Editor’s note: Prepared Foods talks with Jeff Wirtz, corporate executive chef at Blount Fine Foods, a Fall River, Mass., processor of fresh and frozen soups, sides, sauces and entrees.
Prepared Foods: Let’s talk about culinary trends and tastes. For starters, how was last year, 2013, different than the year before?
Jeff Wirtz: As economic conditions began to erode in 2008, things in the industry really tightened up, as they did in every industry. In the wake of the slow recovery, we have seen consumer tastes trend toward comfort foods, which have maintained their resurgence for the last few years.
One significant shift we saw in 2013 was shoppers and diners looking for “more healthy” in the comfort foods they seek. What seems to be trendy these days is blending “healthy” with “wholesome” in a way that keeps ingredient labels simple and clean. Mediterranean still matters, as do organics, but with protein included. Consumers are telling us that organic needn’t mean vegetarian any longer.
PF: What were a few of your favorite new products at Blount?
Wirtz: We had a very good year in terms of product development, and I am proud of everything we introduced. That said, I do have three favorites. The first is a Lasagna Soup, which we introduced in late 2013 and has performed very well, so far. We developed it as a broth-based soup and use big chunks of turkey sausage for protein, so it is a little more diet-friendly. But, the taste and aroma are pure old-world lasagna, just like you’d find in an Italian home two or three generations ago. I’m very proud of how we “nailed” this one.
The second soup is our Chicken Artichoke Florentine, which is a cream-based soup we introduced under our World Inspired foodservice line. My third favorite is a side dish that falls outside the mainstream sides that dominate the marketplace today: Creamed Kale & Spinach, which is both vegetarian and gluten-free, so it appeals to diners looking for something special and unique. When we developed our lineup of sides, we deliberately avoided those mainstream dishes that don’t present an opportunity to set a high bar with something unique and differentiating.
PF: How do these offerings meet consumer taste interests and/or help operators?
Wirtz: There really aren’t many high-end side dishes in the market, so we have offerings that stand apart from the crowd. Just as we did 10 years ago with handmade, gourmet soups, we are giving customers and their consumers a reason to have higher expectations when it comes to side dishes. These are also great-tasting, healthy items made with wholesome ingredients under the highest of standards. As the corporate executive chef, I could not be happier with our products.
PF: What are a few new ingredients or culinary trends coming this year?
Wirtz: I see three big trends that will carry us through 2014 and beyond. First, I believe greens and grains are going to stay important in the eyes of restaurant chefs and the diners they serve. We also will extend what we can do with organic recipes, as more and more ingredients can be brought to market by organic farmers. And, finally, we will continue finding new ways to make popular comfort foods that also are wholesome.
PF: How do you continue learning and growing in your profession?
Wirtz: About 25% of my job involves travel. When I’m on the road, I try to get off the beaten path to see, taste and talk about what is new and next. I also look forward to the Research Chefs Association’s annual conference. Every year, I go with an open mind and a hungry stomach.
Another way I stay fresh is to talk to our customers about what they are hearing from their consumers and their own personnel on the front lines (at store level). But, more than anything else, I block out time on my schedule to simply get in the kitchen and cook and work alongside other chefs. That time is invaluable. Sometimes, I simply offer to do the prep work for a good chef in the area, just for the opportunity to hang out in the kitchen.