Prepared Foods talks product development and menu trends with Stacie Sopinka, US Foods vice president of innovation and product development. The Rosemont, Ill.,-based distributor works with approximately 250,000 restaurants and foodservice operators.
Prepared Foods: Please tell us a little about yourself.
Stacie Sopinka: I’m vice president of innovation and product development for US Foods. I’ve worked in the product development field for more than 20 years—in both foodservice and retail—and worked with hundreds of food and non-food manufacturers both domestically and overseas.
In this role, my team and I design new and innovative product offerings aimed at helping our restaurant customers “Make It.” The team is always on the hunt for the next important culinary trend that will inspire our next first-to-market products. For my team, the focus is primarily on fostering the right menu inspiration that can also deliver operational cost efficiencies for the restaurant operator. It’s an extremely exciting time to be working in the food industry as both restaurant owners and diners are very engaged in the conversation around where their food comes from and exploring new cuisines and ingredients.
PF: Can you tell us a little more about that team—as well as your role?
Sopinka: Sure, at US Foods, I’m responsible for staying on top of the food trends using those insights to create products that help inspire menus across the country.
I lead a dedicated internal team comprised of chefs, food scientists, packaging engineers and project managers who are in charge of not only knowing what the consumer is looking for today, but where the trends will be in a year or five years from now. This helps US Foods better understand what diners are looking for, which in turn allows us to deliver on-trend products on a national basis to our customers, either by following trends or sometimes creating them.
The thing that excites me the most about my position at US Foods is being able to make a wide-reaching impact with our products and set the stage for the future of food.
PF: US Foods’ spring “Scoop” newsletter showcased new foods and menus for Millennial diners. How do you address this trend?
Stacie Sopinka: As the U.S. becomes more diverse as a country, there is hunger for exotic dishes that feature authentic ingredients and bolder flavors, making this demand the new normal. Nearly half of Millennials seek globally-inspired foods when dining out (Mintel Foodservice Trends). To meet this demand head-on, we’re recommending restaurants add items to their menus that feature international ingredients and flavors. In fact, in both our Spring and Summer Scoop issues, we’ve included a variety of flavorful ethnic-inspired products.
Spring Scoop includes products like Pacific Jade® Indian Curry, Thai Red Curry Sauce Starters and Summer Scoop includes products like Molly’s Kitchen® Battered Elote Corn Bites and del Pasado™ Borracho Beans. All these products help give chefs and operators easy options to add ethnic flare to their menus.
PF: There’s also a reference to “responsibly prepared” items. Can you explain how you apply that term to new products?
Sopinka: At US Foods, we categorize responsibly prepared foods as those that are natural, organic or sustainably sourced. These items are very popular with millennial diners. According to a report from The Hartman Group, 65% of millennials say that they enjoy foods that are natural or organic. As demand continues to grow, we’ve made it a priority at US Foods to develop products that use more natural and responsibly sourced ingredients.
In fact, in July of 2016, we launched our exclusive Serve Good™ line, featuring 21 products that are responsibly sourced or contribute to waste reduction and also bring the benefits of versatility and time and labor savings in the kitchen.
Our 2017 Spring Scoop has built on the success of the Serve-Good™ launch with additional responsibly prepared products like our Chef’s Line All Natural Fire Grilled Chicken Breast and our Chef’s Line All Natural White and Dark Meat Turkey Burgers made with turkey that is vegetarian fed and raised without antibiotics.
In addition, our current 2017 Summer Scoop features Stock Yards™ All Natural Ground Chuck Raised without antibiotics. This product is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients. From tacos to burger patties to meaty pasta sauces, our operators are attracted to the cleaner label and the versatility.
PF: What else has US Foods rolled out for the summer season?
Sopinka: The theme for our latest Summer Scoop offering is, “It’s a Matter of Choice.”
Our insights have shown us that whether dining with family or a group of friends, the individual preferences of diners vary widely based on their ethics, lifestyle or personal approach. In fact, 44% of adults now say food restrictions, food allergies or avoidance of certain ingredients dictate what they eat (Packaged Facts Report, 2014). Within a party of four for instance, it’s not uncommon to find at least one diner who is gluten-free or vegetarian while another may want a traditional meat dish full of trending flavors. Given this, it’s becoming more difficult for diners to find something that appeal to each of them on a menu.
