Even though talking with chefs and foodservice directors in non-commercial operations would suggest that customers are clamoring for Indian cuisine, Thai food remains at the top of the list of “hot” cuisines, according to the results of the 2009 Menu Development survey compiled by FoodService Director.
Twenty-four percent of survey respondents listed Thai as the hottest ethnic cuisine, outside of well-established cuisines such as Mexican, Italian and Chinese. (In last year’s survey, 21% of respondents chose Thai as their hot choice.) Another 14% listed Mediterranean/Greek as the hottest, followed by Indian, with 8%. Other responses included Middle Eastern (6%) and Cuban and Nuevo Latino (4% each).
However, when it comes to which cuisines operators will be adding to their menus, Latino moves to the top of the list. When asked “Which ethnic cuisines do you plan to add in the next 12 months?”, operators indicated their customers were clamoring for cuisines of the Caribbean. Nearly 11% of operators said they would be adding Cuban, Jamaican or Nuevo Latino items to their menus. Ten percent said they would be adding Mediterranean/Greek, and 10% said they would be adding Thai or Pacific Rim items.
Among current menu offerings, Mediterranean/Greek remains most popular, with 46% of operators saying they offer items from this region on their menus compared with 47% last year. Twenty-nine percent said they offer Thai, the same percentage as last year. But Indian cuisine made its way onto more menus, with 29% saying they offer Indian foods, compared with only 23% last year. Other popular ethnic items include Caribbean (28%) Middle Eastern (23%) and Pacific Rim (22%).
Chefs on board: When it comes to menu development, 48% of survey respondents see the value—and have the budget—to have professionally trained culinarians on staff, with 40% of operators saying they employ an executive chef. Respondents are, however, increasingly hiring chefs with different skill sets. For example, 11% of operators surveyed said they employ a pastry chef, up from 6% last year, 15% said they have a culinary director, up 4 percentage points from last year and 8% said they have a chef de cuisine on staff, compared with 6% last year. More operations have sous chefs as well, with 25% employing the position, an increase from last year’s 22%.
Whether they have professional chefs or not, most operators continue to realize the value of culinary and other menu-related training, and 91% of operators reported providing staff culinary training in one form or another. Perhaps reflective of current economic conditions, however, there has been a shift in where and how training takes place, with more operators choosing stay-at-home approaches. For example, the percentage of operators sending culinarians to conferences and trade shows dropped 4 percentage points, from 80% to 76%, although the use of off-site institutes and schools increased from 31% to 35%. But by and large, more operators are bringing the training to the staff, in the form of in-house seminars and workshops (72% versus 66% last year), online training (up from 25% to 36%), and visits by culinary professionals (30% this year compared with 25% last year). Chef competitions grew in popularity, with 21% of operators sending chefs to such events, versus 19% last year.
To prepare and serve: Most operators use a variety of methods in preparing food, but convenience is increasingly trumping fresh. Among survey respondents, 91% said they do at least some scratch cooking, and 30% said they do some or all of their preparation using cook-chill methods. But when it comes to using already prepared foods in their operations, 71% said they use some prepared ingredients or meal components, compared with 65% last year, and 62% said they use some prepared entrées, versus 60% last year.
When it comes to scratch cooking, 45% of operators take that right to the customer in the form of display cooking, and 54% of respondents said they plan to increase the frequency of exhibition stations. There is an excellent reason for this: 78% of operators said their customer counts go up by an average of 15% when display cooking is done.
Colleges and universities are where you are most likely to see food prep in front of customers, as 89% of college survey respondents do this, with an average of about 6 stations per institution, and 78% said they offer it every day. Display cookery also is prevalent in B&I, where 80% of respondents offer it; by contrast, only 11% of school foodservice operations offer display cooking, and they do it only once a week.
Local and organic: Local sourcing and the use of organics are still popular elements of the menu development process. Seventy-seven percent of operators buy at least some foods from local sources, compared with 74% last year, while the percentage of operators buying at least some organic products rose markedly, from 32% last year to 40% this year. In both cases, produce is the most likely item on shopping lists. Fifty-eight percent of respondents buy local produce for an average of 45% of their total produce purchases, and 33% buy organic produce for an average of 15% of their total produce buying.
Among other local products, 57% said they buy dairy items (55% last year), and 37% buy meats or seafood from local sources (33% last year). A big purchasing change is in buying local baked goods. Fifty-two percent reported buying these items locally, markedly up from last’s year 38%. On the organic side, 20% (17% last year) buy snacks, 16% (11% last year) buy dairy products and 11% buy meats or seafood.
Finally, the great majority of operators—92%—have eliminated trans fats from the products they use or serve customers. Although that percentage hasn’t changed much, the variety from which trans fats have been removed has grown. Fifty-one percent of operators have removed trans fats from baked goods—35% last year—and 36% have removed them from all purchased prepared foods, versus 25% last year. Eighty-four percent said frying oils and shortening are trans fat-free, compared with 81% last year. Salad oils are trans fat-free in 63% of operations, compared with 58% last year.