Of Traits and Trends
The Results of the 2004 Prepared Foods R&D Trends Survey: Culinary & Foodservice Product Development provide evidence that packaged food processors feel their foodservice customers are concerned with meeting the quality demands of a maturing customer base. Nevertheless, they want to do so without breaking the bank or sacrificing originality on behalf of convenience.
The respondents ranked consistency, convenience, price per serving, labor savings and sensory quality as the top five most important product traits to foodservice customers/operators. Of the R&D and marketing titles that responded to the survey, 74% said they developed/marketed products for the foodservice industry. Only the responses of these 236 foodservice suppliers were considered in the rest of the survey.
When asked to rank the top five most important product traits to their foodservice customers, some 82% checked off consistency, 65% convenience (speed to prepare), 61% price per serving, followed by labor savings (ease in handling) and sensory quality.
“We provide consistency and what [restaurateurs] really sell is comfort. Part of that comfort is that it tastes the same every time,” says David Alves, vice president of Park 100 Foods (Tipton, Ind.), a company that specializes in soups, sauces and side dishes for foodservice.
Whether it is prepared at one location, multiple locations or prepared and distributed from a central commissary, variances in raw materials, yields, equipment and production line cooks may ultimately determine the consistency of a product. “The worst thing you can hear someone say is your authentic New England clam chowder was wonderful in Boston but awful in Chicago. Or, 'I loved it Monday, Wednesday it was terrible and on Friday, it was different than Monday and Wednesday,'” says Frank Carpenito, president and CEO of Fairfield Farm Kitchens (Brockton, Mass.), a foodservice and retail product manufacturer with a primary focus on soups, sauces, entrées and baked goods.
Consistency translates into the preparation of a product as well. The preparer wants to know he has purchased a consistent product. Then he can be certain the product will yield the same result each time if it is heated for the same amount of time at the same temperature.
“Technology, in general, will significantly enhance the foodservice world,” says Stephen Schimoler, general manager of culinary business development for Sysco Corp. (Houston), a foodservice distributor, chef/owner of the Mist Grill restaurant (Waterbury, Vt.), and president of the Research Chef's Association (Atlanta).
“The fewer human variables, and the more we can automate the administrative functions as they relate to inventory, sales, data capture and the consistency that can be built into how products are cooked or 're-thermed,' the more consistent the final dish will be,” assures Schimoler.
Despite consumers' willingness to pay more money for a better product, foodservice operators typically want a better product, but do not want to add to their food cost basis. The PF survey reports that, compared to retail (grocery) clients, 67% of foodservice clients are more price sensitive. Foodservice operators are continuously seeking out higher-quality items, yet are conflicted with having to pay more for those items. They recognize they must increase the quality of their offering to compete in the marketplace, says Carpenito.
Aside from a culinary quality perspective, quality now also includes the integration of quality assurance, food safety, handling, traceability, food trust and origin. However, only 7.5% of respondents rated food safety/regulatory concerns as a significant trend in the development of prepared foods for foodservice distribution.
In addition, manufacturers now are faced with the responsibility of including health parameters into the products' formulations. Foodservice operators assume manufacturers already have developed the food to be a convenient, consistent, quality-driven solution.
The kitchens in the foodservice sector also are expecting manufacturers to take convenience into consideration. The cost and time associated with preparing a high-quality product is significant. Ready-to-serve, heat-and-serve, frozen and shelf-stable offerings are popular choices, when compared to fresh products. The foodservice purveyor is interested in foods that reduce the need for an experienced chef. Such products can be dropped into hot water, put in an oven or microwaved without much instruction or skill. This also is beneficial since, as one respondent wrote, the “lack of skilled labor” presents even more reasons why convenience is necessary in the development of successful foodservice products.
Carpenito suggests that friendly, efficient and reusable package configurations also contribute to convenience. For example, if a foodservice operator has to buy an 8lb. bag of sauce and (on average) uses 4lbs. of sauce a day, 4lbs. of sauce will be thrown away, wasting 50% of what he paid. “[Foodservice operators] are willing to pay a little more for smaller packaging to reduce yield loss,” discloses Alves.
When asked “What do you think is the most significant trend in the development of prepared foods for foodservice distribution?”, manufacturers chose convenience (28%), value or better quality at the same price (17%), healthier foods (14%) and customization (14%) in preference to ethnic foods (3%), organic ingredients (1.5%) and weight-loss products (4.5%).
CustomizationManufacturers of foodservice products try to create a flavor profile that is going to sell the most amount of product to the masses. However, “When they hit that right flavor profile, everybody up and down the street has the same product or wants it. The restaurant operator is no longer able to differentiate his menu in the marketplace,” says Alves. When manufacturers customize a product, it allows restaurateurs to appeal to a regional or selective consumer basis and remain unique.
“As convenience becomes more popular, [restaurants] have to keep re-inventing themselves,” warns Alves. Customized products allow them to focus on different parts of the menu, permitting some items to become menu staples and stay on the menu for a very long time. Menu staples are what create destination restaurants, or restaurants consumers attend specifically for a unique and favorite item.
Unfortunately, customization may require a large cash flow on the part of the manufacturing company. To customize products, formulators need to have small batch sizes and wide inventory ability. “It really boils down to whether your company is committed to customer service in the realm of customizing,” says Alves.
