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6 lessons from MenuDirections

Foodservice Director’s MenuDirections conference, an immersion in the culinary trends reshaping noncommercial foodservice, convened Sunday afternoon with a look at one of the market’s core challenges: How do you pack both health and pizzazz into new menus? menudirections conference book

If you’re looking for a single path, dream on, suggested several of the day’s speakers. “There is no one solution,” said Michiel Bakker, director of global foodservices for Google. “Multiple ways will get you there.”

He and other presenters shared a number of those routes, along with some innovations that would put zing into any noncommercial operation. 

Here’s a sampling.

1. Pop-ups in virtual form

Every week, Stanford University features what it calls a pop-up menu, a special meal that follows the health and sustainability guidelines set forth in the Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change initiative. “A couple of our chefs create 50 of these plates and we tweet it out,” explained executive director Eric Montell. “Typically we give them a password. The students show up, they give us the password, and they get this delicious food. It’s really a connection between the students and the chefs.”

2. Nutrition is time-sensitive

Speakers agreed that customers’ interest in eating more healthfully is a function of the time of day. They may be carefully watching their diets in the morning, but a yen for indulgence is more likely to prevail as the day progresses, noted Google’s Bakker.

3. How blended can a blended burger be? 

Montell recounted how he challenged Stanford’s foodservice staff to see how far the beef content of a burger could be lowered without turning the product into something else. The outer boundary: 22 percent beef (with mushrooms accounting for the other 78 percent). “I think that’s about our limit,” he commented.

4. Plants as a merchandising aid

Convincing customers to try dishes with a high percentage of plant-based protein is a little easier if plants are used to showcase the options, said Google’s Bakker. “We looked at the impact at plant-centric merchandising,”  he explained, showing a slide of the vegetable arrangements adorning dining rooms. “What if you used plant-based visuals to tell the story of the food?” That mindset helped sell items like a cauliflower steak—in a barbecue restaurant at a Google facility.

5. Look abroad

FSDs routinely adopt ethnic specialties because of their flavor, but they should also scour global cuisines for insights on delivering more healthful and sustainable choices, suggested Scott Allmendinger of the Culinary Institute of America. Because Old World societies have been searching for those options far longer than America’s foodservice community has, they’ve evolved that much more, he explained.

6. Garden spots

Stanford’s garden underscores the university’s efforts to serve fresh, healthful produce, providing a halo for its “plant-centric” menu options, said Montell. But the “special place” also provides a choice backdrop for special events, he added. His operations use the mini-farm as a catering site.

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