Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum: Change is the New Black

BY JOYCE REINGOLD, Produce Business

Andrew Freeman of af&co

Andrew Freeman of af&co

Punching up profitability was the theme of the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, and hospitality guru Andrew Freeman kicked off the day with a humorous, high-energy look at the role produce can play in making that happen.

“Vegetables have gone totally mainstream,” said Freeman, the founder of af&co, a restaurant and hospitality consulting firm based in San Francisco. “With produce demand this high, there’s no better time to veg out.”

The theme of Freeman’s presentation was “Change is the New Black,” and he advised produce industry and foodservice professionals that “the more nimble and flexible you are to change, the better. Have a plan and then be ready to change it.”

Freeman’s pronouncements included:

  • “Superfoods are super popular. Mushrooms are having a moment right now, as another healthier vegetable you can eat. Vegetables have totally gone mainstream.”
  • “Color my world: the more photo-friendly your food, the better. Why is color so important? Instagram. Instagram has changed our world.”
  • “Purple’s the color of the year — carrots, potatoes, asparagus. We’ve got it coming in ice cream. What I like about produce is that year-round, you’ve got color.”
  • “Classics are back, but in a new way. Crudité platters are done in really interesting ways — a silver bowl filled with ice, with colorful vegetables plunked into it, served with hummus and beautiful dips. The sharing culture is so popular right now.”
  • “Reducing waste is a bigger priority than ever before. Hail to the ugly fruits and vegetables! Rinds are being sent to the bar to be used in interesting ways.”
  • “For kids, take the emphasis off how good it is for them and just make it part of life,” says Freeman… a perfect segue into the day’s first panel discussion.

Challenging Status Quo: What Children Eat In Restaurants

Amy Myrdal Miller, president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, led panelists in a myth-busting session on children’s palate preferences. Panelists included Lisa Feldman, director of culinary services, Sodexo; Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and chief executive, Produce for Better Health Foundation; Sharon Olson, executive director, Y-Pulse; Ben Friedman, president, Riviera Produce; Kevin Ryan, executive director, International Corporate Chefs Association; and Mike Turner, vice president of culinary and supply chain, Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar.

To increase children’s fruit and vegetable consumption, “we start out by not treating kids like they’re kids,” says Turner.

“One misconception is that children won’t eat (vegetables),” says Sodexo’s Feldman. “That’s largely not true. The key to figuring out how to get them to eat more really is age-related. For elementary-age children, it’s about tons of sampling, and cutting things into manageable pieces — like cutting through a Clementine or small orange so they can pull it apart.”

Ryan says food bowls are great for kids. “Give it a creative name. It can have quinoa in it; you can hide things in it. There’s so much you can do to really make it interesting.”

“Give them something they haven’t seen with a funny name or color,” says Friedman. “Tear down the walls of preconceived notions. Just like a chef might pay attention to a VIP, put something on a little spoon and let them try it.”

“When a family goes out to dinner, those with the veto vote are the kids — 100 percent of the time,” says Feldman. “If there’s something they want to eat there, the chances of you retaining their business is a lot higher.”

Innovation: Moving Beyond The Tried And True

Talking innovation were Susan Renke, president and founder of Food Marketing Resources, and moderator; Ernst van Eeghen, vice president business development, Church Brothers Farms; Ron DeSantis, founder and president, CulinaryNxt; Candace MacDonald, director concept strategies, af&co; Amy Myrdal Miller; Rafi Taherian, associate vice president, Yale Hospitality; Maeve Webster, president, Menu Matters; and Jim Rose, executive chef CEC, Skidmore College Dining Services. Panelists discussed a sweeping arc of innovation, starting from seed development to wowing customers with the literal fruits of their labors. And, as to the source of the next new things, college dining halls may be the place to look.

“In K-12 and campus dining, we don’t need to be worried about our customers coming back. They will come back. They have nowhere else to go,” says Taherian. “We’re a natural partner for the incubation of new ideas and innovation.”

“We did a demo for a group of Asian students using a new product for us, a winter melon,” says Rose. “To see the response they had … because you’re bringing them a little bit closer to home. We have students from 60 different countries. It’s important we learn from the students. We’re trying to be more plant-forward. We might introduce a new recipe in the dining hall, do some small plates; maybe fruit or vegetable of the month.”

On The Money: Getting More For Your Produce Dollar

In the final presentation of the day, moderator Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, led a frank discussion about economic realities among Rich Dachman, vice president of produce, Sysco; Jessica Foust, RDN, culinary director, Farmer’s Fridge; Chris Harris, vice president of produce, US Foods; Bob Karisny, vice president for menu strategy and innovation, Taco John’s; Jill Overdorf, director of business development and corporate chef, Naturipe; and Susan Renke, president and founder, Food Marketing Resources.

Communication, collaboration and transparency are vital links for profitability along the supply chain. “If you look at the stakeholders, everyone has his own concerns, and costs,” says Renke. “Does the farmer understand your business? More communication, and the education of stakeholders, leads to fairness and profitability.”

“The growth of restaurants is not what it used to be” says Dachman. “The way our business is headed right now in all phases — talking about grower, distributors, operators — everyone is trying to figure out how to cut costs without cutting quality. We’re trying to be more automated in what we do.”

The day’s events also included a presentation by Scott Uehlein of Sonic Corp., who detailed the trials and triumph of creating and testing a blended burger, including the sleepless nights and ultimate relief when an 88-store market test gauged the experiment a success. Watch for a wider roll-out this year.

And over lunch, attendees were challenged to conceptualize menu items for a variety of restaurant styles. Jackfruit carnitas was the inspired creation for a 12-unit Mexican fast-casual chain.

And for a two-store casual dining restaurant in Idaho, the team imagined a corn and tri-color potato harvest cake with a savory fall fruit compote. Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative, facilitated the fun and after hearing the last menu item joked, “That sounds like the best casual dining restaurant in Idaho.”