The results of the 2010 Menu Development Study, conducted annually by Foodservice Director, are in, and the survey says Asian is “in,” Mediterranean has staying power, and Thai, Caribbean and Cuban will be making their way onto more non-commercial menus in the months to come.
The results are summarized in a sidebar below, and in four charts scattered throughout the article. But raw data doesn’t often tell us the why—or why not. So, we asked 30 chefs and operators to tell us what’s popular in their operations and why, as well as what is holding them back from expanding their menus even further.
The most frequent response to the open-ended question, “what is the most popular ethnic cuisine?” is Asian and that is true in most segments.
“I think the reason why students like it so much,” suggests Craig Mombert, executive chef at Davidson College in North Carolina, “is because most people are familiar with Chinese food. It is not a stretch for many to give other types of cuisine, such as Thai or Korean, a shot. And they get to experience flavors that are not found traditionally in European and other Western cuisines.”
Another reason, says Shawn Hoch, executive chef at Washington State University, is that a large number of customers are Asian.
“Our largest minority population on campus is Asian,” Hoch says. “Chinese is most popular, but we also follow Japanese and Thai, and recently added Vietnamese pho to the menu, which has been well received. We also have been adding to our sushi concept and added dim sum to the menu.”
Vaughn Vargus, executive chef at the University of California at San Diego, says, “At the top of the list would be our sushi/soba menu items. Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese are all very popular.” Then, travel across the country to upstate New York, and Steven Miller, executive chef at Cornell University, will tell you: “Thai food is a very hot concept. Low food cost and big flavors help get this concept rolling.” Miller worked with Chef Chai Siriyarn to open a Thai concept last fall, and he also brought in Indian chef and restaurateur Suvir Saran to bring Indian flavors to American foods such as macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and meatloaf.
Even universities in the “meat-and-potatoes” stronghold of America’s Heartland see Asian items as popular. Few, however, have gotten as exotic as the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
“We recently served some Nepali dishes with positive feedback,” says Executive Chef Janna Traver. “I believe this is due to the use of curries that provide a known ingredient. This allows us to incorporate some exotic flavors such as fenugreek, Szechuan peppercorns and cardamom.”
But it is not only in higher education that the survey found that Asian is popular. In the Hillsborough County (Fla.) School District, Foodservice Director Mary Kate Harrison says it tops her menus “by far.”
“Our Asian bowls with orange chicken or teriyaki beef are very popular, not only with students but also adults as well,” she explains. “We have added sushi as an à la carte item, and it sells well in higher-income schools. Vegetarian and chicken egg rolls as main line entrées are very popular but not as wildly as the Asian bowls.”
Debbie Mobley, foodservice director for the Clarksville Montgomery County (Md.) Schools, says orange chicken and rice is a particular favorite among her customers. “I think because it reminds them of chicken nuggets that are sauced.”
Diversity: Hospitals, many of which have a wide variety of ethnicities represented among their staffs, see similar variety in their menu diversity.
“We have two favorites, Mexican and Thai,” says Patti Oliver, food and nutrition services director at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. So, she adds, she alternates menu items to keep both camps happy.
“We have an International Corner in the dining commons, which features different ethnic entrées each day,” she explains. “Mondays are tostadas and Thursdays rotate between burritos, flautas and sopas. All are huge sellers. On Tuesdays we have a curry bar, with a choice of salmon, chicken, beef or lamb, and the house is always packed on that day. The curry is pretty spicy, and our clientele seem to like that. Our cooks make a housemade salsa to go with the Mexican entrées that is very spicy as well.”
At Intermountain Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, Foodservice Director Laura Watson says she doesn’t have any strong ethnic preferences among her hospital’s customers. So, she uses the cafeteria for a monthly geography lesson, featuring different types of cuisine each month.
“The total menu will feature entrées, sides, salads, sandwiches and desserts from that region,” she explains. “The most popular have been Central and South America, Polynesian and Italian.”
Large urban areas, particularly in the Northeast, attract a wide variety of ethnicities, which often means operators must offer menus with many influences. For example, Beth Yesford, foodservice director for Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., says her menus offer “Spanish, Caribbean, Jamaican, Chinese and Indian—in line with the many different cultures represented in our hospital.” At Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Foodservice Director Tom Cooley notes that Caribbean cuisine offers him flexibility in several ways to satisfy his hospital’s diverse employee base.
