ROSEMONT, ILL. — Cruciferous vegetables, exotic citrus and brunchtime booze are among restaurant trends identified by US Foods. The Rosemont-based distributor recently introduced a spate of menu items that includes riced cauliflower, blood orange sorbet and fresh Bloody Mary mix. The launches appeal to various consumer needs and interests, but all 20 new products have one overarching theme in common — simple ingredients.
|Stacie Sopinka, v.p. of product development and innovation at US Foods|
“We know that 82% of operators say that they want clean ingredient decks,” said Stacie Sopinka, vice-president of product development and innovation at US Foods. “We’ve always known consumers have been driving that, but now restauranteurs also are recognizing that, even though their consumer doesn’t necessarily see the ingredient deck, they understand it’s the right thing to do.”
US Foods may have been ahead of the curve. In 2011, the company launched Metro Deli and Chef’s Line, two brands developed with a commitment to clean label. More recently, US Foods internally created a list of more than 100 “unpronounceable” ingredients to eliminate from its top four brands, Ms. Sopinka told Food Business News.
“As a company you have to have the internal expertise to determine what is defined as clean,” she said. “We have a product development team that is a combination of product developers and food scientist and chefs, and we have a good sense of which ingredients cannot and can be used just from our vast experience in the industry. And then … there are quite a few published lists by different companies, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, where they identify what their clean list is.”
A challenge of developing products with simple ingredients is cost, she said.
“When you remove some of the flavor enhancers, you have to use more of the real ingredient that’s in the product,” Ms. Sopinka said. “Cheese, for instance, in alfredo sauce. If you look at some of the products on the market, you’ll see there are quite a few flavor enhancers to reinforce the cheese flavor, but in order to get there without any artificials, you have to add more real cheese. I think (the challenge is) both achieving a sensory that the end consumer will like and also achieving it at an affordable cost.”
“Especially with our move to clean ingredient decks, you do sacrifice a bit of shelf life on some products, and so we give a lot of thought to what is the right size of the inner package,” Ms. Sopinka said. “Because once they open it, the clock is ticking on the shelf life.”
Based on a survey of 500 customers, US Foods strives to deliver on five key attributes in product development: on trend, labor saving, cost saving, healthy and versatile. The company’s Cross Valley Farms riced cauliflower offers both health and versatility, Ms. Sopinka said.
“It has done incredibly well, primarily because it’s a gluten-free alternative,” she said. “You can use it in pizza crusts and in hot and cold applications, such as risotto or couscous. It can also be roasted as well.”
Another new veggie-centric item from US Foods’ Cross Valley Farms brand is fingerling sweet potatoes.
The product also appeals to a growing appetite for nontraditional appetizers, a trend driven by millennials who favor what Ms. Sopinka called “food browsing” over conventional mealtime.
“I think that small plates — and not in the original tapas kind of way, but more in a sense that it’s a smaller portion that may be followed by another smaller portion two and a half hours later — are definitely hot right now,” she said. “Having an appetizer is a lower price point and a smaller risk than your main. For a lot of these cool new trends, it’s a great way for diners to try something without committing to their main being that flavor profile.”
Millennials also tend to be social eaters. Ms. Sopinka said more than half prefer to dine with friends or co-workers. Based on that insight, US Foods launched Chef’s Line Bavarian soft pretzel, a hand-twisted shareable snack created from a 200-year-old recipe.
“The one thing that always kind of bothers me when I eat a pretzel at a restaurant is you have to tear it apart (if you’re sharing) with other people,” she said. “So we made our pretzels much smaller so each person gets their own individual pretzel. That element of sharing is definitely something we think about, too.”
“We see things like congee for breakfasts, or bitter greens with eggs,” Ms. Sopinka said. “And with that, be it at breakfast or with any meal, the trend toward exotic condiments to go with any meal… Harissa, gojuchang, lots of different condiments that can be used on any meal seem to be very hot. People are less squeamish about trying new condiments as well. Something like XO sauce, which is made with dried mussels and chilies… It just has a great flavor to it.”
Seaweed, smoked yogurt and poke are also trending in food service, Ms. Sopinka said. However, US Foods may not be formulating with such ingredients anytime soon.
“For us, we need to have products that fit the needs of the many,” Ms. Sopinka said. “We don’t try to be right at the inception of new trend. That tends to be fine dining or maybe food truck. We tend to be a little further along in adoption.“So when we hear of something hot and new that’s unusual, we’ll watch it for a while, like seaweed, and figure out when is the right time to jump on that trend.”