A fresh debut

It wasn’t long ago that kale would have been laughed off the menu. Now it’s the darling in the produce bin, showing up in pizzas and wraps, smoothies and frittatas and more. The leafy green has grown 51 percent in restaurant menu mentions in the last four years, according to Chicago research firm Datassential’s 2013 MenuTrends report. With such wide acceptance among operators and consumers, kale has cleared the way for other previously ignored vegetables.

Take collard greens, for example. At Freshii, the 100-unit fast casual based in Chicago, jumbo 12-inch collard-green leaves are carriers for the menu’s Green Wrap ($6.49). “We get a delivery every day and blanch them at each location to remove the bitterness,” says Alex Blair, a Freshii franchise partner in Chicago. The blanched collards enclose a filling of chickpeas, cucumbers, corn, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and red onions, doused with cucumber-dill dressing. Not surprisingly, kale shows up in several items at Freshii, too, including the Kale Effect Bowl with brown rice ($6.49) and Kale Caesar Salad ($6.99).

At Freshii, everything is chopped fresh daily, and the goal is to use up the prepped ingredients by the end of the day, says Blair. “We only order and chop what we need, which reduces cost and maintains quality.”

Locally-sourced produce usually yields higher profits, Blair says, but that’s challenging in some markets. “In the fight to get consistent produce, we bring in vegetables from around the country and go to South America when necessary,” he says. Freshii’s menu prices remain the same year round, but the cost of fruits and vegetables can double in winter. “Limes were high in March because of the drought in California,” says Blair. “But we absorbed the increase.”

Reaping profits from produce. Operators say produce can help drive traffic, improve profit margins and increase sales, another 2013 survey by Datassential found. Chef-owner Steve “Nookie” Postal agrees. His Commonwealth restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., is one of the current breed of hybrids—a restaurant and market in one. After patrons try his roasted or glazed seasonal vegetables, Postal says, they may end up buying a bunch of purple haze carrots, baby Tokyo turnips or brussels sprouts to take home. “I use the market as my walk-in, and so do my customers,” he says.

The menu at Commonwealth lists proteins such as a half Roasted Crystal Valley Chicken ($20) or Georges Bank Swordfish ($24) in one section. Vegetable sides, all priced at $9, are spotlighted in another section and are designed to be shared by two or three people. Customer favorites include brussels sprouts, black kale and rainbow carrots. When spring gets into full swing, asparagus, sugar snap peas, fava beans, ramps and rhubarb will come on the menu. From May through October, Postal sources 100 percent from New England farmers.

Straight from the farm. At The Root restaurant in metropolitan Detroit, Executive Chef James Rigato lavishes as much attention on vegetables as he does on meat and fish, even offering the option of a vegan tasting menu. To assure a varied and ample supply, he’s invested $10,000 in a farm in Ann Arbor, Mich. In return, he gets a $1,000 kickback in produce and keeps the farmer in business—without the need for a bank loan—by guaranteeing he will buy most of the crops that are grown.

“The farmer’s greenhouse can usually keep me stocked with vegetables for six months,” says Rigato, “but I sometimes don’t know what I’ll be getting. When he drops off a mystery box of produce, I’m challenged to make something of it.” Now that spring has arrived, there’s a lot more to choose from, as Michigan grows diverse crops.

Rigato likes to show off local asparagus in a simple asparagus salad, or roast the vegetable whole and sprinkle crisped asparagus chips on top for contrasting texture. “I use protein-driven cooking techniques such as roasting, caramelizing and smoking to give vegetables a meaty persona and enhance their flavor,” he says. 

After-thoughts no more

At the 2013 PMA Foodservice Conference & Expo in Monterey, Calif., Datassential’s presentation, “Innovations and Menu Trends in Produce,” revealed what and how consumers and operators think.

  • 80 percent of consumers believe it’s important for restaurants to feature more produce.
  • More than 60 percent of operators believe produce will be critical to positioning their operation as one that cares about the health of its patrons. •78 percent of consumers say that restaurants using more produce is a fundamental change—not a fad.
  • 82 percent of operators believe produce will be more important to their operation in the next few years.
  • More than 50 percent of consumers are more likely to order an item featuring seasonal, local or organic produce.

Based on this research, Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential, recommended that operators move produce into sandwiches, breakfast items, pizzas and pastas—not only salads and sides.  


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