The overwhelming theme of the “2005 Prepared Foods' R&D Trends Survey: Culinary and Foodservice Product Development Trends” is that manufacturers should provide greater consistency in the products they offer foodservice operators, while helping these customers lower their overhead costs. When asked, “What were the top five most important product traits to your foodservice customers?” survey participants chose in this order: consistency, price per serving, convenience, labor savings and sensory quality. Those surveyed also found convenience (35%), offering better quality at the same prices (15%), and healthier foods (14%) to be the top-three most significant trends in the development of prepared foods for foodservice distribution.

Custom Culinary

When asked, “How much does each of the following sources influence the initiation of new foodservice product development at your company?” survey participants placed “foodservice operator/customer request” ahead of other sources such as “internal market research,” the company's own or consulting culinary staff, and the fact that competitors offered a new product.

The survey also asked, “Where does your company get ideas for new foodservice products?” and allowed multiple responses. Topping the list were “foodservice trade shows,” which 61% of respondents checked, followed by “product development trade publications” (such as Prepared Foods, PF) at 59% and “foodservice operator/customer request” (56%). The responses “competitors offer it,” “retail trade shows” and “trends noticed with grocery products” all checked in at 49%, although the latter dropped from 55% in 2004. Even still, chef Richard Cusick, a corporate executive chef at Sara Lee (Chicago), suggests that manufacturers with both foodservice and retail departments have more to offer foodservice operators. “At Sara Lee, there is no wall between retail and foodservice. We look at what they (retail) have done and try to find applicability, because the hard work has already been done.”

“Internal market research” and their “own/consulting culinary staff” only checked in with 42% and 40%, respectively, of respondents saying they were a source of ideas, perhaps because not all companies have availed themselves of such talent.

Custom manufacturers are more common than ever. The responsibilities for 85% of PF survey respondents involve new product development for foodservice. The survey only reported the responses of these foodservice product developers in its results. “It is important for the manufacturer to understand the operational capabilities of a foodservice account and take a real culinary approach to product development. After all, it is all about flavor,” notes Charlie Baggs, president and founder of Charlie Baggs Inc. (Chicago), a foodservice consulting company.

Cusick suggests that manufacturers are finding out what they are good at and then targeting those areas to have the biggest impact. “You've got to pick and choose,” says Cusick. “Focus on your core competencies. You can't be everything to everybody.”

Establishing partnerships between the manufacturer and the end user in the early stages of product development gives customers an opportunity to fully explain what they are seeking. “Face time can set some groundwork to help manufacturers fully understand the project and find the right resources,” explains Cusick.

Some foodservice chains rely on “culinary councils,” a culinary task force that assembles a select group of chefs to generate complete plated concepts. Included on the team are chefs from several different manufacturers (even those that are competitors), each representing a different component for the final product. “The chefs play and feed off of one another's ideas,” Cusick relates.

The timeline is short, usually consisting of three days, which include a day for immersion, ideation and creation, and, finally, review. “The first day, we get a marketing overview and analyze the flow of the kitchen. We find out what pieces of equipment are underutilized or over-utilized,” says Cusick. The second day, the teams generate plated concepts complete with photographs and documentation. “Whatever idea we come up with has applicability to other menu items, since single-use products [lower profitability].”

Finally, the foodservice chain's marketing and operations directors review the concepts, which sometimes amount to 75 new products or more. “We don't walk in and say, 'Hey, buy this.' We get involved with the customers, and they give input and ideas,” Cusick notes.

Comfort Culinary

Comfort foods like roast chicken and meatloaf once again have become foodservice favorites, says certified master chef John Kinsella, CCE, AAC, the national president of the American Culinary Federation (ACF, St. Augustine, Fla.). “Since 9/11, people are going back to the things they were comfortable with when they were young.” What they really want is stability. For foodservice operators, that translates to a need for consistent, quality products that can be turned out on a daily basis. “Price will always be a factor, but quality is the major issue. When patrons go out to dine, they don't want any surprises,” opines Kinsella.

