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How foodservice operators are contending with the romaine recall

Following last week’s warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that urged foodservice operators to halt serving all romaine lettuce, FSDs across the country have found a variety of ways to replace the crunchy green that’s a customer favorite in salads and sandwiches.

Though the original warning was earlier this week limited to romaine grown in certain areas of California, operations continue to do without romaine as they await new supply. In the meantime, prices of alternative iceberg lettuce have been on the rise.

FSD reached out to members of its Culinary Council to see how they’ve been coping with the romaine recall. Here’s what we learned:

“For a school district, [the recall] is a big deal,” says Vincent Scimone, director of child nutrition for Grossmont Union High School District in El Cajon, Calif., where hundreds of salads are served daily. His district has replaced the romaine in its salads with a spinach and cabbage mixture, which Scimone says is less popular but has been a “life saver.”

Brent Trudeau—executive chef and production manager for Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, where about 10,000 pounds of romaine are served each week—noted the increased frequency of romaine concerns and says his team is looking at long-term solutions such as a hydroponic growing system. Hydroponics currently supply about 20% of the romaine served at one of the district’s high schools, and if all goes well, the aim is to eventually expand their hydroponics efforts to provide most of the district’s romaine.

Staying nimble is key, says Matthew Cervay, system executive chef for Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa., adding that the higher cost of replacements such as spring mix can have negative impacts on profit margins. Operators may also want to wait a couple of weeks after romaine gets the green light before serving it, he says, so that the topic can fade from the forefront of diners’ minds.

Quick thinking came in handy with the University of Kansas dining team, as Executive Chef Janna Traver realized shortly after the lettuce warning was issued that meals for that evening’s catering function contained romaine. “Luckily, the event was for 30, and we were able to contact the on-duty chef, have him discard the salads and get him fresh product just in time for the event,” she says. “The host was perplexed when the preset salads were pulled almost as soon as they were placed on the tables, but relieved to know that we were able to react quickly to provide safe product for their guests.” 

Cincinnati Public Schools has leaned on spinach as a romaine replacement in premade salads and salad bars, while Minneapolis Public Schools took out the romaine from the blend it uses in salad bars, typically a mix of iceberg, kale and romaine. Similarly, Iraj Fernando, executive chef for Southern Foodservice Management, has substituted bibb lettuce and spinach for romaine and added nicoise salad.

Hospitality services at Texas Tech University is relieved that romaine is returning to the market. The program has seen a dip in sales at salad concepts because of romaine's popularity, says Dewey McMurray, executive chef of operations, noting that while diners understand the safety reasons behind romaine not being available, “they like what they like and it kind of fractures those meal routines and expectations.”

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