Fernando’s Foods Corporation, La Palma, Calif., offers El Extremo Burritos in “Red Hot Beef and Bean” and “Red Hot Beef and Bean with Cheese” varieties to c-store customers searching for a hot, tasty snack.
Despite a surge in patriotism during recent months, Americans continue to love ethnic foods. Vietnamese, Philippine and Indonesian cuisines, which have become popular on the West and East coasts will, eventually, make their way across the U.S. “Port cities, such as Chicago, Boston, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Miami, have a large influx of international people, who bring their local foods with them. Individually, talented chefs opening their own restaurants are the driving forces behind the growth of these cuisines,” states Tom Miner, vice president of marketing, Lettuce Consulting Group, Chicago. Another new happening in the industry is that the Asian segment which, traditionally, has been made up of independent, local restaurants, has seen the creation of chains such as Big Bull, PF Chang's, Panda and PeiWei.

Restaurant operators wishing to present Asian foods have help in many forms, according to Mintel's Global New Product Database (GNPD). Offerings include Portion Pac's (a subsidiary of H.J. Heinz), Mason, Ohio, shelf-stable line with several flavors: chili sauce, hot mustard, soy sauce, sweet and sour sauce and duck sauce. Also of interest is Texas Food Research's Satay-brand line of Thai sauces, all-natural products available in ginger sweet and sour sauce, Thai peanut dressing, Bali barbecue sauces, spicy peanut sauce and pad Thai stir-fry varieties. Other items such as Schwan's Food Services' mini egg rolls, available in spicy buffalo chicken, sweet and sour chicken and vegetarian varieties, also are on the database.

Nestle Foodservice’s, Glendale, Calif., Idahoan line of potato side dishes helps restaurant operators meet consumer demands for comfort foods.
In the Mexican foods sector, items included Fernando's Foods' (a subsidiary of ConAgra), La Palma, Calif., Crispadoras Mexican entrees. These flauta-style items are available in chorizo, barbecue Chipotle chicken, shredded beef, Sunrisa ham and cheese, and chicken ranchers varieties. The same company's burritos, with flavors such as chicken and rice, combo beef and bean, chili and cheese, fiesta bean, egg, sausage and cheese and soft taco snack, also are available. Risvold's, Sardena, Calif., La Cocina Mexicana brand jalapeno relish will add a zing to many Mexican-based dishes.

While patrons eagerly await new food experiences, there has been a change from “modern foods,” represented by fusion cooking, to “traditional” foods, says Miner. “The younger age groups are shifting to traditional food preparations, comfort foods, such as spaghetti and meatballs and turkey dinners.” The trend toward comfort foods has been especially strong after the events of September 11. “Pulling together four or five ingredients from a regional cuisine and developing it into an American- or California-style (fusion),” is quickly losing steam.

Americans are craving simple comfort foods. To satisfy their desire for favorites such as turkey sandwiches, Purdue Farms Inc., Salisbury, Md., has presented its line of specialty turkey breasts, available in flavors such as hickory, mesquite, Cajun style and oven roasted.
A quick look in the database for traditional American fare reveals a corned beef brisket cured with Saranac black and tan beer introduced by Levonian Brothers, Troy, Mich., available in the New York area. Norpac Foods, Salem, Ore., extended its soup line to include cream of broccoli, roasted vegetable and radiatore, and zesty lentil and orzo. Nestle Foodservice, Glendale, Calif., launched a line of potato side dishes that include the varieties of: premium homestyle and real mashed potatoes, mashed potatoes in roasted garlic, four cheese and butter and herb; and premium hash browns.

Cooking techniques still favor the rotisserie, which is being applied on a broader scale. In quickservice restaurants, meat and vegetables are being slow cooked and dried at low temperatures. “This is probably related to health issues,” suggests Miner. Along those lines, the grill continues to be a favorite cooking method because of its healthy perception. Roasting also is strong and peaking as a mainstream, mass-cooking technique, he continues. Ironically, despite an obsession with weight, diners continue to enjoy large portions of foods. While the theory is they will take the extra food home, industry observers are not sure this always happens.

Reaching the Benchmark

Eating “out” at home is still a popular option for many who enjoy eating in, but are short of time or not interested in making a home-cooked meal. To this end, supermarkets continue to offer a large selection of Home Meal Replacement options. However, after encountering the difficulties of food preparation and employee training, supermarket operators have turned to branded, well-known, customer-accepted items to provide good food with a minimal labor cost.

