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Falling for freshness

It used to be that spring and summer menus had the monopoly on fresh fruits and vegetables—especially in restaurants north of the sunbelt. But with imports on the rise and the burgeoning farm-to-table movement, the quantity, quality and variety of produce available in fall and winter has increased. That’s good news for chefs, operators and the customers they serve—all of whom are seeking healthy, seasonal and sustainable foods. We take a look at how restaurants and purveyors are maximizing the bounty of fresh produce and finding the best balance between local sourcing and fulfilling continuity and volume of supply. Plus, commodity groups and produce specialists weigh in on what’s ahead.

Silver Diner, Rockville, Maryland, 16 locations

A farm-to-table philosophy informs this regional chain, but co-founder/executive chef Ype von Hengst admits it’s harder to follow in the colder months. “Our emphasis is on sourcing local products but come October, we have to go further south for produce—to the Carolinas and Georgia, and eventually, Florida, Mexico, Chile and California,” he says. “This fall, we’re lucky to get local tomatoes into mid-October, but then we’ll switch over to hothouse tomatoes.” The Virginia Food System Council helps him connect with local farmers.

With its multiple locations, von Hengst finds it essential to partner with a like-minded supplier who places a priority on freshness and seasonality. He found that partner in Coastal Produce, a company that sends weekly updates on which farms are supplying each fruit and vegetable variety and puts together seasonal fresh produce mixes. The fall mix includes turnips, pumpkin, parsnips, squash and apples, which go into such menu items as Pork Chops with Butternut Squash and Parsnips, Pot Roast with Turnips and Sweet Potatoes and Apple Cranberry Cobbler.

“When farmers ask me what they can supply, I put them in touch with Coastal Produce. They make sure the farms are following safe agricultural practices,” explains von Hengst. “Our goal is to source the same clean, fresh products available 50 years ago.”

Saladworks, Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, 102 locations

At this salad-focused concept, fresh lettuces, tomatoes, carrots, avocados, cucumbers and other vegetables are in high demand year round. “Sourcing wintertime produce is a challenge,” admits Paul Steck, president of Saladworks, “but we have it figured out. Now that we’re expanding from a regional to a national player, our strategy is proving very effective.” That strategy is to align with vendors that are geographically vertically integrated down the California coast and into Arizona. As the weather turns colder, the supply moves from the Central Valley of California into warmer growing areas. “We shift through points of production to maintain quality and work with vendors who can shift with us. This allows us to always be where the best produce is,” he adds. In summer, more of the ingredients come from the east coast.

Steck notes that Mother Nature is Saladworks’ main buying challenge. Weather, insects and other acts of nature can wreak havoc on crops, diminishing quality and supply. As quality goes down, price goes up. “A key to controlling costs is to write year-long contracts for staples like romaine lettuce, tomatoes and spring mix. That may mean you pay a little more at certain times of the year, but come February, you’re paying less.”

Saladworks offers LTOs that feature seasonal flavors and ingredients. Autumn Harvest Salad is a special on the fall menu; the greens are tossed with dried apple chips and pumpkin vinaigrette.

Windham Hill Inn, West Townshend, Vermont, 1 location

To satisfy their local sourcing passion, a number of chefs have become gardeners—picking veggies and herbs from backdoor gardens, rooftops, community plots and even window boxes. Although Graham Gill cooks at an inn up in ski country, the executive chef is able to cultivate a variety of produce through the fall. Swiss chard, fennel, squash, leeks and an assortment of herbs make their way onto breakfast and dinner plates in the dining room of the Windham Hill Inn. “I especially enjoy the kitchen garden, right outside the door,” says Gill. “I take out my scissors and easily snip fresh herbs for recipes and flowers to garnish plates.”

