Picked for the plate
At the first hint of autumn, your customers are probably ready to say good-bye to summer peaches and zucchini and eager to enjoy just-harvested apples, pears, potatoes and squash. For today’s savvy diners, seasonality and freshness top the list when it comes to produce. While many restaurants are on the same page, there are still plenty of opportunities to incorporate more fruits and vegetables on menus.
A joint research initiative by the National Restaurant Association, the Produce Marketing Association and the International Foodservice Distribution Association found that while fresh produce usage is trending upward in restaurants, there remains an unfulfilled demand among operators in some areas:
- 67 percent of operators wish they had more options regarding fresh produce selections
- 60 percent wish there was more information on how to incorporate fresh produce on their menu
- 79 percent wish there were more value-added products in the fresh produce arena
At the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Conference & Exposition held in July in Monterey, California, leaders from these three industry groups identified strategies to double the use of produce in restaurants. Chief among them is fostering closer collaboration among operators, distributors and grower/shippers. “Everyone is focused on plate cost now,” says Bryan Silbermann, president and CEO of PMA. “There’s a sizeable number of operators who feel that handling fresh produce is expensive and labor intensive. Our goal is to change that mindset, make more value-added products available and introduce more fruits and vegetables to the hugely underserved breakfast daypart."
A bounty of choices
Four operators share their successful strategies for sourcing fresh produce and putting more on the menu.
At this 80-location, daytime-only concept, fresh fruits and vegetables land all over the menu for breakfast, lunch and brunch. Items such as Floridian French Toast topped with fresh bananas, kiwifruit and berries ($7.19) and Veg’d Out Omelet with onions, mushrooms, celery, zucchini and broccoli ($7.49) get guests off to a healthy start. Lunch customers get an extra dose of produce in a selection of sandwiches, wraps and salads.
“Many of our items come with a side of fresh, seasonal fruit and when the menu states that it’s ‘fresh’ and ‘seasonal’ we mean it,” claims Kevin Hall, VP of Brand Standards for First Watch. “The only frozen fruit we use is the blueberry.”
To meet its specs, First Watch works with National Produce Consultants of Plano, Texas, a purchasing consortium that works with 200 distributors in 29 states. “This gives us the opportunity to add more non-traditional and regional items that you wouldn’t normally find on the breakfast menu,” Hall adds. “When something is not in season, like cantaloupe for our fruit bowl, they are able to recommend a substitute.” Another perk—NPC manages products directly from growers and suppliers. “Buying off the street” may be cheaper, Hall says, but you sacrifice traceability. “Plus, NPC gives us more accurate forecasting of market conditions and pricing.”
New York City and Washington, D.C.
When your concept is all about fresh salads, sourcing consistent, high quality lettuces, greens and other produce is a top priority. Director of food and beverage Catherine Lederer relies on produce specialists Food Authority in New York and Coastal Sunbelt in Maryland to meet her purchasing specs for Chop’t’s nine locations.
“They give me a heads up about where the best product is coming from and allow me to look at sample cases before I commit,” Lederer explains. “Right now, I’m getting great heads of romaine from Canada, but in the winter, they come from warmer growing regions.” Chop’t is also trying to source more locally. Currently, some baby spinach, arugula and mesclun mix is coming from Satur Farms on Long Island and Lederer is looking at incorporating local pears and apples this fall as they come into the market from the Northeast.
Chop’t’s guests order a 50-50 mix of customer-created and chef-designed salads and sandwiches. In the latter category, seasonal specials have included Jamaican Jerk Chop Salad and Key West Cobb Salad, which includes jicama and mango—both first-time selections. “We’re trying to push through more ‘wow’ ingredients in our seasonal salads,” says Lederer. Coming up is a Japanese-inspired salad featuring daikon radish with a shiso leaf dressing.
The two Dish D’Lish cafes in the Seattle airport and one in the Ballard neighborhood serve throughout the day, and produce makes many appearances on the menu. Chef-owner Kathy Casey buys from several sources to keep the selections fresh and seasonal. “At the airport, we can spec any purveyor we choose, but they have to comply with security,” she says. “We use Charlie’s Produce, a Seattle wholesaler that sells a lot of local fruits and vegetables. At our other location, we grow figs, kiwi, berries, apricots, berries, grapes and other crops right in our ‘urban parking lot’ container garden.” Casey fills in with produce from the Ballard Farmers Market, a hydroponic grower and products from Mexico and California.
To prolong the season, Casey turns some of the fruit into limited-edition preserves and chutneys. These she sells on site and incorporates into the menu in items such as Rosemary Ham & Goat Cheese Sandwich with Fig & Apple Chutney and Herb-Roasted Chicken Breast with Washington Apple Chutney.
Lately, she has been channeling seasonal fruits and veggies into culinary cocktails, many of which appear in her new cookbook, Sips and Apps. “I’ve created produce-based drinks using peppers, cucumbers, peaches and fresh herbs like tarragon and rosemary to pair with items like Roasted Pear Crostini,” says Casey.
Executive chef Peter Davis has been sourcing produce from the same farmers since he opened this restaurant in the Charles Hotel 14 years ago. All but one of the farms is within an hour’s drive and they make deliveries to his door from two to four times a week. “I believe in having a few good partners rather than many different ones so I can develop close working relationships with my vendors,” says this farm-to-table pioneer. “And from a food safety point of view, I feel better about this produce because I know exactly how it’s grown.”
Davis changes his menus daily as ingredients come into season. In summer and fall, the produce is around 80 percent local; tropical fruits like pineapple and mango are transported further, mainly for breakfast dishes. Even the seasonal cocktail list relies on farm-fresh products, including vodka-spiked Huckleberry Lemonade and a Mixed Berry Mojito. The autumn menu will focus on locally grown squash, pumpkins, root vegetables, hearty greens, apples and potatoes in items such as Anson Mills Organic Grit Cake with Vermont Chevre and a ragout of roasted heirloom squash, native beans, Swiss chard or kale and white wine butter sauce; Niman Ranch Grilled Smoked Pork Chop with spiced roasted apples; and Pumpkin Whoopie Pies.
After a rainy June and July, some local crops are ahead of schedule and some behind, but prices seem to be holding steady, Davis reports. “We’re pretty much sustainable until winter, when we buy from a specialty produce distributor,” he adds.
Safety on the table
According to the NRA/PMA/IFDA research, 56 percent of operators serve locally sourced produce in their restaurants, but larger chains still feel that traceability is a challenge. Food safety remains a concern for all operators; 76 percent said they are willing to pay more for produce if it’s traceable up the supply chain.
Several distributors are ramping up farm-to-fork efforts on the local level in accordance with the Produce Traceability Initiative—set to take effect by the end of 2012— an industry-led initiative sponsored by the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association and Canadian Produce Marketing Association. This industry-wide mandate includes a standardized system of case bar coding so all produce can be traced back to the field.
“Throughout 2008 and 2009, we’ve been focusing on local guidelines and helping smaller growers understand [Produce Traceability Initiative] expectations,” says Max Yeater, COO of Pro*Act, a network of specialized foodservice produce distributors. “We believe you have to live by the same guidelines if you’re local or national.” Pro*Act’s grower members have their fields inspected pre- and post-harvest to verify that they are safe, and comprehensive traceability systems are in place all along the supply chain.
Top 10 Produce, a company out of Salinas Valley, California, also caters to small and medium-size growers and family farms. It offers members a discount on its Databar GS1 tracking technology and a license to sell produce under the Top 10 brand. Other distributors are jumping on board, too, as the Produce Traceability Initiative deadline approaches.