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Pasta and cheese casseroles have appeared in cookbooks as early as the 14th century's Liber de Coquina. It is a French dish of Parmesan and pasta. A cheese and pasta casserole known as makerouns was recorded in the famous medieval French cookbook The Forme of Cury. In a 1769 book, The Experienced French Housekeeper, there was a recipe for macaroni, sprinkled with Parmesan and baked until bubbly and golden.

Kraft introduced boxed Mac & Cheese in 1937 and solidified the dish in Americana cuisine.

With nostalgia on the rise in movies, culture and food, it is no surprise that Mac & Cheese is on consumers' minds and on the center of the plate. How can your foodservice operation capitalize on this trend?

First, forget the neon orange in the blue box. Today's Mac & Cheese is gourmet all the way. Think of Mac & Cheese as a platform, like pizza. Sure kids like cheese pizza, but to get the attention of the adults, you have to add great toppings and use great cheeses. A survey of foodservice menus found dozens of gourmet versions from Mac & Peas to Lobster Mac & Cheese. The key to every dish was the use of premium cheese, especially Parmesan and Asiago.

A popular West Coast restaurant called The Homeroom, sells Mac & Cheese exactly like pizza with 15 "named" dishes like GILROY MAC, Creamy gouda, sharp pecorino and just the right amount of roasted garlic and MACXIMUS — Greek-style mac with artichoke hearts, spinach, shallots and feta. In addition, they have 20 "toppings" you can add for $1 to $1.50.

The Melt, a 30-unit fast casual, features a Mac & Cheese sandwich called the Mac Daddy. Consumers can add proteins, vegetables and cheese varieties.

A brewpub in Milwaukee launched a Mac & Cheese contest in October. Competitors served 260 pounds of Wisconsin Mac and Cheese to enthusiastic attendees at the recent Milwaukee Mac and Cheeze Takedown at Lakefront Brewery. The sold-out competition featured 25 entrants who cooked their favorite versions of this iconic cheese dish with a spicy contender winning over both the judges and attendees. Home cooks entered original recipes featuring Wisconsin Cheese to compete for the chance to win $1,000 in cookware prizes. Attendees sampled the entries and voted for their favorite.

Even fast food has gotten into the act with KFC introducing Fried Mac & Cheese Bites — five bite-sized treats with a crunchy outside and a delicious center filled with soft macaroni and creamy cheese.

The path is clear, consumers love Mac & Cheese and the nostalgic dish has gained gourmet popularity among adults. For foodservice operators, adding Mac & Cheese is simple from an operational point of view, as you will not need additional equipment. Pasta dishes, in general, have great food cost and the addition of extra money for "toppings" will drive average ticket.

There are millions of reasons to delight consumers and lean on a low-cost dish to drive sales and "shred" the competition.

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Ed Zimmerman
Ed Zimmerman is a pizza industry veteran and President of The Food Connector. His almost four decades of foodservice experience includes food manufacturing and distribution leadership, food industry technology, marketing services and restaurant and grocery operations management.
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