is no secret that the foodservice industry is hurting financially. Anecdotally surveying the 10 members of his board of directors before coming to the United convention, the association executive said that few see many changes in the next 12 months. But the majority of the board members thought that fresh herb and berry sales would increase in the foodservice sector over that time period.

Gary Schwartz, vice president of supply-chain management for the nationwide P.F. Chang's China Bistro restaurant chain, was the final speaker on the panel and he buoyed the crowd's spirits, saying that fresh is king at his operations.

"Fresh produce is part of our DNA and always has been," he said.

Mr. Schwartz said that 5 percent of the company's food and beverage purchasing is spent on fresh produce, making it the "No. 1 food expenditure item." He said that each restaurant has 200 square feet of refrigerated space to properly handle the fresh produce.

While P.F. Chang's uses a large volume of produce, the specific items it uses are limited. The top four produce commodities are lettuce, broccoli, green onions and snap peas.

Mr. Schwartz said that the company is not overly receptive to adding new ingredient items to its backroom, but it is much more inclined to add a new menu item that uses its regular lineup of ingredients.

Speaking about the locally grown movement, Mr. Schwartz said, "Chefs love local [but quality and assurance] teams hate local."

For Mr. Schwartz, the best thing that suppliers can do is help him decrease costs by maximizing truckload yields. In other words, his goal is to get as many servings as he can from each truckload. Suppliers can help by "getting us more orders per stalk, per carton and per case."

While he said that the economy is taking its toll on business, Mr. Schwartz has noticed a "recession and economic fatigue setting in." He elaborated by saying that people are tired of worrying about the economy and he predicted a turnaround in fourth quarter of 2009 or first quarter of 2010.

"The restaurant industry was the first to feel the recession, and I think we will be the first to feel the recovery," he opined.

But he said his company is realistic, developing new dinner entr?e items that can be sold for $9.95, which is well below the menu average.