Prepared Foods talks with Jeff Wirtz, corporate executive chef at Blount Fine Foods. This Fall River, Mass., family company produces more than 900 refrigerated and frozen soups, side dishes and entrees for all channels. Blount manufactures more than 500 proprietary soup recipes, including 75 varieties of clam chowder alone.
Prepared Foods: What were a few of last year’s biggest soup trends?
Jeff Wirtz: I was delighted to see the mainstreaming of organics and the acceleration of the movement toward clean, transparent labeling, which needs to be a wake-up call to food processors competing in any product segment.
In soups and stews, we now have a green light to go beyond organic vegetables, and to look at things like antibiotic-free proteins. I loved the announcement last fall that a huge, “big box” chain was moving toward cage-free eggs. I see that as a sign that the purchasing scale needed to make raw ingredient costs more reasonable –might be just over the horizon.
There will be a unique opportunity for those of us that have already invested in certifications like organic, non-GMO, gluten-free and others, because it means we have already built the involved and expensive sourcing, audit and monitoring infrastructure. The implications for a retailer looking for a private label partner are significant.
PF: What’s driving soup trends?
Chef Wirtz: What you see at mainstream retailers today is that the “organics” offering in the store has gone from a few racks—to entire aisles or sections. Some chains even have spun off free-standing stores that only sell wholesome foods that are free of additives.
PF: How does Blount respond?
Chef Wirtz: We are very proud to say that Blount was ahead of this evolution with our Blount Organics brand lines for both retail and foodservice. The introduction of the brand—and the corresponding transition in sourcing and production—was seamless.
PF: What are a few of your favorite new ingredients? Why?
Chef Wirtz: These days, we are doing more and more with things like kaffir lime leaves, as well as smoky foods and flavors. Smoky paprika makes an awesome alternative to sodium, especially in our heartier soups and stews. These bolder flavors allow consumers to enjoy foods with less salt. Chili pepper is another ingredient I find myself and my team reaching for more often.
PF: What’s ahead in 2016?
Chef Wirtz: I know we will continue to work on cleaning up labels, while also experimenting with ways to migrate more traditional favorites over to the “clean and simple” umbrella.
Soups and stews will also continue to advance as a meal unto themselves, which I believe will result in more production of single-serve, portion-targeted healthy meal entrees.
Because Millennials have consistently shown a preference for snacking throughout the day over three big meals, the category should offer more ways to snack. We certainly will.
For restaurants and foodservice institutions, we are always looking for ways that our products can be cross-utilized in commercial kitchens to keep prep time, and therefore labor and overhead costs in check. I believe we will make some news on this front in 2016 as well.