Operators are looking for ways to work with fewer or less-skilled staff while maintaining higher dining traffic.

The restaurant industry’s recovery and labor challenges are running the same race today. According to Datassential, 62 percent of operators are concerned about finding skilled workers as they staff up to meet surging demand.

While retention and recruitment solutions, from wages to benefits to referrals, and so forth, remain heart to the labor conversation, the near-term reality is operators are going to have to try to do more with less. And not let it show before customers’ patience wears thin.

One answer could be preparation and products themselves. US Foods’ Summer Scoop 2021 lineup, themed “Dining Out Is In Again” was designed to address the labor shortage head on.

Stacey Kinkaid, VP of product development and innovation at US Foods, spoke with FSR about the roll out, what to expect, and how it can help restaurants navigate the ongoing challenge.

Let’s start by talking about the labor shortage. What is US Foods hearing from its operators?

Customers are thrilled by the influx of diners coming back to their establishments. That said, the restaurant industry is facing labor challenges, and operators are looking for innovative ways to work with fewer or less-skilled staff while maintaining higher dining traffic. As their partner, we’re here to bring them solutions to these labor challenges. Product innovation is one of those options, and that’s what our latest product innovation (launched in Summer Scoop) is all about—on-trend, labor-saving, versatile, profit-driving products designed to reduce back-of-house preparation and skilled labor demands. Time-saving products help with the challenge of fewer workers available overall. Ready-to-cook and ready-to-use products also help with the lack of skilled labor available. Profit-driving products help with the challenge of rising labor costs. Easy-to-prepare innovative products help avoid the temptation to scale back the menu to simplify based on the labor challenges.

In addition, we continue to bring helpful tools and resources operators can access for more expert tips for optimizing labor. In fact, we recently launched a webinar called “Labor Saving Hacks,” which features our Food Fanatics chefs showcasing how to leverage products that help cut prep time and reduce labor costs while maintaining the flavor, consistency, and integrity that diners expect. These resources are available for free on our website and available for any operator, not just US Foods customers.

Thirster Organic Ginger Lemon Kombucha And Thirster Organic Red Raspberry Kombucha

Thirster Organic Ginger Lemon Kombucha and Thirster Organic Red Raspberry Kombucha.

What were some of the goals with the Summer Scoop in terms of addressing this, from easy preparation to versatility?

The main goal with Summer Scoop is to provide operators with on-trend products that deliver on taste and quality and can be easily integrated onto the operator’s menu. At the same time, these products have also been developed to provide easier and faster preparation. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for back-of-house staff to bring exciting and flavorful dishes to their diners so they can continue to attract and retain them.

We all know there are hours of preparation that go into creating dishes—from chopping greens to preparing meats and more. For restaurant operators who are already dealing with less staff, these items can save hours of work so operators can ultimately save time and money while driving a profitable menu. We’ve also designed these items to be very versatile so operators can use them across a variety of dishes. Take the Cross Valley Farms Apple Pineapple Pico De Gallo, for instance. This is a simple yet exciting substitution that we have seen operators use across a variety of applications such as tacos, salsas, nachos or even as a burger topping. In addition to loving the flavor, they love the ease of not having to create a fresh pico from scratch.

What are some product highlights, and how do they help operators combat labor issues?

We received a lot of positive feedback the Chef’s Line Crispy Italian Tomato and Mozzarella Arancini. This product is made in Italy with Italian Carnaroli rice and then filled with tomato, mozzarella, and an authentic vegetable blend. Not many diners are familiar with arancini, and these offer a new global experience in a nice bite-sized option that operators can menu as an app or side dish. They also travel well for operators who are maintaining a robust off-premise operation.  

The Patuxent Farms Biscuit Breaded Chicken Breast Chunks is one of my favorites. We made these with whole muscle breast chicken chunks and then coated them with a crunchy, biscuit-like breading for an upscale version of popcorn chicken. It’s simple to prep back-of-house and saves approximately three hours of labor compared to creating something similar from scratch. The biscuit breading is unexpected and brings a product like this to the next level. Operators can also customize the product with a wide variety of dips and sauces such as our Chef’s Line Nashville Hot Sauce. 

Some of the more popular items that can be used across various applications are the Chef’s Line Alabama White Barbeque Sauce, the Cross Valley Farms Apple Pineapple Pico De Gallo, and the Chef’s Line Roasted Garlic & Herb Compound Butter. Sauces, salsa, and specialty butters are very labor-intensive items to make from scratch, so operators are really gravitating toward these items because they offer a little twist on the traditional and stand out on a menu but are also delicious and ready to go with little to no prep.

Chef’s Line All Natural Italian Sausage Burger

Chef’s Line All Natural Italian Sausage Burger.