However, fewer consumers are dining out. Except on special occasions, 29% of consumers surveyed by Technomic (Chicago), a foodservice market research firm, agreed they would rather take out food than eat in a restaurant. “It's not just that consumers don't have time. They don't value the eating-in experience the way they used to,” believes Michael Allenson, principal consultant in operator practice at Technomic. According to him, take-out sales in full-service restaurants were estimated at $14 billion for 2004, approaching 10% of total sales. “That means manufacturers need to produce products that are transportation-friendly and that retain their heat and texture,” suggests Goldin, executive vice president at Technomic. “For example, some fried foods get soggy, and [some ingredients, like fish, are not always considered suitable] for take out.”

One challenge food manufacturers face is how to make products consistent, with a handmade appearance. “I don't think that equation will be solved, and I hope it isn't solved, because that is what makes food fun and the dining experience unique,” contends Bill Happy, director of culinary development at Two Chefs on a Roll (Carson, Calif.), a custom foodservice manufacturer for unique and high-end products. Although restaurants excel at serving handmade or made-from-scratch products, they then face the challenge of hiring more skilled workers.

“A lot of the top chefs are in their 50s and will retire to education,” says Kinsella, who is also senior chef instructor at the Midwest Culinary Institute (Cincinnati) and owner of Kimcom Inc. (Cincinnati), a culinary consulting company.

The Cost Crunch

When asked, “What is your most difficult challenge?” an overwhelming majority of respondents wrote in that trying to keep up with the trickle-down-effect (fine dining trends emerging in casual and quick-service segments), while reining in price and providing consistency, also have become a significant challenge. “The American diner is one of the savviest diners in the world. Who would think people would go to the supermarket and buy 40lb of foie gras?” asks Kinsella. “Chefs are listening to customers, and the manufacturers are listening to the chefs.”

Considering the lack of skilled kitchen help, labor staff and the trickle-down-effect, foodservice operators need prepared foods manufacturers to create consistent, reliable products that can take the headache out of day-to-day operations. “Problems occur once the product leaves the manufacturer,” says Happy. The more the food manufacturer understands the challenges the product has to go through before it reaches the customer's plate (i.e., transportation, storage, preparation, etc.), the better the food manufacturer can meet the challenges that may arise. For example, better sourcing of ingredients and a more consistent supply limit fluctuations of the finished product's consistency. Pre-manufactured products are important because kitchen labor is expensive. Time, limited space and inventory constraints also are important when a manufacturer is determining the types of prepared foods a certain operation can handle.

“My company can provide [packaged and prepared] dressings that take up less shelf space than the 20 ingredients that go into that product,” says Happy. “Speed scratch” dressings are manufactured to increase throughput. Speed scratch removes the time-consuming parts of a base recipe, and the unit operator adds the finishing touches. Speed scratch also frees equipment to produce other things. “With speed scratch, I haven't found that you eliminate that much labor, but you do gain consistency from unit to unit,” opines Happy.

Food manufacturers should be aware of how their products will be reheated by the operator. “The day for 'one-focus' pieces of equipment is coming to a quick end,” says Kinsella.

Formulating products suitable for the operator's equipment is important to speeding up preparation time, but the right ingredients can save labor as well. Browning agents, such as certain sugar derivatives from caramelization processes, are available to react with proteins to impart a more rapid browning in baked goods, batters and breadings and meat products. Browning agents increase throughput by decreasing the cooking time and increasing the yield. They are the perfect ingredient to quickly simulate grilled browning in microwave applications and create a stable color without affecting flavor, says Baggs.

“Such agents can shorten the cooking time, which increases yield and lessens moisture loss,” he explains.

Even more valuable are prepared food products that are shelf-stable and require no electricity for cooling. When stocks are made from scratch in a kitchen, they must be cooled and stored under strict sanitation requirements. Pre-packaged, aseptic broths and savory bases are labor-saving, cost efficient and flavorful.

