May 2004 Issue--U.S. consumers have taken an interest in fine dining, be it at home or in the restaurant. Whether due to the growing popularity of celebrity chefs, the amount of disposable income among certain demographic groups or simply a desire for the innovative, sales of premium foods have jumped to $72.6 billion (based on 2003 estimates from Datamonitor, London) and will top $94 billion by 2008, an increase of almost 30%.

Datamonitor regards premium foods such as shiitake mushrooms and rosemary-flavored, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil on store shelves as proof of consumer interest in gourmet items. However, the upscale foods segment is being augmented by prepared versions of products even foodservice operators may find difficult to present.

For its Chef Creations versions of crème brulee and Hollandaise sauces, Culinary Concepts (Orlando, Fla.) enlisted the aid of Tetra Pak (Vernon Hills, Ill.) and its aseptic processing capabilities. CP Kelco (Wilmington, Del.) also would be called upon to help stabilize the product for aseptic processing for the operational strains of a restaurant kitchen.

Machinery Offers New Options

The goal of these efforts is to provide products difficult for restaurant operators to handle, whether due to labor issues or food safety concerns. As Chris Fabbri, Tetra Pak's director of strategic business development/foodservice, notes, “Crème brulee is difficult for the operator to make, so much so that, many times, operators keep it off the menu because they lack the skilled labor to make the product.”

An aseptic version may answer labor concerns, but it requires specialized processing systems, admits Jeff Kellar, vice president of strategic business development and marketing at Tetra Pak. For instance, in crème brulee, the number-one ingredient is heavy cream, an ingredient with a fairly high fat content, requiring systems to move viscous products gently and without damaging the products or blowing out the pumps.

“Because of our hot-temperature, short-time processing,” Kellar observes, “it does require a slightly higher level of equipment and a bit more complexity in the mixing and blending…The idea is to take the time, complexity and effort to do it so that, when it gets to the store or the shelf or the kitchen, all of that complexity is gone.”

One hurdle involved the real eggs used in formulating the hollandaise. The low pH levels led to a trial-and-effort process to attain the proper viscosity and flavor profile. “Through the course of formulating,” Fabbri recalls, “we would add certain ingredients that we thought had 'flashed off' during the aseptic processing. So, some playing with the formulas did occur.”

Kellar believes the future rests in smaller, portion-controlled containers that could be heated in a microwave oven. By the end of 2004, Tetra Pak will have a machine in the U.S. capable of producing such single-serving, microwaveable containers. Another possible selling point is the container: it is fiber-based and, therefore, not hot to the touch after being microwaved.

As a result, Tetra Pak is looking beyond the restaurant and into the homes of consumers. “We could find ourselves integrated into meal kits for single-serve or multi-serve applications,” foresees Kellar, “and because the Tetra Pak products will have technology allowing microwaving, the convenience factor will increase, along with the quality.”

For more information:

Tetra Pak USA, Jeff Kellar