2008 Menu Development Survey: The state of the plate 2008

Ethnic menu items continue to gain popularity among noncommercial foodservice operators.

The desire for a growing variety of ethnic cuisines certainly is influencing non-commercial operators, as our 2008 Menu Development survey shows. But wellness issues and a strong push for local and sustainable are also playing prominent roles.

FoodService Director’s 2008 Menu Development Survey indicated that the depth and breadth of ethnic foods is having a major impact on most operators’ menu planning. Display cooking stations also have grown significantly in popularity among all market segments, but the push toward more environmentally friendly items such as local and organic products continues to meet resistance from a lack of available items.

Authentic Ethnic
Overall, ethnic menu items continue to gain popularity among noncommercial foodservice operators. For example, 47% of operators say they are offering Mediterranean items on their menus; 38% were last year. The percentage of operators offering Thai foods rose from 21% last year to 29% this year. Other popular ethnic foods, outside of the established cuisines such as Italian, Mexican and Chinese, are Caribbean (27% of operators), Middle Eastern and Nuevo Latino (25%), and Cuban and Indian (23%).

But the embrace of ethnic cuisines is far from universal; 40% of operators polled say they don’t offer any items outside of longstanding favorites. Long-term care and school foodservices are least likely to offer the less common ethnics, with 68% of long-term care operators and 65% of school foodservice directors saying their menus are fairly basic.

B&I and college operators are, on average, the most adventurous. Among B&I operators, 55% offer Thai and Caribbean foods, 49% offer Nuevo Latino and Indian, 46% offer Middle Eastern, 42% offer Cuban, 39% offer Jamaican and 30% offer Vietnamese.

Among college foodservice, 56% offer Thai, 49% offer Caribbean and Indian, 46% offer Middle Eastern and Cuban, 39% offer Nuevo Latino, 33% offer Jamaican and 26% offer Vietnamese.

Thai is definitely “hot,” with 21% of operators overall labeling it the hottest ethnic. Every market sector except B&I listed Thai as No. 1.  B&I operators see Indian as the hottest ethnic, with 27% of operators calling it No. 1.

But some operators have told us that they are open to just about anything their customers ask for.

“Actually, we have had requests for soul food in particular,” says Stephanie Tanner, director of guests services for Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center, Alamogordo, N.M. “We ended up coming up with a menu and a weekly ‘platter special’ that recognizes traditional soul food.” Of course, Tanner says that, with Alamogordo’s location, Mexican still is tops.

“We are actually one of the number one spots in town to eat for price conscious Mexican food consumers,” she notes, adding that one day each week is designated Mexican Day. “Sales often run $300 higher on Mexican Day.”

At Villanova University in Philadelphia, Dining Services Director Tim Dietzler says his customers are eager to try anything.

“We’ve done a series of events recently that featured more full-flavored cuisines,” he explains. “We’ve had Moroccan, South African and West Indies. We did a Taste of Rwanda where we brought in goat, and it was well received. One of our chefs developed a dish called Chef Joel’s African Chicken, which has flavorful African spices, and that is popular. We have a growing international population on campus, so Indian cuisine has become more popular. We take requests and make adjustments.”

But ethnic cuisines are not the only concerns influencing menu development in the noncommercial sector. The demand for vegetarian and vegan items, interest in healthier food overall and a push for environmentally conscious purchasing decisions such as local and organic foods also are having an impact.

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