Trans fat, ethnic, organic and local are the hot buttons for operators, but much work remains, according to the FSD's 2007 Menu Development study.
College and university foodservice operations are often heralded for responding more quickly than other segments to emerging customer demands and leading noncommercial foodservice into new frontiers. But FSD's most recent Menu Development Study shows that the Corporate Dining segment (otherwise known as Business-and-Industry, or B&I) is currently on the leading edge of today's hottest industry trends.
For example: 48% of B&I respondents are using trans fat-free frying oils, compared to the noncommercial average of 39%. In addition, 26% of B&I operators have eliminated trans fats from their salad oils, while 10% have stopped purchasing prepared products containing trans fats.
One of the most recent operations to eliminate trans fat is the cafeteria at the Government Printing Office in Washington, DC, operated by Fame Food Management. Carmine Catalano, foodservice director, says that despite the fact that operators aren't required to disclose trans fat content, “we decided to eliminate them altogether; they're just not good for you."
The effort is designed to reduce risk to employees, he adds, in keeping with the growing tendency of corporations to include foodservice in enterprise-wide wellness improvement programs.
A number of other contract management firms also have committed time and money to deal with the trans fat issue. Sodexho recently passed the one-year mark in its effort to go trans fat-free. In addition to switching to zero trans fat (ZTF) oils and shortenings, the company has sourced a large number of trans fat-free products, including salad dressings, sauces, soups, baked goods, condiments, breaded chicken, pasta and tortillas.
Sodexo uses ZTF, rather than trans fat-free, to describe its menu items to bring itself in line with nutritional definitions set down by the Food and Drug Administration. ZTF refers to products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
B&I operators are also sourcing more organic products in three of four product categories, the FSD study shows: Snacks, Meat/Seafood and Dairy. Colleges are the leaders in purchasing organic produce, with B&I a close second in rankings.
And although hospitals are sourcing more local Dairy and Produce and Nursing Homes buy the most local Meat/Seafood, B&I is not far behind in all product categories.
In fact, Bon Appetit Management Company, with 400 accounts in B&I and Education, recently announced that its expenditures on foods and products from local farmers and artisans grew 83% from 2005 to 2006 “far exceed[ing] that of any other foodservice company," says FarmToCollege.org.
Yet, the noncommercial market has yet to embrace each of these trends fully. FSD's study shows that 61% of operators are still using trans fats in frying oils and salad oils, while more than 90% have not eliminated trans fats from baked goods (purchased or made from scratch).
In addition, nearly three-quarters of operators are not sourcing produce locally, while 69% aren't currently purchasing any organic products whatsoever.
The experience of David Collins, foodservice manager for Union Pacific Railroad's corporate headquarters points up the challenge ahead for operators wishing to source locally.
“The biggest surprise for me, from the vendors, is that many of them just blew us off," says Collins. “I guess we are a kind of pioneer in that area, at least in this regard." Two segments, Colleges and B&I, are placing more importance on culinary expertise in their kitchens. Sixty-three percent of colleges and 57% of B&Is employ an executive chef, compared to 27% of hospitals and 6% of schools.
In addition, one-third of B&I respondents have a sous chef on staff, followed by three-in-10 colleges—a segment, meanwhile, in which 30% of respondents employ a pastry chef (up from 20% in 2005).
And more institutions and companies are seeing benefits in bringing chefs out to the front of the house to manage as well as do menu planning. Companies like Bon Appetit have long employed chef-managers in their accounts, and this fall Princeton University will begin the switch to a culinary-based management system. Dining Services Director Stuart Orefice explains that each of the campus' three large residence halls will have three culinarians on staff: chef-manager, executive chef and sous chef.
How do operators keep these culinarians' skills sharp? Send them to trade shows, say 72% of respondents; conduct in-house training/workshops, 66%; facilitate on-line training, 25%; and have them attend institutes, schools or academies, 24%.
Such skills are in demand as the palate of the noncommercial customer grows increasingly sophisticated and demanding, especially in terms of ethnic cuisines "not to mention healthful yet bold-tasting options." In fact, Thai food, according to the FSD study, is once again the No.1 “hot new ethnic cuisine" among noncommercial operations, followed by Mediterranean/Greek. Thai, no surprise, is also the No.1 new ethnic cuisine operators plan to add to menus this year, followed by Indian and Mediterranean/Greek.
Other Menu Study results show that:
"Portable meal volume rose in B&I but appears to have waned in Colleges and Hospitals. In 2006, it accounted for 30% of B&I meal volume (1% greater than 2005), 17% of hospital volume (down from 30%) and 15% of college volume (down from 23%).
