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Kale and Brussels sprouts gain momentum on restaurant menus

Not surprisingly, kale and Brussels sprouts are gaining great favor from chefs, who are adding the items to their menus in large numbers. It is a bit more surprising that beets and pumpkins, as a squash item, have also seen a big jump in their menu appearances.

Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassentials, a food industry market research company based in Chicago, reported on menu trends at the Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference in Monterey, CA, July 26-28. Her firm regularly surveys 600 foodservice operators as well as 4,000 consumers to determine the latest trends in restaurant menus. Of great news to the produce industry is the fact that 80 percent of consumers and 82 percent of operators expect the inclusion of fresh produce items on menus to increase.

Webster and the Datassential team track the items on menus classifying them in four categories from least to most: inception, adoption, proliferation and ubiquity. The ubiquity category is reserved for those items that are basically on every menu and would include produce items such as salads, tomatoes and potatoes. The other three categories can measure the growth of any specific item by charting the percentage increase from one survey to the next. Webster said they do not start tracking an item until it appears on at least 5 percent of menus because prior to that the gains become outsized on a percentage basis and are fairly meaningless.

From its latest survey, ghost peppers, trumpet mushrooms, kumquats, quince, chayote squash and a root vegetable called salsify each made the Inception category with significant gains over the previous survey four years earlier. For example, trumpet mushrooms registered a 68 percent gain in menu placement during that time period. Chayote squash saw a 49 percent jump in menu sightings.

The Adoption category signifies not only good growth but the appearance on a significant number of menus. The item is no longer rare but nor has it reached commonplace status. In this category was the aforementioned kale, Brussels sprouts, beets and pumpkin, and Webster said a couple of other items in this group were yuzo (a citrus variety) and cipollini onions. She said kale has had great growth in the last few years and is rapidly approaching Proliferation status.

She indicated that moving an item from one category to the next includes both raw numbers and usage of that item. For example, she said beets remain in the Adoption category because while it appears on a great deal of menus, it has not moved much beyond use in a beet salad. For that next step, the researchers want to see a broader line use of the product. “I expect that beets will stay in Adoption for quite a while,” she said.

On the other hand Brussels sprouts are being used across the menu in a variety of ways and could hit Proliferation very quickly. A produce item that seems to define Proliferation as well as the trend work of Datassential is sweet potato fries. “They went through the cycle very quickly,” Webster said.

She said that four years ago, only 11 percent of operators included them on the menu, but they have grown considerably since then and are a staple on many menus, especially in the fast casual category.

In Proliferation she also listed pomegranates, habaneros and edamames.

Webster said the produce industry should continue to look for gains as most of the top menu trends include fresh produce. This includes creating menu items that fit in the health and wellness category, which is the top foodservice trends. “The use of produce can drive down calorie count,” she said.

Ethnic cuisine and the use of local products are also important menu trends that fresh produce complements well. Chefs are also producing more limited-time offers and seasonal menus, which obviously is right in the wheelhouse of fresh produce.