2010 Menu Development survey: In menus, diversity rules
Chefs and operators are becoming more adventurous with their menus but there are still limits to what they can achieve.
At NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, customers “are pretty open to any ethnic cuisine,” says Food and Nutrition Services Director Regina Toomey Bueno.
“Italian is still the most universally liked, probably because it has been around forever. We sell pretty much everything though.”
Italian is also the top cuisine at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, according to Executive Chef Roger Lademann. “Italian is probably the most popular because it’s a safe option for customers; they feel comfortable with it,” he says. “They can recognize the foods and tastes without being disappointed. Mexican and Chinese are a close second, because they are fun and flavorful, and because they can be easy to eat with your hands: tacos, quesadillas, egg rolls and dumplings.”
Dominic Machi, foodservice director for the Newark (Calif.) Unified School District, says his menus are influenced by what kids see on the outside. “Asian and Mexican seem to be the most popular,” Machi says. “As you look at retail menus you see items from those cuisines the most, and this reflects what the students desire to have in their lunch program.”
In the Midwest, the more exotic ethnic cuisines sometimes take a little longer to percolate, says Lucas Miller, executive chef at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
“With a student body that is mostly from the Midwest, there tends to be a longer learning curve,” Miller suggests. “Students are willing to try new cuisines, but it takes some research and time to see if they will become repeat customers.”
Ball State’s approach has been to introduce new cuisines like Indian and Thai during special meals and events. “Some cuisines require special equipment and modifications to facilities we may not have,” says Miller. “By serving lesser-known cuisines periodically we can get a better understanding if they will be well received prior to modifying existing facilities or planning future ones.”
Roger Pigozzi, executive chef at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that no matter what type of cuisine is being served, the key to success is realism.
“Due to the diversity of our students and staff at UCLA, it is important that our ethnic cuisines are authentic,” Pigozzi notes. “Whether we are serving Mediterranean, Asian or Mexican, as long as the items served are prepared and presented following authentic recipes, the dishes are equally well received.”
The best sellers: For all of the hype about ethnic cuisines, world flavors are still, for the most part, much like healthy eating. Customers will ask for more diversity, but they often end up gravitating toward the old favorites.
“Chicken fingers,” says James Rose, executive chef at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “Skidmore has offered Chicken Fingers Friday for it seems like forever. We serve approximately 350 to 400 pounds per meal period. Marinated breast of chicken also is very popular.”
Harrison, of Hillsborough County School District, agrees.
“Kids and adults love them,” she notes. “They are easy to eat while you’re walking and talking. No one seems to get tired of them.”
At the University of Kansas, chicken tenders also rule but in a slightly different form, according to Traver. “Our best-selling item is the crunchy chicken cheddar wrap,” she says. “It contains chicken tenders, cheddar cheese and ranch dressing—all mainstays of the student diet.”
At Temple University Hospital, fried chicken, made from scratch as an entrée, “is how we roll,” says Cooley. “Also, steak sandwiches on the grill—we’re in Philly and we have great rolls.”
At many institutions, hamburgers are considered a comfort food—and a top seller, as well.
“Our best-selling item in our secondary schools? Our hamburgers, which we charbroil every day,” says Newark Unified School District’s Machi. “We prepare the burgers while students are walking to their classes. They see the smoke and smell the burgers. We even have the neighbors going crazy.”
“Standard American fare,” adds Miller of Ball State. “Hamburgers, french fries, lasagna, mashed potatoes and gravy.”
Oliver, at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, says nothing beats comfort when it comes to the menu.
“I think our two best-selling items are fried chicken and meatloaf with mushroom gravy,” Oliver says. “People still want comfort food, no matter what time of year.”