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Vegetables on the SideVegetables on the Side

April 1, 2001

12 Min Read
Vegetables on the Side

April 2001
Foodservice Front

Vegetables on the Side

By Sarah Minasian
Contributing Editor

Foodservice operators yearning for fresh-tasting products that require little or no preparation may as well start referring to R&D chefs as magicians. Not to say they aren’t already performing culinary magic, it’s just that with the current skilled-labor shortage inherent in the foodservice industry, they definitely have their hands, or should we say their plates, full. R&D chefs for food processors oftentimes rely on their sales force to communicate back to them the current needs of operators in the marketplace, but the chef-to-chef dialogue is increasing. Taking those customer needs into account, along with current consumer-taste trends, helps to dictate the products operators get to choose.

There are some trends worth noting. According to Technomic Inc., Chicago, 96% of restaurant patrons are interested in bold or strong flavors. A 2000 study conducted by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), Washington D.C., entitled Ethnic Cuisines II, revealed that Italian, Mexican and Cantonese-Chinese foods are the most popular foods among Americans, with non-traditional Thai, Middle Eastern and Vietnamese beginning to gain consumer awareness. Where better than the unassuming side dish to introduce some boldness onto the plate?

According to the NRA’s 1997 Menu Analysis Survey, potatoes were the most popular vegetable side dish in both 1992 and 1997. Leading the potato pack are mashed potatoes, offered at 43% of table-service restaurants, followed by baked potatoes at 35% and french fries at 15%. Green vegetables, including broccoli and spinach, have edged out french fries for third place by a surprising 26%.

It’s easy being green
It’s no wonder green veggies are inching their way onto our plates. In the past, diners often chose an entrée based on the center-of-the–plate item — but nowadays, with the increased baby-boomer demand for more healthful foods, vegetable side dishes are challenging that philosophy. According to the NRA’s 1998 Tableservice Restaurant Trends, more than half of tableservice operators with average per-person check sizes of $15 or more reported that vegetarian dishes were being ordered more frequently than two years ago.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s just vegetarians doing the ordering. A 1997 position paper on vegetarian diets, by the American Dietetic Association, Chicago, addresses the reduced risk for conditions such as obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease and hypertension associated with persons practicing a vegetarian diet. With the American Cancer Society, Atlanta, and the American Heart Association, Dallas, calling for an increase in vegetable and fruit consumption, seniors, baby boomers and college students all are demanding healthier options.

Leafy greens might be the gems of the emerald selection. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service recently developed data on kale, collards, mustard and turnip greens for the year 2000. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), per capita use of these four Southern greens is estimated at about 2.0 lbs. per person, led by collards at 0.7 lbs. The ERS expects the 2000 consumption of fresh market spinach to total 1.5 lbs. — the highest since 1952. Ray Clark, executive director, Leafy Greens Council, says, “There is definitely a market there for our specialty greens growers.”

Glory Foods, Columbus, OH, is tapping into that greens market. In 1989, the company (originally only offering retail product) began serving the foodservice market after a R&D chef from the 500-unit restaurant chain, Golden Corral, requested its product in #10 cans while at a 1998 consumer food show.

Glory Foods now offers mixed greens — a combination of mustard, turnip, kale and collard greens with either the traditional Southern smoked-ham flavor or smoked-turkey flavor — for its foodservice customers. This product is a straight side dish that is ready to go; just heat and eat, says Dan Charna, Glory’s vice president. Sweet potatoes, string beans with potatoes, field peas with snaps (the traditional way of eating field peas with pieces of green beans) and black-eyed peas are offered in #10 cans. “Frozen items are also available on a contractual basis, according to the individual needs of the operator,” he explains.

Ode to the onion
Right on the heels of the health kick are onions — free of sodium, fat and cholesterol. With only 30 calories per serving, onions provide dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium and other essential nutrients. Onions contain a flavonoid called quercetin that has been shown to protect against cardiovascular disease, cataracts and cancer. And, they taste pretty good, too, especially considering some of the new product offerings.

“The traditional onion ring continues to show up in new forms and flavors, such as spicy chili and TABASCO®-flavored onion rings,” says Mary Humann, representing the National Onion Association, Greeley, CO. “We’re also seeing lots of restaurants promoting their steaks with either grilled, sautéed or caramelized onions as sides.” Other onion forms gaining popularity include sticks or straws, and onion petals. Supporting the less-labor/less-prep trend, more pre-peeled and precut onions are now available to the foodservice industry.

