As food trends go, produce departments are often among the last in line to receive a boost from the latest new craze. Usually, independent chefs take risks and try new things, and the dishes and cuisines that turn into hits usually simmer for a while in the restaurant industry before becoming hot items in food retail.
Locally grown produce, however, seems to have reversed that convention. Leading supermarkets for years have been cultivating relationships with local farmers, highlighting regional specialties and, in some cases, even hosting farmers' markets in their parking lots. Now, restaurant operators are following suit, finding that locally grown and locally raised foods are a way to highlight freshness, flavor and “green” sensibilities on their menus.
“I would say that the biggest key trend that I have seen lately is the use of local purveyors,” said Brian Di Giorgi, a sous chef for Restaurant Associates at its Central Catering Kitchen, New York. “With less shipping time, you ensure the quality of the product you are receiving. By doing this you are supporting your local farmers and helping the economy in your direct region.”
In the National Restaurant Association's “What's Hot and What's Not” chef survey, October 2007, locally grown produce ranked second on the “Hot” list, with 81% of chefs surveyed deeming it so. Organic produce came in third, with 75% of chefs surveyed agreeing.
“Consumers are absolutely showing interest in local and organic items,” said Annika Stensson, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, Washington.
“According to our research, well over half of consumers say they are willing to pay more for food that was grown in an organic or environmentally friendly way, and 62% say they are likely to choose a restaurant based on its environmental friendliness. While the jury is still out on whether local and organic items actually are a better environmental choice in the long run, they currently are perceived as such.”
Stensson noted that the versatility of fresh produce makes it ideal for any type of cuisine and flavor profile a chef wants to create, and that fruits, vegetables and herbs have always offered chefs a way to make dishes flavorful, colorful and more healthful.
But diners also love a good story — something to add a bit of excitement to their dining experience. This is one of the reasons that creating and highlighting regionalized offerings is becoming popular at restaurants throughout the country.
“Restaurants are increasingly utilizing menu space to tell the stories of the growers and their history,” said Robert Danhi, consulting chef for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
“Chain restaurants are most challenged to try to take this valiant effort nationally. Many regional sourcing options are helping this effort become a reality. Even if the produce is shipped from afar, the story can still be part of the communication.”
Being able to identify where the ingredients in your dish came from gives consumers a sense of security or makes them feel good about what they're ordering.
“Just the idea that something is coming from some farm 50 miles away, it's not really so much about the localness of it — it could be from the middle of the country if you're on the West Coast — but the fact that they can place a locality to it, so it's a localness to another place, that makes people feel warm and fuzzy,” said Melissa Abbott, senior trend-spotter and analyst at Bellevue, Wash.-based Tinderbox.
Di Giorgi said he thinks providing this information on menus helps move the product or dish.
“You will see name and region recognition being given to items on a lot of menus,” Di Giorgi said. “It helps to sell the product when people realize that what they are eating is that much fresher, and that they are supporting their local businesses.”
The appeal of “freshness” is another overlying trend that has helped bolster the popularity of locally grown produce with many chefs, industry experts agreed. Fresh is key, which means frozen is out.
“We're seeing more fresh produce being used in foodservice, and actually, for the first time ever, it's a lot more fresh produce rather than frozen,” Abbott said. “It wasn't even necessarily an option before. Foodservice is catching up with restaurants in that respect.”
Local sourcing does contribute to the perception of freshness, agreed Bob Goldin, executive vice president of restaurant consultancy Technomic in Chicago.
“Fresh produce is a very good place to be,” he said. “Farm-grown, local — they connote a perception of craftsmanship and freshness. I think the whole idea here is moving to a fresher model.”
Abbott said she thinks origin being called out on menus is starting to trickle down from independently owned chef restaurants to slightly larger restaurant chains.
And rather than just finding a farm to partner with or getting local produce from a distributor, some chefs are seeking even greater transparency by buying a couple of acres close to their restaurants, growing their own produce and offering that on their menus.
“Trellis, in Kirkland, outside of Seattle, is doing that, and Tom Douglas, who's Seattle's great restaurateur, just purchased a huge chunk of land and is going to be growing all the produce for his four restaurants in the Seattle area,” Abbott told SN.
Google, Mountain View, Calif., sources everything on its cafeteria menu from within 100 miles, which also means the produce must be seasonal, which is another trend in restaurants and foodservice that connotes freshness.
“We're seeing a lot of seasonal, too — just making sure that the foods you're offering represent seasonality. This should apply to both the produce and the dish, so a peach cobbler in late summer is going to be a whole lot better than a peach cobbler representing that in January,” Abbott said.
“More berries should be used in the summer than in the winter, because the idea is ‘less fresh.’”
For supermarket foodservice or prepared food departments, much can be learned.
Prepared food department managers can make a variety of moves to keep up with these trends, from making dishes with produce that may not be inherent to that dish, such as spinach lasagna, to careful naming of dishes and the offering of recipe cards.
“The prepared food section right now is capitalizing on the trading out of the restaurants, because consumers don't want to go out or cook, and it costs less,” Goldin said.
Abbott said she thinks that to-go counters at supermarkets are the perfect place to highlight a food's regional, local or organic attributes.
“There's so much space for that, there's a lot of space for improvement there — less chicken wings and jojo fries and all that macaroni-and-cheese type of stuff, which can be greatly improved upon. A lot of those deli counters, even at pretty revamped supermarkets, they're still kind of back in another era,” she said. “It's kind of interesting when you walk around — they might have artisanal breads and other offerings that are much more forward-thinking, but then they're going to have this really old-school deli counter. That doesn't make much sense.”
According to Stensson, one of the best ways for prepared food department managers to keep up with the latest food trends is to read industry trade magazines and to sample dishes in as many restaurants as possible.
“It has long been known that the name of the dish on the menu can have a huge impact on its popularity, so prepared food managers should consider being creative when labeling the dish they offer,” Stensson said.
“Instead of just making ‘potato salad,’ why not make it ‘organic potato salad with Asian-inspired dressing?’”
There are a growing number of people who also just want to see something different and creative done in foodservice, noted Di Giorgi.
“There are a lot of hybrid fruits and vegetables, and also a growing number of baby-sized vegetables out there these days, that lend themselves very well to the growing demand of people who want to see things they normally would not see at their local supermarket. People eat with their eyes and their minds long before they eat with their mouths, so you always have to try to keep up with products that will spark interest.”