Just broadly, what are some menu trends you’re seeing at US Foods? Looks like the grill is taking center stage this summer.

Yes, items off the grill are always a popular staple for summer menus, and operators are always looking for unique flavors, again—something that will stand out on the menu and offer ease of prep and profitability. We’ve brought several exciting options to Summer Scoop.

We have two exciting burger options, and both are all-natural, which means they don’t contain artificial ingredients and are minimally processed. One product, the Chef’s Line All Natural Seasoned Beef Brisket Steak Burger is made with USDA choice grade brisket and a bit of sirloin and then seasoned with coarse ground black pepper and naturally hickory smoked sea salt. An operator can cook them from frozen—savings two hours of labor compared to creating them from scratch. We also have the Chef’s Line All Natural Italian Sausage Burger. This item is made from whole boneless pork shoulder and seasoned with herbs and spices authentic to Italian sausage. Again, this is cooked from frozen so it’s very easy to prep and plate.

Another exciting item launched in Summer Scoop is our Tender by Design steaks. As your readers know well, unpredictability is a challenge in the beef industry, especially in today’s market. There is variance in the quality of beef driven by the time of year, and pricing fluctuations can create unwanted financial pressures as operators aim to deliver consistent, high-quality steak offerings. We recently launched Tender by Design nationally to help solve this pain point. Tender by Design is a proprietary process that brings tender, high-quality, and competitively priced steaks to operators across the country year-round. The process starts with sourcing the beef when the climate and feed conditions are best. Then, the product is aged to standards that ensure optimum texture, tenderness, and overall quality. The items are individually vacuum-packed to allow operators to use only as much as they need when they need it. Through a proprietary freezing technology, the beef is then frozen, locking in tenderness and freshness. Operators then temper as needed to align with their customer traffic, resulting in better inventory control. We’ve had amazing feedback on the steaks and we’re thrilled by the response so far. 

Chef’s Line Crispy Italian Tomato And Mozzarella Arancini

Chef’s Line Crispy Italian Tomato and Mozzarella Arancini.

Did COVID trends influence Scoop this time around? Is there still demand for things like portability and comfort food?

The impact of the changing restaurant landscape caused by the pandemic is certainly a driving force behind the development of the line-up. Labor savings and portability is key right now because operators are struggling to balance the resurgence of on-site diners, and the existing take-out and delivery operations ramped up during the pandemic. So, we’ve talked about labor-savings products already, but I’m just as excited about the new offerings that are ideal for off-premise.

Elaborate on the grab and go line, especially with the beverage items. 

Let’s start with the beverages. Two of the prominent on-the-go beverage items featured in Summer Scoop are the Thirster Organic Kombuchas and the Thirster Organic Oatmilk.

The kombuchas are made from a blend of tea, fruit juice and ginger, and live cultures, and tap into the current probiotic trend. What I like about these teas is that they come in an on-trend slim can and can easily pop into a to-go bag or be served as a cocktail base behind the bar. The Thirster Organic Oatmilk aligns well with the growing demand for plant-based proteins and operators are using this product in lattes, mochas and smoothies, making it quite versatile and on-trend.

As part of consumers’ desire to enjoy their favorite foods and beverages in any setting, during the coronavirus pandemic there was an exponential increase in the number of restaurants offering to-go beverages and cocktails—a trend that is here to stay as life returns to normal. To help restaurant operators capitalize on this trend, US Foods introduced the Monogram Tamper Evident Beverage Pouch, allowing operators to deliver their signature cocktails in a to-go format, and that is great for cold smoothies, juices and teas.

How do you think these pandemic trends might change now that dine-in is returning? Will there be a rush back toward more adventurous dining, or being able to order what guests can’t make at home?

I think many of the pre-pandemic trends will continue. Diners are certainly looking for new and unfamiliar ingredients that provide an unexpected twist on their favorite dishes and dishes that they couldn’t easily make at home. What we’re also seeing is that the younger generations are very adventurous and always looking for new flavors, new combinations and new food experiences, so operators need to keep that in mind as they seek to cater to that segment.

What are some other ways US Foods is helping operators, especially independent restaurants, navigate challenges at this point in the pandemic recovery journey?

We offer operators a wealth of tools and resources for free on our website, all designed to help operators navigate the ever-evolving challenges and adjust their businesses accordingly. For instance, some of our upcoming webinars include: Avoiding Potential PPP Forgiveness Pitfalls, Preparing Your Restaurant for the Summer Business Boom, Satisfy Summer Cravings: What Consumers Want, and How to Service With No Staff. I would also encourage restaurant operators to set up a free one-on-one consultation with one of our Food Fanatics Chefs or Restaurant Operations Consultants, who can help with anything from menu planning to P&L strategy.

Feature, Menu Innovations