One potato, two potato
Two foodservice potato trends have emerged: the first is a constant, people continue to like french fries; and second, a growing trend in restaurants is to offer more than baked russet potatoes. “We have noticed that restaurants are raising public awareness of greater choices in potato varieties and how to prepare them,” says Karen Bondaudi, director of public affairs and media relations, Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake, WA. “Often you’ll get a choice of three or more different potato sides besides other veggies.”

Northern Star, a division of Michael Foods, Minneapolis, has created a product that is never frozen, and results in “a product more similar to natural-potato taste and texture,” says Dianne Sparish, the company’s director of marketing. Its refrigerated heat-and-eat mashed-potato line has a 40-day shelf life and includes flavors such as skin-on russets, onion, original, seasoned, red-skinned, garlic and zesty. The company’s potato line also includes diced, sliced or shredded hash browns and a new red-skinned line. And since there’s a foodservice labor shortage, Sparish says that the biggest opportunity for using a refrigerated product vs. starting from scratch is that it “offers a significant labor savings and a consistent product time and time again.”

According to Rosemont, IL-based NPD Group’s 1999 National Eating Trends findings, the majority (67%) of potatoes eaten in fast-food, family- and fine-dining restaurants were french fries; 9% were mashed; 6% were baked; 6% were chips; and the remaining 12% were ingredients in other dishes.

McCain Foods, Chicago, has combined the interest of bolder flavors with the ubiquitous side of fries in its new line of extreme-flavored fries. The line, introduced in January 2000, already has seen an extension developed. From TABASCO®, salt and vinegar, cracked black pepper and jalapeño, to the new garlic-flavored fries, they are delivering just what the customer ordered.

The frozen fries are battered and, from an operator’s perspective, “they get increased stand up and hold times,” says Patrick Davis, vice president, foodservice marketing, McCain Foods. “Although they’re used primarily as a side dish, because of their intense bold flavor, colleges and universities are discovering students are ordering them as a snack.”

Other foodservice potato-product lines include regular fries, mashed potatoes, skin-on and hash browns — there are sizes and shapes to meet virtually any need. For example, to hold the younger consumer’s dinner-time interest, there even are mashed potatoes formed into smiley-face shapes. Convenient potato mixes, such as mashed, au gratin, scalloped and hash brown, also are available for those who wish to free-up their freezer space and cut down their prep time with “just add water and cook” preparation.

Simplot Food Group, Boise, ID, has a frozen potato line that consists of more than 120 varieties of french fries and formed products. If you’ve ever eaten at McDonald’s or Burger King, you probably have munched on some of their fries. Lattice-cut fries, skin-on curly loops and a new stone-ground corn fry are some alternative options.

Twice-baked potatoes, with sour cream and chive or Cheddar cheese, are a perfect example of convenience. Just heat and serve (in a standard oven, convection, steamer or microwave) makes Simplot’s mashed-potato line of regular, cracked pepper, seasoned and roasted garlic equally as user-friendly. The company’s line of roasted potatoes includes rosemary redskins, Yukon Gold wedges, herb-and-garlic russet chunks, and a blend of roasted redskins, peppers and onions — all seasoned.

Eat your vegetables
The bottom-line interest of foodservice operations is “less expense and less labor,” says Chuck Fuhrman, vice president, Agrilink Foods, Green Bay, WI. In ascertaining the needs of foodservice, he says, “we look at products we do for retail and see what can be extrapolated for foodservice. We put models together, show them to the foodservice customer and see if they’re interested — and they might be modified to meet their needs; a strategy different from just putting it in a bigger bag. Conversely, we look at successful foodservice products and then modify them for retail; having this free flow of information back and forth is really the best way to do it. In addition to labor savings, we have found that operators want their vegetables to be as close to fresh as possible.”

The company offers canned asparagus, sauerkraut, red cabbage and beans; however, the bulk of their vegetables are blanched and then frozen through various processes. In addition to the typical vegetable selection of beans, carrots, peas, onions, peppers, broccoli and cauliflower, Agrilink also incorporates the Southern-style vegetable market with options such as okra, shoepeg corn and a whole line of peas including blackeye, crowder, sugar snap, butter, purple hall, white acre and zipper. Moreover, they haven’t closed their eyes to the growing greens trend, offering frozen turnip, collard, kale and mustard greens.

Taking a bite out of an operator’s prep time, while addressing the current ethnic-foods trend, Agrilink also offers many blended vegetable mixes, including Italian, Middle Eastern, Scandinavian, Oriental and Tahitian, as well as custom blends. Additionally, the company offers several vegetable mixes blended with pasta that are ideal for a side dish.