“We have an inner-city hospital mix of white, black and Hispanic working here,” Cooley says. “Caribbean lets us mix soul, seafood and Spanish influences, which seems to work for a lot of our customers. It also works for pork, which usually does not go over well with blacks and Muslims. But jerk and curry-style pork sells well, as do our Cuban sandwiches.”
Italia: At NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, customers “are pretty open to any ethnic cuisine,” says Food and Nutrition Services Director Regina Toomey Bueno.
“Italian is still the most universally liked, probably because it has been around forever. We sell pretty much everything though.”
Italian is also the top cuisine at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, according to Executive Chef Roger Lademann. “Italian is probably the most popular because it’s a safe option for customers; they feel comfortable with it,” he says. “They can recognize the foods and tastes without being disappointed. Mexican and Chinese are a close second, because they are fun and flavorful, and because they can be easy to eat with your hands: tacos, quesadillas, egg rolls and dumplings.”
Dominic Machi, foodservice director for the Newark (Calif.) Unified School District, says his menus are influenced by what kids see on the outside. “Asian and Mexican seem to be the most popular,” Machi says. “As you look at retail menus you see items from those cuisines the most, and this reflects what the students desire to have in their lunch program.”
In the Midwest, the more exotic ethnic cuisines sometimes take a little longer to percolate, says Lucas Miller, executive chef at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
“With a student body that is mostly from the Midwest, there tends to be a longer learning curve,” Miller suggests. “Students are willing to try new cuisines, but it takes some research and time to see if they will become repeat customers.”
Ball State’s approach has been to introduce new cuisines like Indian and Thai during special meals and events. “Some cuisines require special equipment and modifications to facilities we may not have,” says Miller. “By serving lesser-known cuisines periodically we can get a better understanding if they will be well received prior to modifying existing facilities or planning future ones.”
Roger Pigozzi, executive chef at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that no matter what type of cuisine is being served, the key to success is realism.
“Due to the diversity of our students and staff at UCLA, it is important that our ethnic cuisines are authentic,” Pigozzi notes. “Whether we are serving Mediterranean, Asian or Mexican, as long as the items served are prepared and presented following authentic recipes, the dishes are equally well received.”
The best sellers: For all of the hype about ethnic cuisines, world flavors are still, for the most part, much like healthy eating. Customers will ask for more diversity, but they often end up gravitating toward the old favorites.
“Chicken fingers,” says James Rose, executive chef at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “Skidmore has offered Chicken Fingers Friday for it seems like forever. We serve approximately 350 to 400 pounds per meal period. Marinated breast of chicken also is very popular.”
Harrison, of Hillsborough County School District, agrees.
“Kids and adults love them,” she notes. “They are easy to eat while you’re walking and talking. No one seems to get tired of them.”
At the University of Kansas, chicken tenders also rule but in a slightly different form, according to Traver. “Our best-selling item is the crunchy chicken cheddar wrap,” she says. “It contains chicken tenders, cheddar cheese and ranch dressing—all mainstays of the student diet.”
At Temple University Hospital, fried chicken, made from scratch as an entrée, “is how we roll,” says Cooley. “Also, steak sandwiches on the grill—we’re in Philly and we have great rolls.”
At many institutions, hamburgers are considered a comfort food—and a top seller, as well.
“Our best-selling item in our secondary schools? Our hamburgers, which we charbroil every day,” says Newark Unified School District’s Machi. “We prepare the burgers while students are walking to their classes. They see the smoke and smell the burgers. We even have the neighbors going crazy.”
“Standard American fare,” adds Miller of Ball State. “Hamburgers, french fries, lasagna, mashed potatoes and gravy.”
Oliver, at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, says nothing beats comfort when it comes to the menu.
“I think our two best-selling items are fried chicken and meatloaf with mushroom gravy,” Oliver says. “People still want comfort food, no matter what time of year.”
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.
Cost versus value: Sometimes, cost is not the issue so much as it is perceived value, according to KU’s Traver.
“I would like to incorporate more small plates into our menus,” Traver says. “The greatest obstacle is cost versus perceived value. The assumption among our students is that portion size should be directly proportionate to cost. Unfortunately, they don’t understand that packaging and production costs do not decrease in direct proportion to the portion cost.”