Ethnic Foods

Respondents of the “2005 R&D Foodservice Trends” survey reported their companies were about as interested in mainstreaming--that is, adapting for conservative American tastes--ethnic foods in 2005 as they were in 2004. Although it is important to customize a cuisine and to mainstream products, maintaining the integrity of the original recipe also is important, says Happy. “I don't want a customer to give me an apple [to develop], and I give them back an orange.”

Manufacturers are starting to get more involved in providing upscale products. Olive Garden (Darden Restaurant Group, Orlando) is a high-volume restaurant that uses pre-prepared food from commissaries or manufacturers. The restaurant does a good job of supplying fresh, high-quality foods and convenience products. Olive Garden's offerings may be a perfect example of ethnic food mainstreamed for the public and made to taste consistently the same across the country.

On the other hand, a nationwide launch of China Coast (General Mills, Orlando) restaurants did not work, recalls Kinsella of the Darden concept that folded in 1995. “It was difficult for them to do the same products consistently from one store to another. The technology wasn't there. It was a lesson well-learned.”

Many Asian restaurants rely heavily on seafood as a main ingredient in their dishes. “We are seeing more foods from the Pacific Rim, and chefs are using fish we never used before,” Kinsella finds. This has presented a challenge to packaged food companies. For Asian cuisine to be consistent, a lot of the sauces need to be factory-manufactured. In the past, most Asian sauces were produced in-house, so manufactured sauces were a limited resource that tasted differently from restaurant to restaurant. However, as demand grows for more consistent, authentic and regional Asian sauces, more companies have taken up the cause to manufacture them. According to Kinsella, the Sesame Wok Chinese Buffet (Raleigh, N.C.) has been able to transfer authenticity into consistency as it opens new chains. “Twenty-five years ago, I would never have thought we would have manufacturers discussing how to make Asian foods consistently.”

In fact, food manufacturers feel the foodservice industry's demand for all ethnic foods is steadily increasing, with a particular emphasis on regional Latin American cuisine. (See chart “Ethnic Flair.”)

“Any chef worth his salt needs to eat around the world and find foods interesting to him,” surmises Cusick. Chefs are using their findings from foreign excursions to influence their product development projects. R&D personnel and others in product development at food companies also may benefit from sampling foreign foods, through either travel or patronizing local restaurants with solid reputations for authentic cuisines. Charged with translating and adapting prototypes from corporate culinary kitchens, direct knowledge of typical tastes and flavors associated with a specific cuisine assists in tasks from communicating with the chefs to specifying formulation ingredients.

“Ten years ago [in the U.S.], a foodservice manufacturing company couldn't get a decent chicken curry if it tried. Now, we can get vindaloo,” says Kinsella, referring to a spicy curry sauce. Presently, ginger can be purchased in five-gallon pails or 55-gallon drums. “That is the change people have looked and asked about for years,” Kinsella explains. Today, foodservice manufacturers are not limited to working with jalapeño, chipotle and serrano peppers, they can source guajillo and poblanos, too.

While sourcing ingredients is important, the authentic methods by which ingredients are prepared is best researched by traveling. For instance, ginger sautéed in sesame oil as opposed to ginger dumped in a kettle tastes significantly different. “Chefs are using the same ingredients but treating them in a more authentic way,” Happy finds. As a result, companies are sending their main food experts out on assignment to places like Vietnam and the Yucatan so that they can absorb the culture and get an understanding of more than just the ingredient.


Restaurants are devising healthier and lighter formulations of foods, using less breading and more whole grains. “You're not going to find one product or one type of product set that is going to please everybody,” observes Cusick. Each chain has a set consumer type it is going after. “We have one very successful customer who still buys Atkins products, while others order trans fat-free products,” he notes. “On the other hand, we have people asking us to put lard back into products.”

“This is the most exciting time in the foodservice industry,” Kinsella observes. With increased communication through the Internet and by way of culinary councils, the world of foodservice is growing smaller, yet bigger with each year.