Leading food distributor US Foods Inc., Rosemont, Ill., launches more than 50 new items every year, particularly in the spring and fall. Here, Prepared Foods gets the inside scoop on new product development from Stacey Kinkaid, US Foods vice president of product development & innovation.

Prepared Foods: Here in early May, we see you’ve been quite busy. US Foods recently launched a “Spring Scoop” of new products for foodservice operators. How do you describe the latest offerings?  

Stacey Kinkaid: Spring Scoop highlighted 26 products, including 21 new food items and they all debuted this March. All products align with our ongoing “Scoop” product innovation promise to bring our customers products that offer menu versatility and back-of-house labor savings.

Themed “Get to Know Serve You,” Spring Scoop highlights several products under our newly branded “Serve You” portfolio. It features more than 3,000 US Foods Exclusive Brands products that offer plant-forward, gluten-free certified or clean ingredient labels—all with no ingredients on US Foods’ own “Unpronounceables List.”

“Serve You” products appeal to diners who want more personalization given their dietary and lifestyle preferences—but are not willing to sacrifice great taste and quality.

PF: We see three key themes demonstrated in your launch—including plant-based, gluten free and clean label. Could you talk about the customer (operator) and/or consumer insights within each of those trends? 

Kinkaid: As a product development team, we build our new product innovations through in-house expertise, market research, supplier relationships and restaurant tours. This research never stops and informs the development of products that reflect the latest menu trends, diner demands, and operator needs.

We take great pride in keeping a pulse on product innovation and doing all the legwork required to bring the most innovative and solutions-oriented products to our operators. Whether the operator’s focus is on driving traffic with a differentiated menu, standing out from competitors, finding on-trend menu inspiration, addressing labor shortages, or increasing profitability—Scoop’s innovative products are here to help our operators “make it.”

As I mentioned, we focused this spring on products under our newly branded Serve You product portfolio. What we’ve learned through research is that diners’ dietary and lifestyle preferences are growing in favor of vegetarian or vegan, gluten-free, and clean label options. So, it’s more important than ever for operators to appeal to a variety of diner desires to accommodate these needs and preferences.

PF: You mentioned market research. How does that inform your product development work? 

Kinkaid: Yes. For example, research from Datassential indicates that plant-forward products on the menu are expected to grow by more than 517% during the next four years as more vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diners seek expanded dining options. Additionally, nearly 30% of consumers are limiting or avoiding gluten and 78% percent of consumers find clean label products appealing. Given the increase in diner demand and the expansion of our Serve You portfolio, this is the perfect time to dedicate a Scoop launch to products that meet lifestyle and dietary preferences.  

The challenge, as we see it, is that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for our operators. And so, with Spring Scoop, we’ve delivered a variety of on-trend, high-quality products that can meet specific preferences, while also appealing to all diners regardless of their dietary or lifestyle choices.

For example, we wanted to make sure items like our Harbor Banks Gluten-Free Breaded Alaska Sole appeal to gluten-free and non-gluten-free diners, so we really focused on ensuring the highest quality and the best taste profile. And, in keeping with the qualities that are highly important to our operators, the products were designed to help save operators back-of-house labor and they are highly versatile across the menu without sacrificing flavor.

PF: Restaurant patrons are familiar with grocery shopping and scanning a package for “clean label” attributes or clues. How do you help operators convey these same attributes?

Kinkaid: Strategically highlighting product attributes on the menu is key to showcasing how the operator can appeal to a variety of dietary preferences. Menu design is both an art and a science and that’s why we offer our customers the opportunity to work with Restaurant Operations Consultants (ROCs), experts who can provide 1:1 support for any operational hurdle, including menu design. In fact, we also offer free menu design webinars on our website for any operator, US Foods customer or not, to attend and learn from.

PF: Let’s dive a little deeper into new product development and your three bigger themes. First, can you talk about your approach to plant-based offerings?

