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Bowls go beyond the build-your-own treatment

Photograph courtesy of Sandella’s Flatbread Cafe

Customization was the name of the game when bowls first entered the dining scene. Build-your-own stations offering up grains, veggies, proteins, sauces and toppings allowed customers to build their own bowl meals in a range of cuisines, from Asian to Middle Eastern, Mexican, Italian and more.

But often, these customer-created concoctions turned into unappealing mashups of flavors, colors and textures.

Chefs are coming to the rescue. While many operations still offer do-it-yourself bowls, the menu development team is taking over at others, creating well-crafted bowls in which the ingredients play well together.

And this strategy delivers another benefit: It’s more efficient. When guests customize bowls, it holds up the line.

“We tested a build-your-own bowl station and it slowed down service too much,” says Elsa Saraiva, VP of operations for Sandella’s Flatbread Cafe, an operator in 70 noncommercial locations, including hospitals, colleges and corporate dining. Instead, Sandella’s recently introduced a line of on-trend plant-based bowls, including vegan options, in response to demand from a growing number of vegetarian patrons.

A focus on flavor

To create the vegan bowls, Sandella’s had to spec two new SKUs—tofu and quinoa—and tapped the kitchen’s signature sweet-and-salty Brazilian sauce to add zip. The Brazilian Tofu and Quinoa Bowl incorporates broccoli florets and red onion, while the Black Beans and Tofu Quinoa Bowl boasts the addition of green peppers and salsa. “The black beans make this a higher protein option, something corporate customers are looking for,” Saraiva says.

The staff-made bowls take about the same time and labor to prepare as a sandwich or panini, she adds. And guests appreciate the nutritious ingredients and portability.

Bowls are currently edging out sandwiches at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), says Senior Executive Chef Dusty Cooper. “This generation wants mobile food, and bowls are easier to transport,” she says. “Plus, transparency is important, and all the ingredients are in full view in a bowl.”

Bowls with Asian flavor profiles are the most popular at UCSB, with Pumpkin Pho a recent favorite. “We created it during fall pumpkin season for our fine-dining venue. It features roasted pumpkin, plump shiitakes and rice noodles in an herbaceous broth,” Cooper says. The broth is vegan and made from scratch, using onions, ginger, garlic, coriander, cloves, anise, cinnamon and shiitake stems. To keep the bowl gluten-free, it’s flavored with tamari and hoisin.

A top seller at one of UCSB’s all-you-care-to-eat dining halls is a composed Korean Pork Bowl, made with pork, sticky rice, vegetables, a sunny side up egg and Korean sauce.

Bowling over the rotisserie

Getting students to try something new was the impetus for a new bowl concept at University of Connecticut in Storrs. Traffic was waning at a station featuring rotisserie meats, chicken and sides. With bowls being a hot item among the college and university population, dining services decided to transform the station—highlighting seafood as the “center of the bowl.”

uconn salmon salad
Photograph courtesy of University of Connecticut

It turned out to be a traffic builder—and a good way to turn students on to seafood as a healthy and tasty protein option, says Robert Landolphi, assistant director of dining services for culinary development. The staff-created bowls include a Salmon Buddha Bowl (apricot-glazed salmon over quinoa-bulgur blend with spinach, avocado halves, tomatoes, water chestnuts and sesame-ginger dressing), Sicilian Scallop Bowl (seared scallops with eggplant caponata, a pistachio wheatberry saute and citrus-garlic vinaigrette) and Biryani Shrimp Bowl (spiced shrimp, roasted tropical cauliflower, raita cucumber salad and toasted cashews). For portion and cost control, each bowl gets 3 ounces of seafood.

And like at Sandella’s locations and UCSB, global flavors rule. Along with the Asian, Italian and Indian versions mentioned above, other seafood bowls showcase Cuban, Korean, Jamaican, Greek and Hawaiian ingredients.

“Our chefs take the time to assemble the bowls and present them like they would in a restaurant,” Cooper of UCSB says. “Younger palates don’t really know how to put flavors together, and when they build their own, they tend to use the same ingredients over and over. This gives students more variety and the chance to try something new.”

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