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.

Pizza party
“Pizza is our best-selling item,” said UNCC’s Lademann. “It is fun and easy to eat. We make a fresh dough and sauce. There are eight to 10 different pizzas we make a day, from no sauce to just sauce. We use an open fire, wood-burning oven, which gives a great crisp to the dough and an even melt to the cheese and toppings.”

Chef Rob Harbison, executive chef at Princeton University, says pizza is a must on his campus because “the variety and price point are acceptable to customers. We have pizza ovens in every unit on campus. Burritos are a close second,” he adds. “We use authentic ingredients and cooking techniques, and we serve a massive sized burrito.”

At Orange Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, N.Y., an area with a large Italian influence, pasta dishes are most popular, according to Foodservice Director Maria DeNicola.

“Penne vodka, portabello ravioli or pasta with Bolognese sauce are big,” DeNicola notes. “Also, chicken, as marsala, lemon and garlic or parmesan. Vegetables also go well, she adds: “Grilled vegetable paninis, stir-fry chicken and shrimp with vegetables and fresh vegetables sautéed in garlic and olive oil.”

Anything with pasta is popular at Valparaiso University and the State University of New York at Cobleskill.

“We do a build-your-own-pasta bar and are cooking a minimum of 125 pounds of dry pasta in one evening service,” says Valpo’s Reid. “Three sauces and a protein round out the line, and it keeps two cooks busy all night. At our demo sauté station, again, any pasta keeps the employees busy with 100 pounds of pasta moving through that station.”
David Phelps, executive chef at Cobleskill, says pasta is a comfort food. “It is done to order by sautéing the veggies in an induction burner and adding the sauce and pasta to customer specs,” he says.

But more exotic ethnic foods are growing in popularity in many operations, and some of the locations may seem surprising.

“Our best-selling item is our hand-rolled sushi,” says Nathan Mileski, executive chef at Northern Michigan University. “Students like that it is made to order in front of them with good, healthy ingredients. That’s followed closely by our Thai green curry bowl—I think for similar reasons, like the use of healthy ingredients.”

At Cornell, Asian is popular in both residence halls and retail locations. “In retail these new concepts are flying out the door—items like peanut chicken noodle bowls, pad Thai and angel Thai-style wings,” says Miller. “These items bring huge flavor in small portions, to keep costs down, and we use just four ounces of protein to keep them light and fresh.”

At Davidson College, the ubiquitous General Tso’s chicken is a top seller, according to Mombert. “We use a tempura battered chicken and we make our own sauce to go over the chicken,” he notes. “The sauce is sweet with some spice to give it a nice flavor profile that is almost addictive. We have customers who come back three or four times.”

Stumbling blocks
As diverse as menus have become, many operators wish they could do more. But there are challenges to be met, such as labor, space, equipment and, above all, cost. For example, Robin Young, foodservice director for the Humble (Texas) Independent School District, says she would love to add vegetarian burgers and other vegetarian items. “The cost is still quite high,” she says.

UCLA Medical Center’s Oliver is another operator who says cost is a factor in deciding whether to add more organics to her menus.

“We would like to add more wild salmon and organic foods, but we would have to pass the higher costs on to customers,” she notes. “Although people request it, I don’t know that many are willing to pay for it.”

Chef Pigozzi, Oliver’s colleague on the university side, faces a similar challenge with sushi, one of his customers’ most popular foods.

“Currently we have a sushi robot that produces a wide variety of California (vegetarian) rolls,” Pigozzi says. “However, we would like to broaden the options to include other authentic varieties of sushi and sashimi. Until recently, offering a wider range of sushi has been cost-prohibitive.” Pigozzi adds that his team is currently looking at a high-quality frozen tuna that would allow them to add at least a spicy tuna roll to the mix.

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