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2005 Menu Development Survey: Dishing it out

Many of the largest organizations in foodservice have revamped, overhauled or otherwise upgraded their menus in recent years.

Non-commercial menus today exceed their forebears with regard to health and nutritional benefit, not to mention taste and convenience. But a host of business issues make menu development more challenging than ever.

Many of the largest organizations in foodservice have revamped, overhauled or otherwise upgraded their menus in recent years—no small task since competition is at a fever pitch, food costs are daunting and labor continues to pose its own set of woes.

For example, Sodexo’s Your Health Your Way recipe program for corporate dining “was designed by dietitians and executive chefs who have combined the most updated nutritional guidelines with a collection of meals that can be customized to fit any dietary lifestyle,” says Dick Macedonia, president and ceo of Sodexo.

The contractor is not alone in such endeavors. Aramark’s Just4U Branded Menu Platform and other efforts have come about in much the same way. Its goal? “To deliver an effective solution to address health, wellness, quality, variety and convenience that results in better retention, satisfaction and productivity,” says Doug Martinides, vice president of innovative dining solutions for Aramark.

FSD’s third annual Menu Develop­ment Study, conducted as the basis for the annual MenuDirections Conference (see page 8), confirms that menu development in non-commercial is a complex and involved process. It explores several areas of menu planning activity:

  • Is the cycle menu still the norm?
  • How prevalent are ethnic foods—and what are the top challenges to serving them?
  • Where do operators get new ideas?
  • What’s their approach to culinary training for staff members?
  • What meal production methods do they employ?
  • How can operators improve worker productivity?

And for 2005, the study added a section on display cooking. Following are summaries of each area based upon examination of response data.

By cycle: According to the survey, 80% of operators are on a menu cycle, the most common of which lasts four weeks. Previous surveys had suggested some change in this pattern might be on its way, but not much materialized.

Trade shows and conferences are the No.1 source of new ideas in menu concepts, respondents indicate, followed by casual and family restaurants as well as quick-serve concepts—proving that non-commercial operators look as much to the commercial side of the industry for inspiration as they do their peers in education, healthcare and corporate dining.

They also consult chef associations and conduct focus groups.

Ethnic influence: The FSD survey shows that non-commercial operators continue to place heavy emphasis on ethnic menus, as their customer base continues to diversify while seeking newer cuisines and bolder flavors and meal experiences in order to satisfy their increasingly sophisticated palates.

The popularity of ethnic foods remains high in menu development, and authenticity is mandatory. “Guests are requesting the real thing,” says Andrew Lackmann, vice president of Lackmann Food Service. Rick Postiglione, ceo of Compass Group’s B&I sector, adds, “Ethnic cuisine continues to be the menu of choice.”

Mexican and Asian foods continue to dominate the non-commercial ethnic menu landscape, while the Mediterranean/Greek category shows signs of growth—and in some markets, Indian food is making a significant showing. In fact, respondents indicate that Indian tops the list of ethnic cuisines they plan to add this year; there’s also clear influence from the Middle East and rising interest in the Mediterranean/Greek category.

Operators suggest there’s a lot more to ethnic menu implementation than just the decision about what to serve. The top challenges associated with preparing and serving authentic ethnic cuisines are: preparation and staff training; obtaining ingredients and recipes; and costs, both in terms of food and labor.

Not just line cooks: The survey also delves into the area of staffing, in an attempt to gauge the level of expertise that exists in today’s non-commercial kitchens, and pinpoint what efforts are in place to train the culinary staff on an ongoing basis.

More than a quarter of all operations have an executive chef on staff, but that rises to more than half in higher education. In fact, higher education outpaces all segments in specialized staff such as sous chef and pastry chef, and is far ahead in placing someone in a culinary training capacity.

That type of training includes conferences and trade shows as the No.1 method, with a substantial amount of in-house training, and to a significant extent, sending staff for more extensive training than what they can receive at conferences, followed by visits to the operation from guest chefs or other experts. Also making a substantial showing is the staging of cooking competitions as a way to hone staff members’ culinary skills.

Scratching the surface: Another element of the survey looks at cooking methods non-commercial operators use in production. Most (92%) use scratch-cooking, a strong majority make use of prepared entrees (69%) or components (65%)in meal assembly, and about a third are involved with cook-chill.

The survey asked readers to rank a handful of methods or practices in terms of their productivity benefits. Nearly two-thirds of operators gave use of prepared products the highest scores, compared to other things that enhance productivity like online monitoring systems (43%), automated inventory (28%) and e-commerce (27%).

Many operators belong to larger organizations like school districts, hospital networks or other consortiums, so the survey took a quick look at central production activities. Results show that 30% of operators oversee a centralized food processing/meal preparation facility, and they support an average of seven sites.

In this area, the market’s getting a lot of industry support with respect to equipment and systems that allow a school district, for example, to downsize the amount of ovens, kettles and other items at each feeding site, and transform those sites into facilities that primarily retherm meals produced at the central facility.

School districts doing this are often able to use up the extra capacities of these central facilities on weekends or during the summer, to launch catering services or pick up other business in the local community.

On display: Lastly, the FSD Menu Development Study focuses on display cooking, added because more and more operators are bringing their chefs out of the kitchen and placing them either right on the serving line or in a dedicated station in the main dining room. It’s an effort to get the customer more involved in the meal process and engage them in their meal service so that they feel more a part of it and that it can meet their needs.

One-third of operators say they are involved with display cooking at the moment, yet 85% think it’s a necessary part of non-commercial dining today. Higher-volume operations are more likely to offer display cooking—led by colleges and universities (75%).

Those who provide display cooking set-ups usually have more than one display cooking station—an average of 2.6—available on a regular basis. More of them exist in higher-volume operations where display cooking not only gets the customer involved but also helps alleviate lines and wait times at other serving stations.

Nearly half of those doing display cooking offer it on a daily basis, while the rest offer display cooking at least once a week, or more.

Sales boost: How do you gauge the impact display cooking will have on your business? The FSD study shows that 60% of those involved with display cooking say customer volume increases on display days, to the tune of about 13% in sales.

Another consideration is cost—and while some operators say it costs an average 13% more to run a display cooking station compared to permanent serving counter, more than half of all operators see no significant extra expense when doing it.

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