When cost isn’t the issue, space is—and sometimes that is true for even the simplest types of menu enhancements. Watson would love to be able to do more cooking to order in front of customers at her Utah hospital. “But that requires more resources and space than we have available,” she says.
Dwight Collins, executive chef at the University of California at Santa Cruz, says he’s working on a noodle house/dim sum concept. The challenge: where to put it.
“Because of space limits, adding this concept means that something else has to go,” he explains.
Cathy Babbs, foodservice director at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health System in Illinois, faces the same challenge whenever she wants to try something new. “Space is the biggest obstacle I have,” she says. “When I add something I have to take something away.”
“I would love to add a breakfast all-day concept,” says Kevin Camarillo, executive chef at Central Washington University. “The problem we are running into is raw space. We don’t have room for it. I would love to add on, but we can’t now.”
At Cornell University, Chef Miller says a lack of equipment almost scuttled a popular menu item: tandoori oven-baked goat cheese naan bread. “We needed too many ovens,” he says. “We couldn’t get enough product cooked to sustain the concept.” Cornell’s jerry-rigged solution: “To go to a freshly cooked bread option that wasn’t naan but was close enough to give us a freshly cooked solution.”
Culinary training: Staffing new concepts with trained people presents another challenge, one that is true whether the concept is simple or exotic.
“We would like to make more use of action stations, making food that is simple and freshly made,” says Orange Regional Medical Center’s DeNicola. “Our challenge is finding talented labor with limited resources.”
Reid at Valparaiso says that in order for him to introduce new cuisines such as Asian he will need to train himself.
“We would love to do Thai and Japanese and get a better understanding of Korean food,” he says. “Personally, I need to spend more time with chefs from those countries to gain the knowledge to be able to train my crew to execute a great product.”At the University of Richmond, Executive Chef Glenn Pruden says adding sushi made to order is a goal, providing he can convince his staff.
“This will require staff willingness to learn to make sushi,” Pruden says. “We need to train them on technique: cooking the rice, cutting of items, how much to put in each roll, how to roll and cut, etc.” He says he plans to bring in Asian chef/restaurateur Jet Tila for three days this spring to provide training in both sushi making and Asian cooking.
FSD’s 2010 Menu Survey
The results of our 2010 Menu Development Survey are in. Here is a snapshot of the industry, based on the responses of 298 operators.
• America has long been known as a “melting pot” or “salad bowl” because of the variety of ethnicities represented in this country. That variety is reflected in the types of cuisines being offered among our survey respondents. The 12 cuisines represented, by percent offering: Chinese/Japanese: 73%; Mediterranean/Greek: 45%; Nuevo Latino: 25%; Caribbean: 24%; Indian: 24%; Cuban: 22%; Middle Eastern: 22%; Thai: 21%; Jamaican: 19%; Korean: 10%; Vietnamese: 8%; other Southeast Asian: 6%.• Twenty-three percent of respondents said they offer none of the cuisines listed above. The percentages were highest in nursing homes/LTC (43%), schools (26%) and hospitals (23%).
• Thai (20%), Mediterranean and Indian (10% each) are mentioned by respondents to be “hot” ethnic cuisines.• Thai is also the cuisine most likely to be added by respondents during the next 12 months, with 15% indicating they would be including it in their menu mix. Other likely additions include Caribbean (14%), Cuban and other Southeast Asian (13% each), and Indian, Vietnamese and Nuevo Latino (12% each).
• Culinary training is an important component for operators wanting to keep abreast of menu trends, and there are several options available to make this happen. Among the learning opportunities used by respondents are trade shows and conferences (71%), in-house seminars and workshops (65%), online training (36%), off-site training (29%), bringing culinary professionals in (25%) and chef competitions (20%).
• Takeout business makes up about 19%, on average, of the meal volume among respondents. Grab and go is most popular in hospitals (33%), B&I (33%) and colleges (22%), and least popular in nursing homes/LTC (8%) and schools (6%). On average, one-quarter of operators expect takeout business to grow during the next year, and 4% expect it to decrease.
• Display cooking is an option offered by 44% of operators. Colleges (87%) and B&I (79%) are the most likely places to see preparation in front of diners, while schools (7%) seldom do display prep. Of those operators who do display cooking, 43% do it every day, 16% offer it four to six times per week, 16% offer it two to three times a week and 23% make it a once-a-week occasion. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they expect the frequency of display cooking to increase in the near future.