B&I gained ground in this area in recent years as Corporate America has reallocated dining space for other purposes; customer demand for portable meals has grown; and operatorsÃ¢â‚¬"especially contractors, which dominate the B&I landscape "have reformulated operations to meet demand for grab-and-go meals (both hot and cold).
Looking ahead, just 20% of operators expect their portable meal volume to increase in this year.
"Just over one-third (36%) of all operators do display cooking, Disregarding schools, where display cooking is least likely to occur, the percentage of operators setting up display cooking stations skyrockets: 63% of B&Is and 65% of Colleges.
It's no secret that display cooking pushes key buttons in the customer satisfaction equation: freshness, customization and experience. As such, 49% of all operators expect their use of display cooking as a service style to increase this year, since, say 59% of them, customer volume increase on those days when display cooking is offered. On average, it boosts customer counts by 16%, they say.
Customization, in fact, is becoming more important in many areas of the dining facility. For example: 24% of operators are preparing meals to-order at delis; 23% at breakfast stations; and 22% at grill stations.
Taking a few chances helps these operators sell ethnic to customers.
Ethnic foods are taking off, according to FSD's current study, but how that plays out where the clientele is fond of their own ethnic or regional comfort food "therein lies the tale and the challenge. Through education, marketing and theme days, creative operators are generating sales with an expanded menu mix.
At 330-bed Yuma (Ariz.) Regional Medical Center, Sodexo's executive chef Carlos Ochoa caters to the tastes and preferences of his approximately 300 lunchtime customers, 65% of whom are Mexican. Although born and raised in San Francisco, Ochoa brings to the table expertise in creating the flavors from his own Puerto Rican heritage (on his dad's side), as well as influences from the small Italian restaurant his parents ran in San Francisco's Mission District.
A carne asada: At Yuma Regional, the menu he's developed is heavy on Hispanic-influenced dishes, yet also offers some traditional Italian staples and "in response to customer request and somewhat to his surprise" trendy, upscale California cuisine.
“Typically, every Friday we do Baja fish tacos from scratch, Ochoa reports. “We beer-batter and deep-fry two 2-oz. pieces of cod per portion, and put them into a flour or corn tortilla. Then, the customer takes them to the topping bar to add shredded cabbage and salsa bandera—it reflects the three colors of the Mexican flag with the red of chopped tomatoes, the white of chopped onions, and the green of fresh chopped jalapeños and cilantro. Priced at $1.50 per taco, it's a solid seller."
At this time of year, before the blistering heat of summer sets in, Ochoa is able to set up a barbecue grill on the patio and do carne asada as well as pollo asado (charred meat and charred chicken, respectively). “We have a jalisco, an outdoor deep fryer shaped like a wok. We'll also do beer-battered fish or shrimp tacos on the barbecue."
California cool: Although the authentically prepared comfort food of Mexico is the most popular “ethnic" offering here—and Ochoa has worked in Sodexo's corporate test kitchen to develop just such authentic recipes for the contractor's accounts nationwide—he finds sales are quite high for such Italian specialties as eggplant parmigiana and chicken Marsala. “But customers here are really interested in the newest California cuisines," he points out. They have developed a bacon-wrapped Gulf shrimp with a spicy orange glaze. The glaze is a mix of red chili and orange marmalade. When you simmer the marmalade in a pot it turns to syrup, then you add the chili."
“Folks rave about my almond-crusted medallion of pork loin served with mango puree," he says. “But they'll also accept Greek fare. Some items, such as miniature spanakopita—crispy phyllo dough triangles filled with spinach and feta—are in our catering book and are often requested."
Tour de force: Tipton (Ind.) Hospital is deep in the heart of meat-and-potatoes country, just 30 miles from Indianapolis. In fact, the town of Tipton is known for its annual week-long pork festival. But Andre Lipari, CDM, CFPP, assistant foodservice manager in this 25-bed critical access facility, has been on a mission since the first of the year to expand the culinary horizons of his more than 200 lunchtime customers. “We're introducing them to other ethnic foods by taking a one day 'tour' each month," he explains. “In January, our Italian tour went extremely well. Our chef, Patty Sheward, and I did pasta-to-order. Customers had a choice of three sauces as well as chicken, broccoli, roasted tomatoes, etc. Participation was fantastic although not as good as Greek Day in February, and we expect Polish Day in March will be even better."
Lipari sees interest building as word of mouth gets out. He's also spreading the message to the larger Tipton community through the local Chamber of Commerce newsletter that goes to about 600 locations.