Tracking Trends From Restaurants to Retail

February 21, 2012

11 Min Read
Tracking Trends From Restaurants to Retail

By Joseph Antonio, Contributing Editor

It used to be that finding a good meal was as easy as driving to a favorite restaurant or, for some, indulging their taste buds at the newest and trendiest restaurant to hit the block. But with the economic climate the way it is, many people are stepping down a wrung from where they used to dine and are eating at establishments that give them more value for their dollarand increasingly, that establishment" is their own home. They still crave the foods and flavors restaurants offer, but at a more-reasonable cost. As such, the foodservice industry has been crossing the boundaries of their historical categoriesand even into retailto help cater to todays consumer desires.

Lessons from foodservice

No longer are the staples of fine-dining restaurants confined to the high end of the foodservice spectrum. Likewise, fast food isnt relegated solely to multiunit chains. In todays food society, you can actually find fine dining on the streets and sit downalbeit on a park bench or carried back to the officeto an elegantly designed fast-food concept. Local food trucks are now serving premium, restaurant-quality cuts of meat, poultry and seafood, and are using age-old artisanal methods instead of the deep-fried, gut-filling, premade and ready-to-assemble offerings of hot dogs, hamburgers and burritos that used to reign in the streets (nowadays, many of those dogs, burgers and burritos are decidedly upscale). Is this a culinary faux pas? Not by any means. Its a result of the on-trend evolution related to the quality of foodand one that everyday consumers seek at a more-convenient level. As those trends trickle down to the retail level, we are seeing more foods like bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches), and fresh, fire-roasted salsasand even locally made, small batch ice-cream.

In the recent past, restaurants tended to focus on labor savings that resulted in pre-made and pre-packaged ingredients that saved time and money. This resulted in food that was merely assembled," thus giving the operators the ability to hire down" on labor to cut costs. This became the norm and allowed chains to reach their goal of rapid expansion while maximizing profits. As a result, the quality of the food suffered because this short-sightedness failed to recognize the consumers affinity for quality.

Recently, there has been a movement in the restaurant industry to go back to offering higher-quality, scratch-made food as a way to gain back customers who voiced their disapproval by spending their money at other establishments that focused on quality and execution. Restaurant chains are now focusing on cooking in their kitchens again. Places like Rubios Fresh Mexican Grill in southern California are moving back to hand-breading their fish tacos: the cornerstone of the restaurants concept. Other chains like Panera Bread, which uses high-quality ingredients such as fire-roasted vegetables and organic chicken for their sandwiches, and Qdoba Mexican Grill, which involve the guests in the creative experience by making food to order in front of them, have succeeded by exceeding their customers expectations and offering a higher level quality of food and experience.

Translating inspirations

The challenge for the product developer on the retail side is to come up with compelling offerings that consumers will be excited to try, and flavorful enough for them to come back and buy againflavor combinations that are seen at the restaurant level that can translate to retail, such as infusing Latin and Asian ingredients, or creating a dish using traditional French techniques with non-French ingredients. Retailers are also competing with restaurants that are offering their food in convenient, full-menu take out.

So where does the inspiration come from? And how do you translate the cooked-to-order, fresh and flavorful restaurant experience into a frozen, refrigerated or shelf-stable retail product?

New trends in food typically start in restaurants and trickle down to eventually end up on retail shelves. With that type of cycle, retailers continue to sit on the coattails of innovation and trends that emerge from the mainstream foodservice industry. Its a constant challenge to recognize what the everyday restaurant clientele finds craveable and how to translate that into a cost-efficient product that can be commercialized and sold in the retail market.

While restaurants have a good degree of flexibility, the retail market is more rigid. In restaurants, new dishes can be offered immediately to discerning palates through specials and limited-time offers (LTOs) and, if not well received, can be taken off the menu right away. In the retail market, millions of dollars are sometimes at stake to get the right product out to consumers, and the necessary steps need to be taken to make sure that the risks are minimized. Tapping into the trends and conducting market research help reduce the chances of failure.

Some key insights to trends in the restaurant segment offer cues to product developers, laying the groundwork for new retail product R&D. These are the trends that capture consumer habits and ever-changing demographic profiles. Looking at it from a broad perspective, trends such as convenience, health, cultural diversity, restaurant quality and chef-driven" food products should be considered when creating new foods for retail.

The use of high-quality ingredients, the same flavors that the restaurants use, such as artisanal cheeses like smoked gouda and Vermont white Cheddar in macaroni-and-cheese, or using real veal stock for an authentic-tasting jarred bordelaise sauce, for example, would give the product more of an appeal to those consumers who are looking for restaurant-quality flavors.

Finding the technological solutions on the manufacturing side to replicate the cooking methods seen in restaurants, such as caramelized, fire-grilled and roasted vegetables and center-of-the-plate proteins, is key. Fire-roasted fajita peppers and onions or fire-grilled shrimp are good examples of products that are either absent in retail, or are just starting to enter the retail segment. These are convenient items for consumers who do not have the time, skill or desire to prepare them from scratch. Such thaw-and-serve or heat-and-eat products can easily provide high-quality meal solutions. The days of blanched corn and peas are a thing of the past and are perceived as boring, flavorless and colorless. Customers want more artisanal products, at a price that will not pinch their wallets.

