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4 ways to craft easy, customizable meals to please crowds post-pandemic

Photograph: Shutterstock

In adapting to the rapidly evolving situation surrounding the pandemic this year, a big change for noncommercial foodservice has been the pivot to off-premise and the elimination of self-serve salad/pasta bars and buffets. But with the elimination of self-serve bars, guests have lost many opportunities to customize their meals.

And they do love to customize: 37% of consumers expect to be able to customize their meals, according to Technomic’s 2020 Future of LSR: Fast Food & Fast Casual Consumer Trend Report. That urge to have it their way likely carries over to the non-commercial segment, too, meaning foodservice operators must figure out ways to offer customers other customization opportunities.

Among the innovative solutions for customization are staff-serviced “make your own” kiosks. These include walk-up stations where diners can choose from a variety of prepackaged meal components for take-away, as well as online “build your own bowl” and “take and bake” programs where selections are prepared for pick up or delivery.

This switch from self-serve to more pre-prep has meant increased labor. And to counteract that, operators are optimizing menus to scale back SKUs while still offering customers plenty of options. Key to that strategy is to cross-utilize versatile and popular ingredients such as cheese, which appears as a major player in virtually every menu category—from sandwiches and salads to pizza, main dishes, snacks and desserts.  

For operators, cheese offers many advantages over other proteins. There are no supply issues, as there have been with meat and poultry; cheese also has a longer serve-by life. And the category offers a huge variety of types and styles of cheeses to fit nearly every menu application.

Many foodservice operators choose Real California cheese and dairy products, because they know customers care about the provenance and sustainability of ingredients. And by displaying the Real California seal on menus and webpages, operators show their support for the Golden State’s 1,200 family dairy farms and over 50 cow’s milk cheesemakers. Operators know they can change up their menus by choosing from more than 250 varieties of Real California cheese—from fresh and soft/ripened to semi-hard and hard cheeses as well as Hispanic-style cheeses and flavored variations of familiar favorites. 

Get creative: cheese can enhance menu offerings any way you slice it, dice it or crumble it. Here are a few ideas to get started.

Bespoke pizza

Guests can customize to their hearts’ content with a top-your-own pizza format. Offer pizza for pick-up, delivery or take-and-bake. Let them check off the desired toppings, including a choice of cheeses. Cheese lovers will also love the option to choose a cheese-stuffed-crust pie.

Take a South-of-the-Border approach by topping a signature pizza with Hispanic-style cheeses, salsa and chorizo. For a plant-forward option, create a cauliflower crust that’s gluten-free. But don’t neglect to boost protein and broaden appeal with a healthy measure of shredded cheese.

Sandwich sensations

Whether prepared to order or prepackaged, sandwiches that feature cheese are popular with customers. According to Technomic’s 2020 Sandwich Consumer Trend Report, 41% of consumers would order a cheesesteak, and 40% (including 48% of younger diners) would order grilled cheese. To add variety, try different cheese mixes and add spicy or fruity sauces and spreads.

Upgrade any sandwich with artisan cheese and breads. Some 31% of consumers enjoy artisanal cheeses in sandwiches, according to Technomic’s Sandwich report. For bistro appeal, just add a slice of ham and bechamel, then batter and fry the cheese sandwich for a Croque Monsieur—top with a fried egg to transform it into a Croque Madame.

Soup, salad and pasta

Whether cubed, grated, crumbled or in stick or sauce form, cheese is a staple at soup, salad and pasta stations. Feta is traditional on Greek salads but adds a savory accent to hot pasta. French onion (topped with a luxurious layer of cheese, of course) and creamy cheese soups (including Broccoli Cheddar or Loaded Baked Potato) are hearty winter fare. Boost any salad or pasta order with a sprinkle of shredded or grated cheese.

Consider setting up a mac & cheese bar, too. Start with a base recipe then add variety with add-ins such as meats, veggies and more cheese. Change up the recipe with different pasta shapes and sauces.

Tacos are popular, and it’s easy to prepackage tortillas and fillings for later assembly or let guests choose components at a station. This is the place to bring out Hispanic-style cheeses such as cotija, Oaxaca, panela and queso fresco. Using many of the same components, operators can offer build-your-own burritos and nachos plates.    

Stuffed stuff

Real cheese is perfect for just about anything, but it shines when used as a stuffing. Consider mozzarella-stuffed calzones and asadero-stuffed empanadas, for example. Bury a hunk of cheddar in ground meat when forming patties for burgers or sandwich a melty layer in meatloaf.

Stuff vegetables too; for example, spoon ricotta and parmesan into spaghetti squash before baking. Cheeses of all sorts are a natural for loaded baked potatoes or potato skins. Arancini are a Sicilian specialty—deep-fried rice balls stuffed with cheese for a crunchy outside, creamy center.

For more information about Real California dairy and innovative foodservice applications, visit realcaliforniamilk.com/foodservice/

This post is sponsored by California Milk Advisory Board

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