Local foods, children's nutrition top N.R.A. trends

by Allison Gibeson
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With local foods appearing frequently on the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s hot in 2012” trend listing for the past several years, there is opportunity to differentiate a food service operation by using local items. Yet another viewpoint identified casual dining and the combination of Asian and Latin cuisines are also top trends. The N.R.A.’s findings were based on a survey of 1,800 professional chefs who are members of the American Culinary Federation.

So how are restaurants using local items on menus?

“In our case we use local meats as much as possible — beef, lamb, even goat,” said Brian von Eggers, executive chef with Wildhorse Resort and Casino in Pendleton, Ore. “Some items on the menu are not from within 150-mile radius but are within 300-mile radius — those items include Golden Trout from Idaho, buffalo and elk from Montana. Then during the growing seasons we work very closely with local farms to get in produce. We even set up our wine list to focus on local wines from our region.”
Mr. von Eggers said one of the biggest challenges in this local sourcing is it takes time, especially at first, to deal with many smaller vendors as opposed to the one-stop mainline distributors. Yet he said it appears the mainline distributors see this trend and are actually willing to work with the smaller producers to carry their products.

He also said local foods provide a point of differentiation for smaller independent restaurants.
“This is where the little guy has a leg up on the big corporate machines, and as food and restaurants continue to evolve I think we will see this evolution grow further apart,” Mr. von Eggers said. “People go to chains because they know what they are going to get for their money, and sometimes that is okay. Other times when you really want to experience a culture and its cuisine going to the local chef-driven restaurant will give you an experience that cannot be replicated.”

Yet Gerry Ludwig, consulting chef with Gordon Food Service, said while the local trend has received much media attention, it may not be as significant as is being suggested. He said this is because the amount of items that can be sourced locally in a restaurant inventory is small. He said the main opportunities for local are in produce and some poultry and beef. While many beers are being brewed locally, many restaurants are still using ingredients from various areas, he said.

“The restaurants that are really drawing people in and packing the seats are the ones that are providing foods that have the most exciting flavors,” Mr. Ludwig said. “The two most important things to dining consumers are, No. 1, restaurants that provide the sort of food they can’t very easily prepare for themselves at home, and secondly, and more importantly, they are seeking foods they can’t find at another restaurant in their area.”

He said the competitive area around a restaurant is a three- to five-mile radius, and it’s important for restaurants to differentiate themselves from other res-taurants in that proximity.

Mr. Ludwig also said dining styles in the United States are becoming more casual, from white tablecloth restaurants losing the white tablecloths, down to the foods that may be bought curbside from food trucks. Interestingly, 6 out of 10 chefs in the N.R.A. survey said they would consider a food truck as an entrepreneurial business venture.

“The average American truly does not want a lot of formality and ceremony and pretention in the dining experience,” Mr. Ludwig said. “So we as dining consumers have really been moving all segments of the restaurant industry to more casual dining.”

The combination of Asian and Latin flavors, such as Korean tacos, is also a draw among consumers, Mr. Ludwig said.

Technology is also a factor in restaurant trends with about one-fourth of the chefs surveyed saying smartphone apps will be the most significant technology trend in the coming year, and another 25% said tablet computers will be the top technology trend.

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