For example, why make a soup from scratch when a Campbell's soup kiosk can meet consumer demand? “The kiosks allow supermarkets to capture the consumer's dollar, without the headaches,” explains Jackie Rodriguez, consultant, Technomic Inc., Chicago. Convenience is still a major driving force, but consumers have not lowered their expectations for restaurant-quality foods. “If consumers see a hot meatloaf at the store, they want it to taste as good as a restaurant's; if it doesn't, they'll be disappointed,” continues Rodriguez. Other brands making appearances at supermarkets include Subway and Starbucks.

Convenience stores also are trying to gain position in a market where consumers are looking for fast finger foods that taste good. C-stores do not yet have a reputation for carrying quality foods, but they are tapping into traditional foodservice outlets to help change their image. Chains such as Taco Bell, Subway, McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts have express units that are especially tailored for c-stores, but a location must have a large volume in order to be profitable. “The operators are experiencing the same headaches the foodservice industry has, such as finding a dependable labor force, and keeping food consistent. In smaller units, the entire menu cannot be offered, which may turn some consumers off,” states Rodriguez. Also, patrons may not be accustomed to driving to a c-store to eat: the KFC at the local gas station is not going to pull in the same traffic a regular-scale KFC does.

Some chains, such as BP Amoco, have developed their own concepts. The Wild Bean Café is an upscale, Starbucks-type of coffee house with fresh pastries and bakery items. Positioned as a separate concept, it has had good success.

Products with extreme flavors are experiencing significant growth. To this end, Fernando's Foods, La Palma, Calif., offers c-store customers extra-spicy burritos.

Colleges Reflect Ethnic Diversity

The importance of branding also is evident in another foodservice sector: education. A subject of some controversy, primary, secondary schools, universities and colleges are the battleground for several branded products. Chains such as Pizza Hut and Taco Bell supply frozen burritos or pizzas that can be reheated. And to accompany their lunch, students can enjoy Pepsi, Coca-Cola or other branded beverages. While students may enjoy these foods, many parents have issues with their children being bombarded with commercial messages and the less-than-optimal nutritional value these foods provide.

The foods presented in schools reflect an eclectic population, and today's students are more worldly and sophisticated when it comes to ethnic foods. “It's no longer that American, Mexican, Italian and Chinese foods are your only choices when you go out on Friday night,” states Ryan Malone, college and university specialist, Kronos Food Products, Chicago, a Greek foods manufacturer. “There is a multitude of dining choices in every community in the country. I think it is hard to grow up in the U.S. and not have tried at least a handful of different cuisines. Therefore, the average student is more adventuresome when it comes to dining because he is, generally, more familiar with different types of foods than previous generations were.”

Today's students also are busier, as free time becomes scarce. “The fact the U.S. student population is always on-the-go is reflected in their eating habits. A recent, nationwide study of colleges and universities showed the average male student eats four meals a day and the average female student eats what is considered six snacks a day. Portable, grab-n-go menu concepts, such as pitas and wrap sandwiches, are part of the trend at most schools, offering them more time to tend to their busy schedules,” reflects Malone.

Foodservice operators looking to serve a warm snack may choose from this offering of petite quiches from Nancy's Specialty Foods, Newark, Calif. The box of 60 pieces features 30 Lorraine and 30 Florentine quiches.
Catering to students' hectic lives sometimes means bringing the food to them. Branded concepts on campus are not only found in the cafeteria. “There may be a large cart with sandwiches, hotdogs, soups and other foods on a cart next to a large activity, such as a sports rally or football game. A cart or kiosk allows the operator to provide foods without a large expense and also helps control labor,” explains Linda Bortis, president, MarketWorks Inc., Denver, an integrated database and technology company that works closely with food manufacturers.

Hospitals Offer More Than Healthy Foods

Years ago, in hospitals, one was pressed to find foods that were fresh or considered good-tasting. But today's hospital cafeterias are rising to the challenge of presenting restaurant-style quality food. At Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge, Ill., patrons expect a variety of foods that are fresh and priced competitively. “Steam tables are a thing of the past. We do a lot of display cooking here, and people really like it. They perceive it to be fresher, and they enjoy their food being made to order,” says Sandy Holloway, public operations manager.

