Ethnic prepared foods are a crucial part of most food manufacturers’ product lines. In Prepared Foods’ survey, 63.6% offered “Mexican” foods, while “Chinese” came in second at 40.0%. Another Asian favorite, Thai, is carried by 15.6% of food manufacturers.
The foodservice sector is growing and shows little signs of stopping. In June, we reported on a study released by Technomic Inc. (Chicago), indicating the top 100 leading chains managed 4.7% growth in 2002. Despite hard times—we have learned—consumers do not stop eating out, but simply make less-expensive restaurant choices. At the same time, foodservice operators battle to retain good employees, keep their costs down and serve consistently good food.

To discover what food manufacturers are doing to remain competitive by satisfying what they see as the needs and wants of those who work in the foodservice industry, this magazine conducted a study, “2003 Prepared Foods' R&D Trends Survey: Foodservice Product Development.” Judging from the responses, the commitment level of a company to the foodservice segment seems to be either very strong or relatively weak. Some 42% of respondents indicated their companies spend 25% or less of their product development efforts in this segment, while 30% claim their companies spend more than 75% of their product development resources in the foodservice area.

Foodservice operators serve food that diners often perceive to be made on-the-premises and look for “just prepared” freshness. However, food manufacturers also believe consistency is crucial, with 79% of survey respondents indicating this to be one of the most important product traits in a prepared food sold to the foodservice segment, followed by convenience (63%) and sensory quality (38%). Tying for fourth place with 56% were labor savings and price per serving, and fifth place also had a tie: extended shelflife and newness of product came in with 28% each. (See chart titled “The Importance of Quality Control.”)

“First and foremost, customers are looking for high-quality products, and fresh, quality ingredients...The second is reliability—that you will provide them with the same, consistent quality with every order,” explains Samantha Mesrobian, director of marketing—prepared foods, Chef Solutions (Schaumburg, Ill.), a manufacturer of foodservice deli salads and baked goods.

“Operators are challenged with labor issues such as high turnover and labor shortages. They are also challenged with time. Their biggest challenge in daily operations is providing their customers with the same quality menu items throughout a menu cycle...Operators are also faced with rising overhead, high shrink and rising labor costs, so portion control and cost per serving are critical.”

The majority of respondents, 63%, agreed that foodservice clients, generally, are more price sensitive than retailers. Some 45% believe foodservice customers request customized products more often than do their retail clients. Products that offer chefs and kitchen help flexibility in their presentation are highly valued.

“A restaurant chef needs products that 'rough cut' his menu picture. That way, he can focus culinary skills on the fine touches that require expert attention, like presentation and outstanding timing and service,” explains chef J. Hugh McEvoy, a certified research chef and a regular contributor to this magazine.

Foodservice companies are utilizing corporate chefs more regularly. Despite the perception that restaurant chefs can be difficult to work with, most readers regard research chefs, whose training includes both the scientific and culinary areas, as a valuable company asset. One reader wrote, “Chefs allow a strong focus upon experimentation, application methods and market introduction techniques prior to heavy manufacturing cost investment.” Another opined, “For ingredient suppliers, it is a great addition if you do consultative selling and innovative presentations.” Other comments included, “[they offer] culinary expertise versus food technology.” However, one respondent cautioned, “…not everything one can cook at a restaurant can be duplicated in a manufacturing process…”

More Than South of the Border

As the population diversifies in the U.S., it is no surprise ethnic foods have become an important part of a company's foodservice lineup. Respondents said their companies are offering: Mexican (63%), Italian (44%), Chinese (40%), Caribbean (28%) and regional Latin American foods (20%).

Asked about their product development efforts over the next two years, 70% of survey participants indicated their company will increase the focus on regional Latin American foods, while none said it would be decreased. Some 68% said efforts will increase in the Mexican foods sector, followed by fusion cuisine and “other” foods, both at 63%. Thai came in fourth place, at 60%.

Prepared Foods’ survey, 63.3% of food manufacturers said they carried Mexican-type foods, while only 2.2% carried African ethnic products, begging the question as to where opportunities in new product development lie.
Slightly less enthusiasm was seen for Middle Eastern foods, with 36% of food manufacturers saying they would increase their product development efforts versus 14% saying they would decrease efforts for these types of products, and Caribbean cuisine (33% will increase and 13% will decrease efforts). Almost 87% of respondents who manufacture African foods said their company would maintain the same level of development. Not surprisingly, 59% of respondents told us their products are “Americanized,” to cater to the U.S. mainstream. About 30% strive to make their product taste “somewhat ethnic,” while 10% claim to have a “very authentic ethnic product.” (See the chart titled “Cautious Mainstream Tastes.”)