Kinkaid: We want to provide plant-forward options that appeal to all the various reasons why diners are eating more plants. This includes plant-based alternatives such as Molly’s Kitchen Plant-Based Smashed Patty. This also includes chef-inspired, vegan options such as our Chef’s Line Tempura Brussels Sprouts and vegetarian options such as Molly’s Kitchen Mexican-Style Cheese Stuffed Cigars.

These items appeal to those looking to reduce their meat intake but without compromising on flavor, so much so that they appeal to all diners regardless of their dietary preferences. These items may be prepared similarly to their animal protein-derived counterparts, which make them a fresh, on-trend option for diners.

PF: How did you approach gluten-free development ideas?

Kinkaid: We have an array of gluten-free certified options, as our operators have noticed a shift in consumers limiting or avoiding gluten all together. Two selections here include the Chef’s Line All-Natural Gluten-Free Breaded Chicken Breast Fillet Raised Without Antibiotics, and Harbor Banks Gluten-Free Breaded Alaska Sole. Both items provide the perfect solution for those looking for gluten-free proteins.

We use unique ingredients in many of our gluten-free products to add visual interest, flavor, and texture to complement the gluten-free flours. For example, the breading on our Harbor Banks Gluten-Free Breaded Alaska Sole includes ancient grains such as amaranth and quinoa, as well as chia seeds.

PF: Lastly, can you tell us a little more about your approach to clean label? 

Kinkaid: Spring Scoop also features items with clean ingredient labels—meaning the ingredient profiles do not contain certain ingredients, such as artificial flavors and artificial (FD&C) colors, hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup or added MSG. These products are the result of years of product development at US Foods.

One of the hero products launched in Spring Scoop is our Metro Deli Kosher Dill Pickle Chips, which do not contain any artificial colors, flavors or preservatives—unlike most commercially available pickles.  Because this product does not contain any of these ingredients and because it is manufactured, shipped, and preserved cold—the result is a pickle that looks and tastes scratch made.

PF: Let’s look a little more broadly at consumer trends. What have you learned about consumer interests in exciting new flavor profiles or more “premium” selections? 

Kinkaid: Our Scoop products are designed to be served anywhere from fine dining establishments to a simple bar and grill. We design the products to ensure they are easily customizable. This gives the operator creative freedom to design an elevated menu culminating in a unique plate that will please every diner’s palate. Of course, we have also seen an increase in diners’ desire for new and adventurous twists on their favorites. We answered this call by delivering delicious ingredients in unexpected ways, such as with our Glenview Farms Crumbled Hickory Smoked Feta Cheese, which is a unique take on feta with a buttery, nutty, smoky flavor.  

PF: What’s another example of a new artisan offering?  

Kinkaid: Our Chef’s Line Pinsa Crust is an artisanal offering years in the making with its influences derived straight from Italy. It is hand-stretched and hand-pressed to achieve a light and crispy crust, delicate in taste, but sturdy enough to hold various toppings for sweet and savory pizzas. With perfectly browned air bubbles, this crust has labor-saving components but appears to be freshly prepared in the back-of-house.

PF: And how about new ethnic offerings within Spring Scoop?

Kinkaid: You’ll see global influences throughout all Scoop new product launches, from culturally authentic products to globally inspired ingredients in approachable products. Molly’s Kitchen Mexican-Style Cheese Stuffed Cigars is an example of global inspiration from many different cuisines coming together in a unique product. The spring roll wrapper is stuffed with Mexican-style cotija cheese, red pepper flakes, jalapeño pieces, and more. It’s a vegetarian offering with a unique twist on a spring roll, classic cheese stick, and jalapeño popper.

PF: Before we close, we wanted to ask about your colorful new Chef’s Line Organic Purple Rice and Quinoa Blend. How did you decide to formulate and offer that product?

Kinkaid: Known as the “emperor’s rice,” the Chef’s Line Organic Purple Rice and Quinoa Blend is a beautifully cooked purple grain with a rich cultural history originating in China. It has a subtle but sweet flavor balanced with nuts, making it appealing to diners and operators alike.

It’s also a labor saver that eliminates the cooking process. This gives operators more time to create versatile dishes that may use the blend in bowls, wraps, salads, or a side dish.