Gill also works closely with Vermont Fresh Network, a nonprofit that fosters partnerships among chefs, farmers and food producers. He taps into this group to source as much local produce as possible. The varied Windham Hill menu may include a local Misty Knoll Chicken with Calvados sautéed Vermont apples or a Plum Phyllo Tart with white chocolate anglaise. On Tuesday nights, Gill offers a special menu for nearby residents: three courses for $45.

Artisan’s Brewery & Italian Grill, Tom’s River, New Jersey, 1 location

With a steady stream of regulars, Artisan’s has to menu some items all the time, such as Eggplant Parmigiano, Greek Salad, Grilled Asparagus and Broccoli Rabe. But executive chef Steve Farley can get more seasonal with his daily specials. This fall, he’s menuing squash-filled ravioli, bruschetta with sunchoke puree and sunchoke chips, caramelized Brussels sprouts and pumpkin bread pudding. “I’d love to serve everything seasonal and local, but at a 330-seat restaurant in the northeast that’s open every day for lunch and dinner, I can’t source just within a 100-mile radius,” he says.

One of Farley’s main produce suppliers, Baldor Specialty Foods, brings in fruit and vegetables from all over the country to keep supply consistent. They’ve also made a move toward supporting local farmers in the warmer months, Farley points out. But to manage costs, Farley “spreads the wealth” among several purveyors, checking daily price and supply updates that he receives via e-mail. “I try to buy reasonably priced items and balance creativity with the bottom line,” he explains. “I might be dreaming about making fried artichokes, but if artichokes are $55 a case, I’ll get over it.”

The flip season

While much of the United States is blanketed in frost during the winter, the Southern Hemisphere is enjoying balmy summer weather. New Zealand, Australia and several countries in South America—especially Chile—have taken advantage of “reverse seasons” to expand fresh fruit and vegetable production. Exports of grapes, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, apples, kiwifruit, nectarines, peaches, plums, clementines, pears and avocados from Chile have reached almost 2.4 million tons, according to ASOEX, a nonprofit that represents Chilean growers and exporters. Despite last February’s earthquake, this winter’s crops are scheduled to be on target in volume and quality.

Our neighbors to the south must follow the same USDA protocols as U.S. growers and shippers. In addition, the ChileGAP (Good Agricultural Practices) program was set up to meet strict food safety and environmental standards.

Trendsetters

What will fashionable tables be wearing this season? Robert Schueller with Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles, provides an inside view of specialty fruits and vegetables for fall and winter.

Fruits

Pomegranates: Many chefs prefer pomegranate seeds or arils for salads and garnishing. Arils are now packed in convenient trays for foodservice.

Apples: Different varieties can set the menu apart. Look for Honeycrisp, Ambrosia, Cameo and heirloom apples.

Pears: Variety is the story with pears, too. Check out Bosc, Asian or Korean and Starkrimson.

Persimmons: Fall brings two varieties of persimmons to market: Fuyu and Hachiya. Scoop out and use raw in salads or salsas, or cook into chutneys, sauces and baked goods.

Meyer lemons: The season starts up in October for these yellow fruits, which taste like a cross between a regular lemon and an orange. Commercial acreage has doubled in the past 5 years, increasing availability and extending the season.

Vegetables

Potatoes: Baby potatoes are available in an assortment of colors and types, including Dutch Yellow, Ruby Gold and heirloom fingerlings.

Onions: Pearl, Boiler and Cipolline onions are in good supply; these downsized cousins of everyday onions can be added whole to recipes or cooked on their own.

Sunchokes: Also known as sunflowerchokes and Jerusalem artichokes, these gnarly roots can be cooked and pureed, peeled and roasted or sliced thinly and dried.

Winter squash: Acorn and Butternut are the two most common, but more interesting varieties include Kabocha, Sweet Dumpling, Delicata, Gold Nugget and mini pumpkins.

Schueller also points to lesser-used produce and newer products that are emerging in the foodservice supply for fall. These include dragonfruit, dates, chestnuts, key limes, peeled baby beets, blackeyed peas and muscato grapes.