View From the Kitchen

It seems that vegetable processors have all the bases covered — but do they? Food Product Design checked with some foodservice professionals to ask the question: What else do the chefs want?
“The problem we’re having is finding a manufacturer who can match what we have in quality, or improve upon the taste we already have existing in-house,” says Steve Rasmuson, training systems manager, Culver Franchising System Inc., Prairie du Sac, WI.
Eric Fix, food and beverage director, DeRosa Corporation, Wauwatosa, WI, says, “I would consider looking at custom blends of vegetables, weighed and bagged, to eliminate the vegetable prep in-house.”
Oona Settembre, corporate executive chef, Dave and Busters, Dallas, says, “I’d love to have some more choices of convenient-to-use, quality vegetables to use as side dishes.” She also would like to see portion-bagging of vegetables, preferably in 6-oz. packages, and pre-blanched vegetables that would eliminate the cleaning, blanching and shocking in cold water before sautéing. Another item on Settembre’s wish list is frozen spinach that has the water squeezed out. “A lot of restaurants have to spec that out as a step in recipes,” she says.
Settembre has also been searching for a frozen potato chip that can be finished in the store by frying. The English-born chef refers to them as game chips, and says, “if I was to put game chips beside a sandwich, I would want them to be warm and perhaps dusted with a custom seasoning like cumin or chili — using chips right off the shelf doesn’t have the appeal of something homemade.”

For best quality, vegetables are picked and frozen at their peak. “It is a proven fact that frozen vegetables have more vitamins and minerals and are more nutritious than fresh vegetables that sit out on the marketplace for weeks,” says Mark Hill, corporate executive chef, Simplot Food Group. The company sells vegetables individually as well as in blends, including a stir-fry blend that has 10 different vegetable varieties, and several different pasta-and-vegetable blends. Although they offer such trend-setting vegetables as presorted, stemmed and trimmed sugar-snap peas, corn and peas are still their biggest sellers. Hill notes, “Typically, vegetables have been steamed and sautéed up to 10 orders in advance, but a lot of operators these days are microwaving vegetable side dishes to order.”

“We look at how the operator can put a great-tasting vegetable side dish on the plate vs. your typical casual-theme-restaurant vegetable blend of zucchini, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli, and combine that with the No. 1 problem of labor,” says Hill.

Looking at internal resources, brainstorming with R&D and discussing trend information with manufacturers, Hill’s team has taken it to the next step and introduced a line of roasted vegetables, completely ready-to-go, enrobed with seasoning. The products are ready-to-use right out of the bag. Offering roasted, seasoned vegetables and potato sides allows the operator to menu product consistency with little prep, less labor and no waste. Three-inch roasted corncobs are available; as are blends of black beans, corn, onions, and red and green pepper; as well as a blend of corn, peppers and onions. Two different pasta-and-vegetable blends are available, one with a pesto seasoning and the other with an herb-and-garlic sauce.

To incorporate some menu creativity, Simplot offers an entire series of recipes featuring the roasted-potato and vegetable lines. Yukon Gold wedges are balanced with blue cheese and green onions; sugar snap-peas are featured in Vietnamese summer rolls; roasted green peppers complement a wild rice pilaf; and redskin potato halves are paired with carrots, onion and molasses.

These prepared products are invaluable, but how can those with a supply of plain-Jane vegetables jazz them up to cash in on bold flavors and ethnic trends? According to Renee Zahery, director of communications, Kraft Foods, Northfield, IL, its foodservice line of salad dressings can transform plain vegetables into savory side dishes. There are many recipes available that offer exciting possibilities, such as a grilled yellow squash, zucchini, red-onion and red-pepper blend combined with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. A vegetable side-dish recipe representing Middle Eastern cuisine is an eggplant, zucchini, pepper and onion mixture tossed with a sun-dried tomato and oregano dressing.

Many chefs are looking for the perfect answer to this quest for great-tasting vegetable side dishes that are high-quality and offer a quick and convenient prep. With improved techniques and consumers’ changing tastes, R&D chefs have the freedom to create original ideas to accompany any meal.

Sarah Minasian, chef and food communicator, is a Madison, WI-based foodservice consultant specializing in writing, recipe development and food styling.Back to topCopyrightWeeks Publishing Co.3400 Dundee Rd. Suite #100
Northbrook, IL 60062
Phone: 847-559-0385
Fax: 847-559-0389
E-Mail: [email protected]
Website: www.foodproductdesign.com

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