The issue of how ethnic a food should be is a topic of debate. However, Chef J. offers up the successful examples of Taco Bell (Irvine, Calif.) and Chipotle Grill (Denver), establishments serving ethnic—yet not very authentic—cuisines. “In my opinion, they sell great products that fulfill the expectations of their target customers. And that is what is important and leads to long-term success.” Additionally, he mentions that a development chef should be very familiar with the “cuisine of any culture he is working with. This enables a chef first to create 'authentic' products, and then modify those items to meet customers' expectations.”

When asked "Where does your company get ideas for new foodservice products?”, trade publications that focus on product development came out on top.
However, for beginners, or those not very familiar with a particular cuisine, he advises, “A product like Hormel's heat-and-serve Café H Barbacoa is a basic ethnic item that can be 'tricked out' by a talented foodservice chef and turned into a signature menu item. Served with a signature mole and some fresh avocado slices, this great Latino 'barbecue' entrée can help almost any young chef to create 'authentic' ethnic dishes.”

Readers opine the ethnic trend will continue, and several wrote in notes to let us know the importance of this category. “Ethnic casual” foods were listed as a trend to watch, as were “ethnic, cheap” foods, both geared toward a competitive price point.

Chef Solutions (Schaumburg, Ill.) uses a team of people from various departments to generate customer support and fresh ideas.

The Source of New Ideas

Knowing a good opportunity when it presents itself, 89% of respondents said a foodservice customer's request was “very influential” or “influential” in initiating new product development at their company. Other influences included “trends noticed at the consumer (retail) level” (70%) and competitors offering a product (52%).

“Foodservice customers are looking to suppliers to provide them with innovative solutions that are either in the form of new and exciting products, new menu ideas, solutions to reducing shrink, lowering costs and providing products that ease their labor concerns. There also is an expectation that suppliers stay ahead of food trends and bring both product and menu ideas to them [the customer] on a continual basis,” says Mesrobian.

Other than the customer, when looking for new product ideas, reading industry publications scored highly. Some 58% of respondents said product development trade publications (such as this one) are the leading source in generating new foodservice products. Foodservice trade publications came in second at 53%, while restaurants came in third at 52%. Suppliers took fourth place with 47%. (See chart titled “Creativity from Trade Publications.”)

When asked, "Would you rate the ethnic products your company will develop as very authentic or formulated to appeal to the mainstream public?", the perhaps obvious answer was "Mainstream/Americanized."
“Suppliers need to be able to help them [operators] differentiate themselves through products, menu applications, day part opportunities and to provide products that help solve the challenges the operator faces,” states Mesrobian. To this end, Chef Solutions assigns each customer a team made up of culinary, marketing, R&D, sales and market intelligence personnel to provide customers with “solutions on every level.”

Product development trade publications seem to be especially useful in keeping readers briefed on what new ingredients are being launched in the marketplace, with 75% of respondents rating it as their most useful tool in this area. 71% said they use the magazine to enlighten them on the latest trends in consumer food preferences and choices. About 57% of respondents rely on publications to provide information on new consumer food products in the marketplace.

One of the reasons publications are popular is because they do offer “hands on” advice about R&D product development issues. Readers told us they face a diverse set of challenges, such as “balancing the quality of a product with the cost of manufacturing,” arriving at a “flavor profile that is acceptable to the consumer,” “achieving consistency throughout the production cycle,” “developing healthy yet great-tasting products,” “extending product shelflife,” and “sorting out the value of nutrition and healthfulness of products versus what restaurants and consumers view as price/value.”

Presented by Jon Donaire (Santa Fe Springs, Calif.), this Sweet Selections cheesecake is rich enough to pass as being made in the back-of-the-house.

Website Resources— Type “foodservice” into the editorial search field on the homepage for a variety of articles and news items on the foodservice industry— National Restaurant Assn.'s home page— Foodservice and government relations news— Foodservice Consultants Society International /news.asp— Good source of foodservice/food industry news

Sidebar: Participants' Profiles

Some 196 useable questionnaires were returned for the 2003 Prepared Foods' R&D Trends Survey: Foodservice Product Development, of which 67.7% of respondents were with companies that manufactured prepared foods for the foodservice segment. Only answers from these respondents were used for statistics seen in this article. Of these respondents, 55% are in R&D. About 21% are in management and administration, followed by 18% in the marketing and sales functions. On the topic of respondents' responsibilities, 81% are involved in new product development, followed by 66% involved in approving and qualifying ingredient vendors. Some 65% are involved in the formulation or reformulation of products.