By Amy Myrdal Miller
NOTE: This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of magazine.
What innovations in produce can have significant impact for the foodservice industry? That’s a very fun and important question to address. We can look at innovations in plant breeding, value added processing, planting, sales strategy, even distribution.
When I was working at The Culinary Institute of America, we often had produce companies sponsor conferences attended by chefs so these companies could introduce new items to the chefs. While chefs always love seeing, tasting, and experimenting with new produce, challenges often arose over issues related to cost, consistent supply, and consistent quality. Introducing a new produce item before you can supply a large company with the quantity, quality, or price they need may lead to future collaboration, but it doesn’t meet the needs of a foodservice operator who needs a new menu item in the next 3 to 6 months.
Another challenge arose when new items were introduced without any supporting culinary application. Yes, a professionally-trained chef can easily find uses for new produce items, but a busy menu developer will appreciate a vendor who understands the customer’s business. If you are introducing a fresh produce item to an operator whose restaurants don’t use fresh produce due to storage or handling issues, that’s a failure on your part. You must do your homework so that what you’re introducing has practical application as well as broad appeal.
Some of the biggest success stories come from produce companies who work with consulting chefs who can have a peer-to-peer conversation and work side-by-side with a corporate chef on new menu ideation. Companies who send a sales person may find success with competitive bidding, but produce companies who send chefs with solid concepts will likely find bigger success and longer term relationships. Selling solutions versus selling produce may be more expensive up front but will pay off in the long run.
Sometimes the “simplest” innovation (e.g., modified atmosphere packaging that gives bananas a 21-day shelf life) can provide the biggest benefit to the foodservice operator. Labor is a significant cost for foodservice operations, and with challenges related to skill level and minimum wage increases, selling value added produce is a smart move.
Gold Coast Packing hit a home run with their Caulifornia™ Snow Riced Cauliflower they introduced in 2016. Cauliflower steaks and whole roasted cauliflower were appearing on menus across the country. Gold Coast capitalized on the cauliflower trend and brought a new form it into the market, a form that can be used in many ways.
Foodservice operators love to use products that have multiple uses on a menu. If you can show them how a single item can be used in multiple menu items or across multiple categories, that’s a win. The Gold Coast riced cauliflower can be used in place of rice, on salad bars, in gluten-free pizza crust, in soups, in pasta dishes, and more.
Are there also opportunities to innovate in foodservice distribution? You bet. If you’re doing category management for foodservice the same way you’re doing category management for foodservice, you’re missing a big opportunity to better serve your customer.
In retail, products are organized by category. Organizing products by application can accelerate conversations about new produce offerings. An example of this is apple slices. Instead of organizing under fruit or apples, why not organize by salad bar, side dish, and kids’ meals? Doing this would take work by your database management team to create new categories, but think about the power this would put into the hands of your sales team. A potential customer says I need items that can expand my side dish offerings. Your sales person does a quick database search by side dish, and a menu of options can be served up to the customer.
A final category of innovation that can’t be overlooked is innovation in flavor. About three years ago, I head a California citrus industry leader say, “For 100 years we’ve been focused on what the outside looks like. Now we need to focus on what the inside tastes like.” He’s right, especially when it comes to foodservice. Few produce items are sold in their whole, pristine form in foodservice. Produce gets cut, chopped, peeled, minced, pureed, cored, cooked, mashed, fried, etc. The looks don’t matter, but the flavor does. We need more innovation in flavor from the field, grove or orchard if we want people to eat more produce.
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor issues on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.