By Cari Price
Seven out of ten top trends identified on the NRA What’s Hot 2011 Survey made clear what chefs across the country are focusing on for their 2011 menu development: local sourcing of produce, meats and seafood, sustainability, and simplicity. As expected, terms like house-made, artisan, chef-grown, and made-from-scratch have all popped up on menus this year. And now more than ever, consumers are passionately driving this trend with a conscious effort to go “back to basics” or “return to real” when it comes to their food.
For all consumers, health and safety are the biggest concern, therefore increasing the demand for the freshest, least processed foods at home and away from home. A great tasting dish simply isn’t good enough for today’s consumer. Mounting concerns regarding health, sustainability for future generations, and getting the most out of each food dollar has brought about higher expectations for pure and real ingredients. Exceptional quality and flavor of locally grown, fresh-picked produce and made-from-scratch goods also has fueled the momentum and craving for true scratch cooking.
For years now, food trucks and carts have cooked and served convenient, fresh-made, affordable items that have raised the bar on quick-service food. As a result, commercial quick-service restaurants are re-focusing their attention toward quality and freshness. Fuddruckers and Subway tout their fresh-baked breads, Five Guys sources daily the fresh potatoes used for their fries, and McDonald’s has even posted online videos featuring the fresh-cracked eggs used in their Egg McMuffins. Delivery pizza also is evolving due to Domino’s new line of Artisan pizzas in a rectangular hand-formed shape with unique toppings such as spinach and feta or salami and roasted vegetables. And Chipotle’s Food with Integrity campaign goes beyond fresh-prepared and actually makes a public commitment to sustainability, finding the very best ingredients raised with respect to the animals, the environment and the farmers.
Especially in local markets, it has become more common for chefs, operators, farmers and growers to unite and form local community relationships, often conducting barter and trades in order to deliver superior quality. The food truck phenomenon, these newly formed relationships, and the boom in consumer purchases from local farms and farmer’s markets has exposed us all to the better flavor, quality, and freshness of seasonal produce and grass-fed meats.
Even the quality and flavor of the common green bean is far superior when it’s fresh-picked from the vine versus those that have traveled hundreds of miles and sat in several warehouse units before reaching the plate. This evident difference in quality, along with the deeper connection we are developing with our food and the people who grow it, is teaching chefs and consumers alike to be more respectful of our food and our environment.
The flexitarian movement (less meat consumption for the betterment of health and the environment), also known as Meatless Monday, is another effort that is further developing scratch cooking in restaurants. More and more Americans are joining the growing list of schools, universities, hospitals, celebrities, chefs, and magazines that are encouraging the practice of meatless or plant-based eating by offering meatless meals one or more days a week. And as general consumer behavior would indicate, today’s flexitarian consumer is demanding more creative, unexpected, fresh, and satisfying choices beyond the typical vegetarian offerings of soup, pasta and salads. In fact, the growth of vegetarian options on restaurant menus has grown a whopping 24% over the past three years, according to Mintel Menu Insights.
Due to the fact that manufacturers are finding it difficult to keep up with this boom, as well the fact that consumers are experimenting with ancient grains, heirloom vegetable varieties, and unique flavor combinations on their own, restaurants are preparing food from scratch to meet vegetarian consumers’ quickly evolving demands.
Although raw produce and goods are much less expensive than prepared ingredients, we all know that scratch cooking can mean increased skilled labor, a greater potential for food contamination, more equipment needs and possible food waste factors. So is the return-to-scratch cooking trend really worth it? Does it make a difference in regard to sustainability? Do your customers actually care?
While many chefs and consumers are committed to making the safest and wisest food choices for themselves and their families, our industry and economics still rely heavily on large-scale factory farming as the most efficient way to produce huge quantities of inexpensive food. Scratch cooking is one way to alleviate this reliance on big food (every person and every operation adds up to make an impact). But does scratch cooking or environmental responsibility really make a difference to your customers?
Take a look at how even just the offering of fresh-baked bread attracts loyal customers. The flavor and quality of your offerings and the responsible efforts of your operation speak volumes. Make every effort to communicate the ways you’re making a difference whether you’re sourcing sustainable foods or simply using fresh, whole ingredients. It matters. It’s what could turn your place into their place.
Cari Price is the corporate development chef at Food IQ. The company's goal is to help restaurant operators create food with impact. Food that starts with true insight into a concept's business, its customers and its competition, and ideas with the culinary skill, experience and vision that help restaurant operators connect with their audience.