Once upon a time, chefs relied on the foods grown in their own backyards, on their own farms, or obtained at the local farmer's market. They prepared and ate what was in season. Once upon a time, chefs relied on the foods grown in their own backyards, on their own farms, or obtained at the local farmer's market. They prepared and ate what was in season. In today's age of supermarkets, imported foods, and mass distribution and consumption, seasonal foods do not hold the significance they once did.
But a different group of "pioneering" chefs are returning to our roots, and are trying to re-focus our attention on fresh, locally-grown, seasonal foods. Their menus are inspired by trips to the local farmer's market, and their recipes revolve around the most flavorful seasonal ingredients. And hopefully this will become more than just a trend or culinary novelty. Why?
There's no accounting for bad taste
Foods in season simply taste better. The taste of a vine-ripened beefsteak tomato picked during the summer harvest bears little resemblance to the weak and watery versions most often found in supermarkets or through greenhouse growers. Delicate spring greens such as watercress, arugula or endive add layers of flavor to an otherwise ordinary salad. Fall pumpkins pureed into soups make canned pumpkin obsolete. And exotic citrus fruits, ripe in winter, take on variations both sweet and savory.
Seasonal foods that simply taste better aren't limited to fruits & vegetables. Seafood is also influenced by changes in the seasons. California king salmon is in season in summer and fall, the perfect time for grilling or poached on summertime salads. Squid, on the other hand, best in winter and spring makes a tasty addition to a steamy bowl of cioppino. And the list goes on and on. Not convinced? Conduct a blind taste test from time to time. You'll see—and taste—the seasonal difference.
The profitability factor
Foods in season cost less, and are therefore more profitable. This simple set of facts is a breakthrough in thinking for many operators—a truly "blinding flash of the obvious". When raw products are the freshest and most plentiful in season, they are often the least expensive. This translates to a lower food cost.
Shifting menu items and focused merchandising to seasonal items increases the profitability and the variety of a restaurant's offerings. To aid in menu planning, plot the ranges of cost of purchasing seasonal items over a 52-week calendar, noting extreme highs and lows. Invariably, the lowest cost periods will correspond with the highest "perceived value" to the guest. Using your chart, plan menu item changes that allow you to sell high profit, high flavor dishes. I recommend that menus be changed about every three months to correspond with clear seasonal fluctuations. Then market and merchandise the menu accordingly.
Don't forget the weather
Customers have a predisposition to order certain menu items in different seasons. In addition to growing seasons, consider the weather when using flavor as a trigger to promote highly profitable, seasonal menu items. In the winter, rich, hearty soups are much more attractive menu choice than, say, a crisp salad, to help reduce the chill. Conversely, those tasty salads sound refreshing and crisp on hot summer days.
We've created seasonal availability charts for seafood and produce items. Fill in the produce chart with info for your particular area and its growing seasons. Info can be found online, or ask your distributor sales rep for assistance.