ROSEMONT, ILL. — It is not by luck that similar food concepts appear on menus at restaurants across the country. It is due to the innovators at food service distributors such as US Foods, Rosemont, Ill., who spend hours identifying what consumers will want next and then set out to develop them, and quickly, before the trend has passed.
At the end of March, US Foods hosted a media event to launch its 8th issue of Scoop, which has the theme “The patio is open.” In addition to providing a peek (and taste) of the company’s more than 30 new products highlighted in the new issue of Scoop, all of which are geared toward celebrating dining outdoors, we also received a tour of their innovation labs and kitchens. It provided insight to how the company creates new products that appear on the menu of independent and multi-unit restaurants, health care and hospitality entities, government and educational institutions around the country.
The first issue of Scoop launched in 2011 and now serves as the platform for new product introductions.
“It takes an array of people to bring new products to life,” said Stacie Sopinka, vice-president of innovation and product development. “It is a fast process, just six to seven months from concept to market, and we want to be on the forefront of the trends.
“Many of our new product ideas come from within our organization after listening to our customers. We try to solve problems that food service operators did not know existed.”
The product development team comes from a variety of education and work experience backgrounds.
“Ultimately, they have a combination of technical and culinary education and experience within a manufacturing setting,” Ms. Sopinka said. “Having an extensive understanding of global cuisines and also how products are used in the back of house are also both very important. The team brings in ideas for new products from multiple sources, including trade shows, trade publications and manufacturers and together we work to determine what best meets our customers’ needs and will satisfy diners.”
The team is responsible for aggressive product development.
“We probably start with about 10 times the number of concepts, as compared to the number of items that are actually launched in a Scoop,” Ms. Sopinka said. “The ideas are narrowed down based on many criteria, including financial viability, manufacturing feasibility and operator feedback.
“We look for products that taste great and help save our customers time in the kitchen without sacrificing quality. We also look for products that will help our customers put a new spin on a favorite or access a recent trend. Above all, we want to create something that our customers can get excited about and helps lend to their success.”
Today the company offers more than 350,000 products. Based on this latest issue, it is safe to say that menus will be heating up this summer. Many new offerings feature culinary creations that pack a spicy punch.
“This winter has been brutal throughout most of the country, but it can’t last forever and this new product line celebrates the impending arrival of spring and will inspire chefs to add new, fresh dishes to their menus and announce the patio is finally open,” said Pietro Satriano, chief merchandising officer. “With our spicy offerings and twists on classic spring cravings, these products provide everything restaurant operators need to satisfy both the traditional and trend-seeking diner.”
Indeed, fiery foods have become more popular than ever with diners over the past year. With inventive new dishes and products that feature spicy notes of flavor, spicy food appears on nearly 70% of today’s restaurant menus, Mr. Satriano said.
New on the menu
New Glenview Farms Smoky Ghost Pepper Jack Cheese Slices are the first-of-its-kind for the food service channel, according to US Foods. The 100% Wisconsin Jack cheese contains ghost peppers — the hottest naturally occurring, non-hybrid peppers. With the ghost pepper being up to eight times as hot as a habanero, by itself, this cheese carries a kick. Its impressive melt makes it a complement to burgers, sandwiches and hot dips, providing the consumer with a consistent burn.
It is not like those sandwiches need extra kick, but they may now be served on new Hilltop Hearth Hot & Spicy Buns. The bun is dense enough to hold a big sandwich, while at the same time it delivers its own kick thanks to the hot sauce seasoning with crushed red pepper flakes and sesame seeds on its top.
US Foods also is turning up the heat with variations of classic bar fare. Under its Patuxent Farms brand, operators may procure Buffalo-style chicken tenderloin fritters, chicken breast chunks and filets. The breading was designed to deliver the bold notes of hot sauce and vinegar.
Street eats have moved inside, and US Foods is making it easy to put “twisted” tacos on the menu. Inspired by food truck fare, diners get some heat with the Hatch Chile Chicken Street Taco. Namesake chiles grown in Hatch, N.M., combine with a little jalapeño for balance, along with diced chicken and cheese inside a crispy shell. For those who prefer meatless heat, there’s Queso Street Taco, which features a blend of four cheeses (pepper jack, panela, Chapala Asadero and Gouda) spiced up with poblano and red bell peppers and chipotle sauce. Both frozen deep-fryer items are sold under the Del Pasado brand.
