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.
Veggie volume: According to the survey, 9% of the average noncommercial menu is given over to vegetarian or vegan food items. That figure is up slightly from 7% last year. The biggest jump in vegetarian items is on college campuses, where 15% of the average menu is given over to meatless items; the percentage last year was 10%.
In the other market sectors, the percentages of vegetarian and vegan items are: B&I, 9%; hospitals and schools, 8%, and long-term care, 4%.
When it comes to requests for meatless options, 12% of college customers are asking for them, 10% of B&I customers, 6% in hospitals, and 4% in schools and long-term care.
Trans-fat transition: The noncommercial industry is inching closer to a trans fat-free business, according to our survey. Only 10% of operators polled say they have not eliminated trans fats from their menu items; the number last year was 16%. Virtually all B&I operators have eliminated trans fats from at least some items, while on the flip side, 24% of long-term care operators still have yet to address the trans fats problem.
Regarding specific products and processes, on average 81% of operators have removed trans fats from frying oils and shortening, 57% from salad oils and 35% from baked goods. In addition, 25% say they have stopped purchasing products that contain trans fats.
“We continue to eliminate trans fats on a regular basis,” says Nona Golledge, director of dining for the University of Kansas. “It’s more about when products become available that we look at them, but it is definitely something we are moving forward with in all of our products.”
The local angle: Despite the increasing desire on the part of both customers and operators to do whatever they can to reduce the environmental footprint, sourcing local and/or organic products continues to be a challenge for many operators. Nearly 26% of operators say they are not sourcing any products locally, and 68% say they are not buying organic items. Last year, those percentages were 20% and 69%, respectively. For most operators, availability continues to be the major roadblock.
“We have really tried to push local and organic, but it has been difficult to get products through the regular local channels because there is not a wide enough variety,” says John Barclay, assistant director of nutritional care at Mission Hospital, Mission Viejo, Calif. “We are doing only a limited amount.”
Colleges and universities are most likely to be sourcing local and organic, with only 13% saying they don’t buy local products, and 36% saying they don’t source organic.
When it comes to products, those buying local are most likely to purchase locally grown produce and locally produced dairy items; 57% say they buy produce, 55% buy dairy, 38% buy baked goods and 33% buy meats and/or seafood from local sources.
On the organic side, 22% of operators buying organic source produce, 17% source snacks and 11% source meats/seafood and/or dairy.
Among the other areas that can impact menu development:
Staffing and training: Nearly 40% of all operators employ an executive chef, with B&I (82%) and universities (67%) most likely to have an executive chef on staff, and long-term care (15%) and schools (4%) least likely. Overall, 22% of operators have sous chefs, 11% have a culinary director, and 6% have a chef de cuisine and/or pastry chef.
When it comes to training, 80% of operators send staff to conferences and trade shows. Other training methods include in-house seminars and workshops (66%), off-site training at schools or institutes (31%), bringing culinary professionals to the institution or company (25%) and on-line training (25%).
Cooking methods: Overall, 92% of operators surveyed use scratch cooking, with virtually all college operators employing scratch preparation. School districts are least likely to use scratch cooking, with only 81% saying they cook from scratch. Almost 65% of operators use some prepared ingredients or meal components, and 60% use prepared entrées. Slightly more than 31% of all operators use cook-chill preparation for some items.
Display cooking is growing in popularity, with 48% of operators using display cooking in their facilities. The use of exhibition or demo cooking has grown in the last year by double digits in every market segment. For example, 76% of B&I operators do display cooking, compared with 63% last year. The other markets include universities at 95% (65% last year), hospitals at 39% (21% last year), nursing homes at 27% (9%) and schools at 12% (4%). Of those operators who offer display cooking, 51% do it daily, while one quarter of operators offer it once a week. And 49% of operators say they expect the frequency of exhibition cooking to increase in the year to come, because it’s good business: 75% of operators say customer counts increase whenever they offer display cooking.
The take-away factor: There is an increased demand from customers for take-away foods. On average, 20% of food purchased in noncommercial cafeterias and retail operations is consumed away from the point of purchase, versus 15% last year. By market sector, portable foods account for 30% of hospital business, 29% of B&I business, 17% of college business, 12% of long-term care business and 10% of school business. And 25% of operators believe take-out will increase in the coming year; the expectations are highest in universities (41%) and hospitals (39%).