Our Summer Scoop launch includes 24 new products designed to offer our customers the ability to make additions to their menu that offer discerning diners more choice. Two of my favorite products in the line-up are the Molly’s Kitchen Meatless Breaded Boneless Wings that are 100% vegetarian and the Cross Valley Farms Spiral Cut Kohlrabi. Both products are versatile enough for our operators to use in a variety of dishes and still deliver on the specific dietary need of the guest without compromising on taste.
PF: Let’s talk about your suppliers of prepared foods and ingredients. What’s changed most in how you engage these partners?
Sopinka: The two biggest changes we’ve encountered involve (1) increased demands on the pace of product development timelines and (2) consumer demands related to the transparency of product ingredients, nutritional information and traceability.
Social media has accelerated the rate at which food trends are introduced and adopted. This means that there is an increased pressure to turn around new on-trend products at a faster rate. Within my career, I’ve seen the average development timeline reduce in duration by about 30%.
With regard to product information transparency, we appreciate the engagement by our customers and their diners to learn more about the dishes they are eating and specifics around what ingredients are used. During the development of every product, we ensure we are diving into the granular detail of every ingredient so that we can answer any questions a customer may get about that ingredient.
Not only do more consumers want to understand where the ingredients are coming from, they also focus much more on the number of ingredients that make up a particular product and appreciate “cleaner” labels. In 2012, we launched two new brands, Chef’s Line and Metro Deli with a commitment to maintaining clean ingredient declarations. This commitment was enthusiastically received by our customers and we continue to expand the mandate of providing clean ingredient exclusive brand products to our customers.
PF: How can these finished products and ingredient companies’ better partner with US Foods in the future? Can you share an example of a success story?
Sopinka: We are always the most successful when we’ve engaged and collaborated with our manufacturers and partners—versus the traditional model of supply and demand. Strong partnerships are built on a foundation of identifying mutual beneficial opportunities, the creation of trust and loyalty and, sharing a common vision for the long-term goal.
The first step to achieving this is to ensure that the ingredient or manufacturing supplier is a good fit within our strategy, and vice versa. Building trust comes with providing a degree of transparency up front and being realistic about the challenges and potential costs associated with the product development. I’ve always said that you must have thick skin to participate in product development, especially if you are trying to push boundaries.
At US Foods, more than 80% of our products launched over the last five years through Scoop are still in the market. We have many manufacturers that have participated in Scoop launches for over five years. They are in for the long run and will move mountains for US Foods to ensure that our customers have the best experience possible with our new product innovation.
PF: What’s been the biggest change in your role or job responsibility during the past five years?
Sopinka: Diners’ passion around food and dining out continues to build and drive our excitement around new product innovation. However, our foodservice customers continue to be challenged within an extremely competitive market. As a result, it’s never been more important to help our customers succeed by providing innovative products that can inspire their menus but also be cost and labor efficient.
Whether it’s providing more up-scale ingredients that require less preparation such as knife-free products like our Cross Valley Farm Kohlrabi noodles or by providing ready-to-eat and decadent on trend products like our French inspired pastry, Chef's Line®Kouign Amann (Queen A-mahn), operators are always looking for new and innovative ways to bring their patrons exciting dishes without extra back-of-the-house costs. During the development of Scoop products we are extremely conscious of providing value to our operators.
PF: Where do you go to grow? Where do you find new ideas and inspirations?
Sopinka: That’s a great question. My original food inspiration came from my childhood of growing up on a farm collecting eggs from my chickens, harvesting honey with my grandfather and endlessly eating fresh tomatoes in August from our family garden. These experiences are firmly planted in my taste memory and set the standard for how food should taste.
Today, I’m constantly inspired by industry events such as panel discussions, food shows, events that celebrate the artistry of food, direct collaborations with our customers and of course, the local and international dining scene. As I responding here, I’m in Sydney, Australia, soaking up the diverse food scene and getting ideas for new products. Have you ever seen a sushi donut? They’re amazing!