Ethnic CuisinesSurprisingly, when asked what manufacturers expected from their company in terms of ethnic product development efforts over the next two years, there was a significant difference between the Prepared Foods Foodservice survey results of 2003 and 2004. In 2003, respondents suggested that product development of Eastern European, French, Greek, Indian, Middle Eastern, Thai and fusion cuisines would significantly increase, and fewer than 10% thought they (except for French) would decrease. In the 2004 survey, between 65%-81% of 2004 respondents (with the exception of opinions toward Thai and fusion) thought the above mentioned categories would stay the same (See Ethnic Change chart).
Eastern European flavor profiles are less pronounced and people consider them somewhat passé when compared to many other ethnic foods, says Carpenito.
Chinese packaged, prepared food falls into third place, after Mexican and Italian, as one of the most popular cuisines offered by food manufactures. “The Asian community has a very significant and influential cuisine style, yet because of the nature of the food, manufacturers have not--in my opinion--successfully translated that at the manufacturing level,” opines Schimoler. According to the survey, slightly fewer food manufacturers offered Chinese products in 2004 versus 2003. This also appears to be the case with Caribbean-type foods.
The survey also included kosher products as one type offered by processors to foodservice operators. Overall, the statistics then showed that Mexican (59%), Italian (46%), kosher (38%) and Chinese (34%) foods lead the pack. As the changing demographics in America reflect growth in Asian and Hispanic populations, there is an increased desire for authentic and regional ethnic foods.
In both 2003 and 2004, 59% of those surveyed rated the ethnic products their company has developed or will develop as formulated to appeal to a mainstream or an Americanized public. Corporate chefs are valuable because they can provide ingredients in an ethnic cuisine that are acceptable to the traditional American palate. When making a dish more mainstream, a chef researches the cuisine to understand its heritage, what cooking techniques make it taste the way it does, what ingredients are indigenous to its origin, how to maintain the dish's integrity, and then educates formulators about the ingredients' functions (e.g., acidic, sour or sweet).
The purpose is to switch out, add or remove an ingredient based on what it is and what it does when cooked and/or fused with another cuisine. For example, if a chef wants to fuse chicken and dumplings with a Thai chili, then he might sweeten it with a touch of coconut milk. “You shouldn't throw in an ingredient because it sounds like it might work. The person that does it properly does it based on flavor profile,” says Alves.
Schimoler points out that Americanizing a Mexican or Latino cuisine is not the true demographic of what Mexicans and Latinos are looking for; they want authentic products. Americans who are not Latino will continue to explore various cuisine styles and look for something a little bit more identifiable than the authentic food. “Even still, I think a lot of the non-Latino marketplace is saying 'I don't want the food dumbed-down,'” he says.
Increasing OrganicsOrganic foods have become a lot more mainstreamed during the last 20 to 25 years. “Over the last 12 months, the foodservice community has really begun to understand it [organics] better and recognize that the consumers are looking for organic products in their establishments,” adds Carpenito. His company, Fairfield Farm Kitchens (Brockton, Mass.) claims to offer the only certified organic soups, sauces and entrées in convenient packaging marketed nationally to the foodservice community (under the Moosewood and Organic Classics labels). According to Carpenito, even a year ago, organics were cost prohibitive to many foodservice operators. “Now, there are delicious-tasting, cost-efficient, high-quality product solutions that are more accessible. People care greatly about these things in today's culture, particularly given that they do not have to sacrifice flavor or quality to eat organic foods.”
Restaurants are using organic produce more often. “Organics is a huge trend right now, particularly on college campuses, in business and industry, corporate catering and, though to a lesser degree, it is starting to evolve in health care,” he adds.
There is also a continued trend in the growth of “flexitarians,” passive vegetarians who eat predominantly vegetarian meals but also consume some poultry and, at times, meat. Research from The Vegetarian Resource Group (Baltimore, Md.) shows that, in recent years, one in four college students practice a vegetarian lifestyle. “College [cafeterias] are the breeding grounds for trend adoption and students are important because they become the customers with the most disposable income in a short period of time,” says Schimoler.
A contradictory trend shows that a huge upswing for chicken and meat meal solutions (whether they are soups or entrées) has surfaced, due to the focus on low-carb and protein-based diets. However, “Low-carb may be fading off the map in another 6-12 months,” warns Schimoler. “A lot of companies face the potential to lose a fair amount of money if they invested a lot of their resources in low-carb.”
Following the LeaderOn a scale ranking most to least influential, 86% of survey participants ranked foodservice operator/customer requests as most influential to the initiation of new foodservice product development. On the other hand, culinary TV shows (47%) were determined to have the least amount of influence.
The progression of trends from foodservice to retail grocery items is often up for interpretation. For example, Moosewood brands and recipes have been uncommonly successful over the years in parlaying their cookbook recipes and restaurant menu items into grocery retail items. However, some would argue that, as in the case of low-carb foods, retail trends and successes happen before making it to the foodservice venue.
Not all interesting trends in foodservice were captured by the survey. For example, Schimoler suggests that technology is migrating into the fine dining sector, sparking new ideas from the chefs in high-end restaurants. “You have celebrity chefs using flavors, extracts, and starch and gum systems. They are using equipment that was previously found only in pilot plants and R&D labs,” adds Schimoler. “They are not restrained by the rigors and the discipline of what the [retail] product development sector is faced with.”
While that may be, for its own part, the food manufacturing industry is trying its hardest to supply foodservice venues with convenient, consistent, healthful and often customized food products.