If a chef prefers to explore the growing trend of fish tacos, US Foods now offers frozen Harbor Banks Island Style Mahi Mahi. Hand-cut 1-oz portions of the mildly flavored, yet firm fish are readily fried into a crispy, light protein that also may be plated as an appetizer with dipping sauce.
For some excitement in bar food, minus the heat, there’s new Molly’s Kitchen Beer & Pretzel Cheese Bites. Designed for easy deep frying, the bites are Wisconsin cheddar cheese curds encrusted with crushed pretzels and genuine American pilsner beer. They may be served alone or with dipping sauce.
Waffle fries are another popular bar food, with many trend trackers describing them as the new tortilla chip. They are being topped with meat, cheese, vegetables, dressings and more. Waffle fries are appearing on more menus, increasing penetration by 24% since 2009, according to US Foods. To assist, the company now offers both white and sweet potato versions made with the company’s proprietary batter system, making them crisp during frying or baking and allowing them to hold toppings as well.
To help diversify better-for-you menu offerings, the company offers Cross Valley Farms Shredded Kale Salad. Kale is one of the fastest-growing ingredients on menus, but it is not the most convenient leafy green to work with. This product comes de-stemmed and pre-washed in breathable bags.
There’s also a new Cross Valley Farms Napa Cabbage Blend. The salad kits include separate bags of mildly sweet shredded Chinese cabbage, shredded carrots and shredded red cabbage.
Condiments such as dipping sauces, jams and spreads serve as easy ways to add flavor to everyday foods. The Metro Deli brand introduces a range of complex, yet versatile condiments. A spicy “secret sauce” is made with Korean gochujang paste and may serve as a base for a chef’s special recipe. A caramelized balsamic onion jam takes the back-of-the-kitchen labor out of the popular way to serve onions, providing operators with an economical and consistent chutney-style condiment. The company also is rolling out a new twist on hot sauce: a spicy Buffalo seasoning. This is hot sauce in powdered form.
What’s for dessert? You cannot hold a menu tasting without dessert. The product developers at US Foods showed media attendees how its new salted caramel ice cream with sea salt may be topped with its new bourbon flavored bacon topping for the ultimate chill in sweet and savory.
Other new desserts include two cheesecakes under the Devonshire brand. A Greek yogurt cheesecake is topped with a Greek yogurt mousse and white chocolate curls. The black cherry and ricotta cheesecake contains swirls of ample fruit. Both are sold as individually portioned 5-oz cakes.
Though food is US Foods’ forte, the company does offer some beverage creations, along with creative serving suggestions. Under the Rykoff Sexton brand, there’s Meyer lemonade and strawberry Meyer lemonade. Both are made with Meyer lemon juice, water and cane sugar. They may be served alone, as part of a mixer or used in recipes for a flavorful punch of lemon. The brand also is introducing 100% Indian River red grapefruit juice, which has a sweet flavor and ruby red color. Each half-gallon contains the juice from about eight freshly squeezed grapefruits.
Creating a signature menu
Creative serving suggestions and recipes come to life by the chefs who work at US Foods.
“In my role as a Food Fanatic Chef, no two weeks at US Foods are ever the same,” said Chef Rocco Paradiso. “Whether I’m out at a customer’s establishment or in the US Foods test kitchen, I consult with six to eight customers a week on many aspects of their operations, including menu ideation, menu analysis, recipe development and server training. I also travel to food events across the country to seek out the hottest and latest food trends to share them with our customers and sales team.”
Food Fanatics is a movement of US Foods chefs who share their love of food to inspire business success. A primary goal of the chefs is to make a food service operator’s life easier.
“Every operator has three major needs that they value: time, money and quality of life,” Mr. Paradiso said. “When I consult with any operator, those are the key factors I address. I first work to figure out how I can save the operator time. For instance, US Foods has a fantastic Fully Cooked Pork Belly that is as good as if you had the time to make it yourself. This product can save an operator about six hours in the kitchen. That time savings provides operators with six hours where they can be doing something else that makes them more money. By saving time, they are making more money and it gives them time for their personal lives and achieving a better quality of life.”With approximately $22 billion in annual revenue, US Foods employs approximately 25,000 people in more than 60 locations nationwide. It is jointly owned by affiliates of Clayton, Dubilier & Rice LLC and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P.