The Recipe Issue 2013: What's On the Menu?

As menu planners create their templates for the current year, there are five influences driving their decision-making.

Before foodservice directors can plan menus and select recipes to fit those menus, they first need to get the lay of the land; specifically, to decide what trends will have the biggest impact on those menus. They survey customers, discuss with staff, network with colleagues and measure such variables as product availability, food prices and trends occurring on the restaurant side of the industry.

For our second annual Recipe Issue, we asked a number of operators what factors would have the biggest impact on their menus in 2013. From their answers we compiled the five issues most likely to affect menus, along with an explanation of some ways operators are responding.

Health & Wellness

Whether it is finding ways to reduce fat, sodium and sugar or meeting a growing demand for gluten-free foods, health and wellness is a continuing trend that few operators can afford to ignore, no matter their segment.

School districts currently are struggling to make meals healthier and stay within the guidelines mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new meal regulations. Metz and Associates, the Dallas, Pa.-based food management company, hopes that a new soup program—tentatively called Soupremacy—will win kids over and meet new fruit and vegetable requirements.

Corporate Chef Ryan McNulty says that the idea combines a soup and salad bar into a single concept. Students choose a soup base and then move down the line adding whatever proteins and vegetables they want.

“We offer different flavor profiles so guests can customize their meal,” McNulty says. “They can have a different soup every day even if we don’t change a thing on the line.”
He adds that in testing with students, “kids really liked the idea. Everyone loves soup, and with the new regulations, the one comforting standard we’ve found is soup.”

Creating stations around a healthy theme is being embraced by a growing number of operators, and if that theme doesn’t use the word “health,” so much the better. For example, at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa., the recently renovated Torvian Dining Hall will feature a station called Flash Fitness. (The university’s sports teams’ nickname is Red Flash.)

Leo Cavanaugh, general manager for Parkhurst Dining Services at this location, says healthy plates, complete with sides, will be offered at the station every day. For instances, a Flash Fitness meal might comprise turkey meatloaf with orange sauce, couscous and grilled vegetables.

“We get a lot of students looking for healthier and more plant-based entrées,” Cavanaugh says, “with fresh, local ingredients and fresh prep at an action station. We are happy to help educate our students on selecting food items that are healthier, contributing to the overall health and wellness for them on campus.”

Commercial Influence

Trying to please customers who have become accustomed to dining out frequently sometimes means taking the attitude of cooperation and collaboration rather than competition. This can mean inviting commercial chefs and restaurateurs to bring their concepts—or at least their menus—into cafeterias and dining halls. This approach could see an uptick in 2013.

Sodexo, which partners with Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to operate nuCuisine, the campus foodservice program, recently opened Frontera Fresco, celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ fast casual adaptation of Frontera Grill. The unit, which offers authentic Mexican foods such as tacos, tortas and quesadillas, is Bayless’ first on a college campus. It is located in the university’s Norris Center.

“Northwestern is a community of dynamic cultures from across the globe,” says Steve Mangan, resident district manager for nuCuisine. “Rick’s fresh twist on Mexican cuisine is an ideal fit for the Northwestern University community.”

Frontera Fresco also meets sustainability goals, since Bayless is committed to buying food and produce from farmers within a 100-mile radius of his restaurants.

“The produce, the cheeses and the meats will be from farmers who are supported by the Frontera Farmer Foundation, which gives grant money directly to small farms to build greenhouses and buy supplies that in turn go into making the produce that is plated at the restaurants,” says Stacy Dixon, Frontera’s director of development and marketing.

At Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, a local catering company recently opened a small restaurant in the University Center in partnership with Housing and Dining Services. Pomegranate, managed by Pomegranate Catering, offers kosher dining with a menu that focuses on foods from Turkey, Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. The fast casual concept, owned by Zur Goldblum, formerly the chef at Sabahbah in the nearby Squirrel Hill section of the city, features a variety of sandwiches, salads and grilled meats, with several vegetarian and vegan choices.

At Florida Blue, in Tallahassee, Fla., Corporate Hospitality Services Manager Damian Monticello says his employee customers are looking for a wider variety of Asian cuisines, including Thai, Indian and Filipino in addition to traditional Chinese and Japanese.

“We try to increase the frequency with which we offer these items on our menus, but we’ve also gotten a lot of requests for bringing in something like Panda Express,” says Monticello. “[Customers] say they want quick service, but they don’t want burgers and fries. So we’ve partnered with Sodexo to bring in Panda Express once a week. They bring in a two- or three-person team and prepare all food on site.”

He adds that Florida Blue has done the same with a local Indian restaurant.

