Consumers see their options for eating away from home as a single mega-smorgasbord. A chicken salad wrap from the company cafeteria is no different to them from the one their kid might munch in a college dining room, their spouse might buy at a fast-food drive-thru, or a relative might grab from the hospital coffee shop en route to visiting a patient upstairs. But those of us in the business see the world as divided into two realms: Restaurants, and so-called non-commercial or onsite food service.
There are undoubtedly major differences between the two channels. But the two sectors can definitely learn from one another, as any restaurateur would have realized if she’d snuck into a conference this week called Menu Directions, a culinary confab held by Restaurant Business’ sister publication, FoodService Director, for non-commercial operators. Here are a few of the lessons that shouldn’t be missed by those on the commercial side.
Kohlrabi is the new Brussels sprouts. In visits a few weeks ago to 92 restaurants over a 17-day stretch, Gordon Food Service chef Gerry Ludwig tried 1,131 dishes to get a bead on the latest food trends. Among the surprises he encountered was a preponderance of kohlrabi. Eighteen of the places featured the German root vegetable, Ludwig noted.
But quinoa is king. Ludwig waxed rhapsodically about the stunning items he’d tried that were fashioned out of quinoa. He noted in particular that the ancient grain is now routinely fashioned into burgers, pancakes and an oatmeal alternative. “Quinoa oatmeal has tons of opportunities,” he said. “It has so much more flavor than oat-based oatmeal.”
Light roasting is the rage. In a session intended to teach food service operators how coffee ends up in a cup, Port City Java CEO Steve Schnitzler noted the growing trend of roasting beans only until they’re a light gold color, not the rich brown that’s the norm. But the taste of those lightly roasted beans, he says, leaves something to be desired.
Sandwiches rule in all catering occasions. They’re the most requested item when the food service team at Swedish Health Services, a large healthcare provider, is asked to cater events, said Corporate Executive Chef Eric Eisenberg. That includes breakfast business meetings, in part because participants dashing into an event find it easier to grab a sandwich and take their seats than to work their way through a buffet line. Eisenberg advised the food service directors in attendance to be more artful in how they display sandwiches wherever they’re sold. He recommended that they cut the sandwiches and stack them so the ingredients rather than the bread is the focus.
Tartines have arrived. The European cousin of traditional sandwiches is “coming into vogue right now,” said Eisenberg. Versions of the open-faced sandwich were also cited repeatedly by Ludwig.
Snout-to-tail works whole-hog in catering. The trend of using a whole animal might be losing traction because of the impracticality for most feeding operations, Eisenberg added. As he put it, “How many orders of pig’s feet am I really going to be able to sell? Am I really going to put crispy pig’s ear on my salad bar?” But using a whole pig or lamb for a catering event is a different matter, Eisenberg said. Making it the focus of a central carving station has worked well at catered Swedish Health events, he said.
Don’t forget the humble bun. Exotic breads are all the rage, but don’t forget about the traditional hamburger bun, Eisenberg advised, calling it a “a great platform” for creative presentations. Ditto for hot dog buns. Swedish Health, for instance, features what it calls a banh mi hotdog, which is served un-garnished in a bun, with a condiment station featuring all types of exotic, Asian-influenced toppings, including a banh mi slaw.
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