Q&A with Lorna Christie, Executive VP & COO

Produce Marketing Association (PMA) The PMA has teamed up with the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and International Foodservice Distributor’s Association (IFDA) to form the Foodservice 2020 Initiative. The goal: to increase fresh produce use in restaurants. Christie talks about the initiative and other top produce sourcing issues.

What are the next steps of the Foodservice 2020 Initiative?

The first step is to benchmark current usage. Once that’s known, a priority is to encourage operators to focus on flavor when adding produce to menus. Education is key; both operators and distributors need to learn basic care and handling techniques that can enhance flavor. We also want to promote the benefits of fresh-cut produce. Some operators are not aware of advances in fresh-cut quality and the varieties now available—everything from potatoes to carrots and beets.

How is the 2020 Initiative changing the purchasing landscape?

Growers are learning that selling to foodservice is different from retail; how they sell is as important as what they sell. More produce companies are putting chefs on staff, realizing the value of education in reaching foodservice buyers. They’ll also be equipped to show how produce can lower plate costs.

How is safety being addressed?

Whether you’re a grower, distributor or operator, everyone owns a piece of the food safety equation. With our focus on protecting flavor, we are promoting safe care and handling of produce, too. Technology is also working to promote safety. GS 1 is speeding the implementation of traceability standards, for example. Researchers are developing vegetable and fruit seeds that protect against e-coli. And packaging that protects against contamination in transit is in the works.

What is the industry doing to help operators source local produce?

Lots of research is being done by distributors to facilitate delivery. Sysco, for example, is working with small, regional grower-farmer families, educating them about food safety. Conventional growers are also looking closely at local sourcing and figuring out how they can deliver a similar connection and experience. The truth is that much of America’s produce supply is grown by family farms. Big grower-shippers also have a “story to tell” behind their food.

Crop updates

Apples: Expect a record fresh Washington apple crop of about 108.8 million cartons this season, about 5 million more than last year. Varieties include Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Fuji, Gala and Granny Smith. The Washington Cameo apple crop is projected to be about 1 percent of the total state; it’s one of the highest quality crops on record.

Avocados: In the fall, all three major avocado-producing areas—California, Mexico and Chile—are getting product into the hands of vendors. Supply of buttery Hass avocados is high this time of year, making it a good time to buy.

Broccoli: Growing conditions have been very favorable for broccoli, notes Ocean Mist Farms, a leading vegetable grower. Quality is exceptional, although supply is a little lighter than usual.

Brussels sprouts: Stalk sprouts are available through December, as well as bulk packs, net bags and clamshells. Heads are coming in tight and firm with a brilliant green color, reports Ocean Mist Farms.

Grapes: Harvesting of the California table grape crop was delayed by about two weeks but all varieties should be in good supply through January. The California Table Grape Commission lists more than two dozen red, green and blue-black grape varieties.

Pears: The USA Pear Bureau reports a pear crop of roughly 385,000 tons this fall, down from last year’s bumper crop of 440,000 tons but still ample. About 84 percent of fresh pears are grown in Oregon and Washington; varieties include Anjou, Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, Concorde, Forelle, Seckel and Starkrimson.

Potatoes: Quality is good and yields very high, with a whole range of specialty potatoes coming into market, states the US Potato Board. There’s a wider selection of petites, purples and fingerlings, although the foundation potatoes (russets and reds) are still strong. The Idaho Potato Commission reports nearly 12 billion pounds of Idaho potatoes will be harvested this fall. The majority are russets (Burbank, Norkotahs, etc.) but about 6 percent of acreage will yield niche varieties. These include Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold, Russian Banana, Purple Peruvian, Cal Red, Huckleberry and French Fingerling.

Sweet potatoes: The harvest is underway in North Carolina and elsewhere, and will continue into the latter half of October. Acreage is up about 9 percent in North Carolina and throughout the U.S. to meet the rising foodservice demand for fresh and value added sweet potatoes, such as fries.

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