Food Costs

Usually, a trend inspires innovation in operators. But the rise in food prices is one in which innovation is born of desperation. Despite the fact that food prices in 2012 rose a mere 1.8% versus 4.7% in 2011, according to the Consumer Price Index, operators are bracing for sharply higher prices for meat and dairy in 2013.

The problem is compounded by two factors: non-commercial operators can’t simply pass along price increases to customers as restaurateurs might, and many operators no longer have the ability to reduce non-food costs such as labor to compensate. One of the driving forces behind the ostensibly healthful or sustainable Meatless Mondays program is the cost of plant-based proteins relative to meat and dairy, some operators admit.

“Most hospital cafeterias are struggling with prices; the cost of food is going through the roof,” says Eric Eisenberg, executive chef for Swedish Health Services in Seattle. “We’ve already cut as much as we can in all areas of our budget. But I can’t raise prices at the same rate as our food costs are increasing or I’d lose all my customers.”

To make up for this inability, Eisenberg is beginning to “rightsize” portions as a cost-containment measure. He says he will make smaller portions more palatable by positioning the changes as a way for customers to learn portion control.

“I’m also looking at focusing on quality over variety as a direction to take,” Eisenberg adds. “For example, right now we offer five soups and a chili every day in our cafeterias. Some of those soups are made in house and some are purchased.

“I’m looking at abandoning that model in favor of a focus on quality,” he adds. “We can make two from-scratch soups a day instead of offering five soups. The quality would be 100 times better, because we’re in control, and it would cost me way less to do.”

Metz’s McNulty says that “being creative” with dishes is his recipe for controlling costs.

“Our purchasing department gives us updates regularly, so we can be prepared to make changes quickly,” he explains. “We see skyrocketing dairy prices and we know that beef and poultry are going to follow suit. So if we can do more buying in bulk ahead of price increases, we can benefit.”

He also recommends “decentralizing” the center-of-the-plate protein to reduce costs.

“We can reduce the protein size and add some other elements to bring some different flavors and a different look to a dish.”

Food Democracy

As the idea of food democracy—the need to satisfy an ever-widening array of customer desires and demands at all times and in any venue—grows, operators are finding their staffs stretched as they try to implement a broad range of products and services. Whether through around-the-clock dining on college campuses, grab and go or taking food to the customer with concepts like food trucks and movable kiosks, operators will have to accept the fact that for customers, convenience is king.

“Portability continues to be the trend that dictates menus for us, particularly around the morning and lunch daypart,” says Helen Wechsler, director of dining services at Boston College. “Students are constantly on the move and they want to take their food with them. In the evenings they’ll sit and relax with friends, but during the day they want their food to go.”

In response, dining services is busy increasing the number of locations that can accommodate that desire. For example, the department added three c-stores called On The Fly Mini-Marts, offering a variety of to-go foods in addition to snacks, beverages, microwavable entrées, yogurts and deli items.

But grab and go is taking off in all market segments. In corporate and hospital cafeterias, time-stressed employee customers are looking for portable, quick-to-eat foods that they can take back to work stations. At the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, Director of Food & Nutrition Services Dan Henroid’s department spent more than $8 million to renovate cafeteria space to reflect a more retail environment and affect the ability for people to grab and go.

“This is what customers want,” Henroid notes. “We get visitors to the foodservice areas who will sit and relax and a fair number of employees to take a little time to sit down and eat, but more and more people are taking food out. We’ve had to make menu and packaging adjustments to make it easier for them while at the same time keep our space as sustainable as possible, with packaging that is recyclable or compostable.”

Sustainability

The idea of buying and serving local and sustainable foods has been around for so many years that it no longer qualifies as a trend so much as a way of doing business. But there is one idea still struggling to gain a secure foothold in the industry, and that is sustainable seafood. Groups like the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch and commodity boards such as the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute spend thousands of dollars each year communicating the message of safe seafood, and operators are beginning to take heed.

At the University of Richmond, in Virginia, Executive Chef Glenn Pruden says seafood is gaining importance with students, primarily for health reasons. University Dining Services will serve 300 to 325 pounds of seafood per meal when it’s offered.

“We are now buying fresh seafood two or three times a week,” says Pruden. “We are buying from a local company and sourcing locally when we can.” For Richmond, local means it’s coming from the waters of the Atlantic off the coast of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. It’s mostly lesser-known fish like tilefish and rockfish.

When Pruden can’t buy local, he will purchase Alaskan seafood. He adds that he also will purchase sustainably fished swordfish when it’s available, even though the price can be in the $12 to $14 per pound range.

“My price point is $8 a pound, and often I can get fish at $4 to $5 a pound,” Pruden explains. “So if I’m careful with my purchasing habits, I can afford to serve that swordfish on occasion.”