ROSEMONT, ILL. — Distributor US Foods, Inc. made MOXē the star of its 2024 Investor Day on June 5. The all-in-one e-commerce portal enables foodservice operators to find products, manage orders and track deliveries while providing real-time inventory to ensure regularly ordered products are in stock. The one-stop-shop uses artificial intelligence (AI) to recommend products to make an operator’s job easier and diners more curious and impulsive.

US Foods introduces, on average, 50 new products twice a year (spring and fall), and, according to Stacey Kinkaid, vice president of product development, three-fourths of all new products remain in the company’s growing food product portfolio.

“Given evolving dietary and lifestyle preferences, it’s more important than ever for operators to appeal to a variety of diner desires, but the challenge is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “We take great care to ensure our products are as good as or better than the competitive offerings through landscape reviews of sensory, ingredients, claims, packaging and more. We also have strict standards for each our brands and programs, but they vary based on each.”

“US Foods offers 22 brands (private label) with about 9,500 unique products,” said Dave Poe, executive vice president and chief merchant. The brands are positioned as good, better or best to provide a solution for an operator’s unique needs.

“Scoop” is the platform US Foods uses to promote new concepts and innovations.

“Scoop is driving differentiation,” Poe said. “These innovative products are more profitable and drive bigger baskets. These operators have better customer retention.”

MOXē helps get products noticed. The company uses AI to recommend new products, and, as a result, each order is up one-and-a-half cases on average.

“These items are on-trend products that provide back-of-house convenience, and the ingredients diners want,” Kinkaid said.  “We provide application ideas and recipes to make menus shine. We have no shortage of ideas.”

She explained how the product innovation team often goes on “restaurant treks” to get ideas and fine-tune them to meet the needs of customers. The approach is exemplified in the company’s new Taiwanese-style salt and pepper popcorn chicken sold under the Patuxent Farms brand.

“Besides taste, we had to figure out how to make these poppable chicken bites just the right size and texture,” Kinkaid said.

The product consists of lightly coated, par-fried, boneless, skinless, dark meat chicken pieces that are individually quick frozen, with each piece weighing about 0.85 ounces. When deep-fried from frozen by the operator, they have a crispy exterior with a slight sweetness, and a moist, tender slightly spicy interior.

The process eliminates measuring, mixing, trimming, seasoning, two-step breading and par-frying, Kinkaid said, plus it saves 85 minutes of labor per case.

Product versatility also is part of US Foods’ innovation strategy. The popcorn chicken item, for example, may be used as an appetizer, side dish, main dish, or as a topping for a salad or bowl.

“If we are developing a product for our top-tier brands (Chef’s Line, Stock Yards, Rykoff Sexton and Metro Deli), it must comply with our ‘unpronounceables list,’” Kinkaid noted. “This is a list of over 80 ingredients we avoid or replace, such as artificial flavors and colors, nitrites and nitrates, and high fructose corn syrup. This appeals to many of our customers looking for products that are produced with clean-label profiles similar to what they might make themselves back of house.”

This past spring, the company debuted Chef’s Line Pinsa Crust formulated with simple ingredients, including wheat flour, rice flour and extra virgin olive oil. Each crust is cold-fermented for 24 hours then stretched and pressed for a back-of-house appearance.

“All products that are part of our ‘serve good’ program must come with a claim of responsible sourcing or contribution to waste reduction, or be produced and manufactured to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Kinkaid said.

Plant-forward is another priority for US Foods and includes vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian products where plants are the focus.

Recent offerings include Molly’s Kitchen plant-based smashed patty, Chef’s Line tempura brussels sprouts and Molly’s Kitchen Mexican-style cheese stuffed cigars. The latter is vegetarian and builds on three popular appetizers: spring rolls, cheese sticks and jalapeño poppers. The item is a crispy spring roll concept and features Mexican-style melting cheese, cotija cheese, cream cheese, red pepper flakes and jalapeño pieces to give it the right hint of heat.