Other examples of restaurant innovations that can translate into retail include taking existing products and offering value-added or line extensions. Hummus is a good case in point. This Middle Eastern sauce and dip is no longer relegated to the hors doeuvres table. It can be offered as a healthy sandwich spread thats low in fat, high in fiber, andmost of alllong on flavor. Using other beans, aside from traditional garbanzo beans, in hummus is another step in making it appeal to those who crave something different. Curried lentil, Tuscan white bean and basil, black bean, and edamame hummus are a few examples.

With the growing Hispanic population, as well as other ethnic groups, more people are seeing regional ethnic cuisines on restaurant menus. The mixing of flavors, textures and spices, and the appearances of widely known and diverse recipes, have become accepted largely in part to consumers diversifying flavor palates. Think about Korean barbecue served in tacos, salsa and avocado added to sushi rolls, and pizzas topped with spicy Thai peanut sauce. These are examples of ethnic flavors infused into familiar dishes that can be translated into prepared foods in the retail shelves.

Providing authenticity in ethnic flavors will give legitimacy to products that are developed for retail consumers. Lemongrass, shrimp paste, roasted chiles, Thai basil, sumac, along with cooking methods that impart flavors such as wok-seared, wood-fired and braised are on trend. For example, products like Thai green curry rice with roasted pineapple and sous vide duck are appearing on shelves. Fruit-based salsas with roasted ingredients, and ready-made marinades and salsas with toasted chiles, that the customer can order behind the deli counter, give a point of differentiation and a gourmet appeal to the run-of-the-mill products already on the shelves. Retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Trader Joes, Wegmans and Costco have placed quality in the forefront. Consider freshly made take-and-bake pizzas, prepared chicken salad with Indian spices, packaged chips made with taro and sea saltprivate-label products showcasing authenticity and scratch made" are selling. And now we see more of the bigger retailers joining in on the action after seeing the successful strategies of their competitors.

So, using high quality, authentic ingredients, paying attention to your target market, adding ethnic diversity to the products and create products that look more like they came out of a professionally staffed restaurant rather than an industrial manufacturing operation will be the key to success.

Joseph Antonio is corporate chef for Haliburton International Foods, Ontario, CA. After receiving his B.A. in Asian American Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, he earned his A.O.S. Culinary Arts degree and Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Certificate from the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, CA. Antonio worked at PMO-Wildwood/Soga Soyfoods Center, Koi Restaurant, ZaZen Restaurant and the New School of Cooking before joining Haliburton. He is a member of the Research Chefs Association. For more information, visit

Taking Scomas from Restaurant to Retail

It is common for a restaurant to want to take a popular item on their menu and bring it to the masses by making it available in retail. However, when making the decision to transform a restaurant menu item into a branded retail product, there are many things to consider.

In 2009, Scomas, an independent seafood restaurant located at San Franciscos famous Fishermans Wharf, began to explore the idea of retail expansion. To assist with this process, it partnered with our company, The Culinary Edge, a brand consulting firm specializing in culinary and operations for food companies. Together, we worked though a comprehensive process designed to ensure a successful product launch.

Understanding your brand. The first step in the process is to understand whether moving into retail is really the right thing to do for the brand. In the case of Scomas, we determined that the restaurants heritage lent itself to a brand strong enough to translate to retail. Additionally, via market research, we were able to identify opportunity in three categories: sauces, soups and seafood cakes. Knowing this, Scomas decided to proceed, with the goal of growing brand awareness and developing a revenue stream that did not cannibalize the restaurants menu.

The first step in the process is to understand whether moving into retail is really the right thing to do for the brand. In the case of Scomas, we determined that the restaurants heritage lent itself to a brand strong enough to translate to retail. Additionally, via market research, we were able to identify opportunity in three categories: sauces, soups and seafood cakes. Knowing this, Scomas decided to proceed, with the goal of growing brand awareness and developing a revenue stream that did not cannibalize the restaurants menu.

Deciding your approach. The next step in the process is to decide how to proceed. By gathering information and gaining understanding of the possible impact of each of your options, the likelihood of a successful launch multiplies exponentially. To help Scomas decide which category to enter, we conducted a series of branding, financial and operational analyses, sizing brand fit and profitability. In the end, Scomas chose the option that best fit all of these criteria: crab cakes.

Recipe commercialization. The next challenge is to reformulate the restaurant recipe to fit the scale and processes of mass production. We put our culinary team to work, testing recipes and leveraging large-scale manufacturing methods to create a plant-ready production formula that would match the quality of the restaurant product. For example, in order to replicate the fresh ingredients used by the restaurant, we had to research, source, sample and test dozens of industrial ingredients before finding acceptable substitutes. Additionally, the two companies worked to identify suitable production partners, including ingredient vendors, co-manufacturers and product fulfillment houses.

Packaging. Packaging will have a significant impact on the success of a retail launch, affecting both consumer perception and product quality. Scomas worked with Philippe Becker Design, San Francisco, to create its packaging. They were able to deliver a design that communicates Scomas brand message, works within manufacturing parameters, and properly preserves the food via form-sealed plastic surrounding each cake, protecting both the form and integrity of the product.

Sales and marketing. Once the item is created, it is time to implement proper sales and marketing activities to get it into market. By presenting well-researched sales pitches to retailers with compelling information, such sales projections and consumer research, your product will have a higher likelihood of obtaining a highly coveted shelf slot.

By taking a thoughtful, strategic approach to expanding its reach, Scomas was able to successfully join the ranks of many other successful foodservice-to-retail translations. Today, Scomas Crab Cakes can be found in many West Coast retail locations, including Costco and Whole Foods, as well as online.

Steven Goldstein, Partner, The Culinary Edge

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