People working at the hospital, naturally are in a hurry, so all of the foods prepared at the cafeteria have to be portable. “The breakfast foods are very popular for grab and go. Our most popular breakfast sandwich is a bacon, egg and cheese croissant. Also, pancakes are popular,” she says. To cater to an increasing population ordering vegetarian fare, Holloway says the cafeteria offers several meatless dishes, such as tortilla vegetable casserole, vegetarian stir fries and meatless jambalaya.

The vegetarian sector continues to show significant growth, as more consumers look for meals with meat alternatives. The GNPD shows Celentano (a subsidiary of Rosina Foods), Verona, N.J., recently launched its Vegetarian Selects line of frozen vegan entrees. For those with exotic tastes, Noble International Foods presents Cavi-Art, a caviar alternative for vegetarians. Helping operators cut down on labor, Risvold's launched its La Cocina Mexicana brand seafood ceviche base.

Industry experts agree diners will continue to search for restaurant-quality, convenience foods. Operators who can strike a balance between offering eclectic and comfort foods, at a comfortable price point, will reap a brisk pace of business.

Sidebar: Healthy Fast Food: No Longer An Oxymoron?

Fast food outlets have been the targets of quite a degree of criticism-from poor-quality food to Super Sizes super-sizing Americans to unprecedented levels of obesity. The latter may be about to change, however, as one small food company, in particular, has made headway into foodservice with a simple, healthful message.

Products from Galaxy Nutritional Foods, Orlando, Fla., are being tested in Subway and Pizza Hut locations, and the company has been working with Sbarro for about five years, according to Angelo Morini, Galaxy's founder and CEO. The company's veggie mozzarella is in distribution in all of Sbarro's 1,000 outlets, but Galaxy's reach is not limited to cheese.

Testing in Orlando, Fla., Subways, Galaxy's Ultra Smoothie is made with Tropicana juice and is available in strawberry banana or tropical orange flavors. Among the fastest-growing drink products, smoothies are an easy way to incorporate vegetable proteins into a product. Morini believes the product will “be one of the major delivery systems for plant proteins in the United States.”

Chris New, Galaxy's COO, says, “One of the keys to expanding a program with a Subway, a Pizza Hut or a Sbarro is making sure, operationally, the product works well within their system. Pizza Hut has very unique ovens in that they cook hotter. Our product has been going through tests in Ft. Wayne, Ind., in terms of stretchability, cooking, blistering, and mores.

“One challenge we have had is a clear understanding at the operator level on through to the consumer as to how they order the product and what do they get it on. A separate section of the menu called Pizza Hut Light Bites will show consumers that they can buy a Light Bite pizza made with veggie mozzarella, and they can choose from one of four pizzas. So it will automatically come on a pizza the consumer chooses. There is also the option to order veggie mozzarella on any pizza. Light Bites, Pizza Hut's own brand, allows Pizza Hut to market that section of the menu through all of their points-of-sale, and merchandising and feature advertising as news.”

Morini believes fast food companies must move to a more healthful product. The core Pizza Hut consumer, for instance, can only eat so much and is getting older. “The technology is there,” says Morini. “Some major companies have developed wonderful proteins to work with. The flavor systems are there. Flavor companies understand how to break down the peptide chains. They understand how lipid combinations between the peptides and all these different things factor into making flavors that are palatable.

“It's high time the fast food people look at themselves in the mirror and see what's happening to America, but they can be part of the solution.”
—William A. Roberts, Jr., Associate Editor, Prepared Foods

Angelo Morini will be speaking at Prepared Foods' New Product Conference in October 2002.

Sidebar: Great Expectations

“Hispano-American” cuisine will emerge as a foodservice and retail mega-trend.

Mango usage will continue to climb, surpassing avocado.

Restaurant branded prepared foods will become the fastest-growing foodservice segment.

—Tom Miner, vice president of marketing, Lettuce Consulting Group, tminer@palm.net

College students will continue to become more sophisticated about ethnic cuisines.

Vegetarian, vegan, healthy eating and observed dietary religious traditions will demand attention, but not drive volume.

Colleges and universities (C/U) will move away from traditional board plans to hybrids (meal exchange, debit cards, etc.) because of the demand for known brands and variety.

Overall, brands will continue to increase as a part of the college foodservice landscape.

National chains, because of the relative lack of growth in their core business, will focus on their opportunities in non-traditional sectors like C/U.

—Ryan Malone, college and university specialist, and Jay Berglind, vice president — national accounts, Kronos Foods Products, RMalone@kronosproducts.com