With rising protein costs expected to impact restaurant operations in 2014 and the FDA’s proposed ban on trans fats, the use of fresh produce is being pushed to the top of menus this year.
While restaurant operators work to figure out the best way to incorporate more produce onto their menus, consumers are indicating it’s a trend they will likely support.
According to Technomic’s 2012 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, 64 percent of consumers said healthy eating is important, and 38 percent said they are more likely to visit restaurants with healthy menu options.
Technomic’s findings mirror the ongoing trend of healthy dining and the growing movement among chefs to use more produce on restaurant menus. For example, the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 Culinary Forecast has cited the use of locally grown produce as its No. 2 trend.
To better serve your diners in 2014 and beyond, here are eight ways to incorporate more produce onto your menu:
1. Take advantage of local farms. According to the NRA’s 2014 Culinary Forecast, farm- and estate-branded items such as fresh fruits and vegetables is the No. 10 biggest trend of the year. Purchasing in-season produce from local farms not only supports your community, it lowers the cost of transportation, is more sustainable to the environment and results in a fresher product. The use of these items also can be communicated to your guests to further build brand awareness.
2. Work with what is in season and in abundance. The use of seasonal produce will make it less expensive to add to your menu because it is in ample supply. Use lettuces in the spring, tomatoes and fruits in the summer, and squashes and root vegetables in the fall and winter. Using seasonal items means better-tasting products and creates a menu variety that lasts all year. Visit LocalHarvest.org to find out what’s in season close to you and where you can find it locally.
3. Create your own “restaurant garden.” Restaurant gardens are one of my favorite ways to showcase the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients. These gardens can be used to plant tomatoes, lettuces, beans, or any other variety of produce. If there is not space outside for a full garden, pot fresh herbs such as basil and rosemary or grow kale and cabbage, which can double as in-store decoration. Use pots that can be positioned close to windows if used in-store, or placed near your restaurant entrance if used outside. Your customers will love watching your food service staff clip from a fresh plant.
4. Test out vegetables in unique specials. With the increased popularity of vegan and vegetarian dishes, restaurant operators can now use produce in a variety of applications, each designed to appeal to a wide audience. And if your customers are more adventurous eaters, feature a new vegetable every week that diners may not typically see in a supermarket.
5. Incorporate vegetables into side dishes or appetizers. Appetizers are a great way to showcase fresh and seasonal produce. Create sauces and dips that pair well with fruit and vegetable slices and that speak to each season. For example, serve sliced apples with brie in the Fall and pesto with chicken skewers in the summer.
6. Experiment with different ways to prepare produce. While produce served raw is an easy favorite, experiment with cooking methods that break away from tradition. Grilled vegetables are great when served as a side dish while grilled fruits are a great way to top dessert, while grilled or sautéed vegetables can be added to rice or grain dishes.
7. Use fresh fruits in place of canned or garnish desserts. Use fresh slices of fruit or berries as a dessert topping or as an add-on to breakfast options such as oatmeal. Fresh fruits can be used in chutneys, which also can serve as a topping option for burgers or sandwiches. Don’t be afraid to get creative!
8. Garnish cocktails with unique produce. Fresh mango or papaya slices are a great garnish for tropical cocktails and spritzers. You can also create a specialty cocktail with vegetable juices such as carrot, cucumber or tomato. Hot peppers and cucumbers can be used in Bloody Mary’s and other vegetable juice concoctions. Use specialty drinks as a brunch, lunch or dinner special and serve them with a side of additional vegetable or fruit garnishes. Again, creativity is key.