As spring starts to push winter aside, some of the industry’s buzziest terms are gathering even more attention than usual. Clean, healthy, and simple ingredients aren’t exactly revelatory concepts, but a turn toward warmer weather often signals a step away from savory, comfort, and calorie-laden dishes.
At US Foods, one of the nation’s largest and most influential distributors, the Spring Scoop report focuses on items stripped of long, muddled, and Google-worthy ingredients.
Stacie Sopinka, the vice president of product development and innovation at US Foods, says restaurant operators can help consumers meet those seasonal, health-focused goals. “I think that healthy continues to be a really strong driver in foodservice,” she explains. “A third of diners say that they don’t have time to cook healthy for themselves. So when they look at restaurants, half of them say that part of their decision process is—the most important thing—is that the restaurant has a healthy offering. It’s definitely a topic that evolves over time but is still top of mind for both foodservice operators and consumers.”
Not surprisingly, as chefs continue to find ways to shift center-of-the-plate offerings, US Foods is calling 2016 the Year of the Veggie. In the report, they label riced cauliflower “the new kale” for its ability to stand in for high-carbohydrate, starchy foods. “We launched our Cross Valley Farms Riced Cauliflower, which has been a big hit. It’s just a very simple product. It’s granulated cauliflower and we determined exactly what size we wanted the granulation, and the package is equivalent of a medium sized head of cauliflower. And we did that so chef’s can open up just what they wanted for that bag usage. It’s being used for gluten-free pizzas, for hot applications like risotto, cold applications such as tabbouleh or couscous. It has a lot of versatility.”
Another vegetable offering Sopinka mentions is the Fingerling Sweet Potatoes, also from Cross Valley Farms. “I was saying recently they’re just like the cutest little sweet potato,” she laughs. “But they have great functionality as well. They can be cut in half and deep-fried, or they can be roasted in the oven. And also chefs are using them as hors d'oeuvres by hollowing them out and refilling them. But you know, I think people feel better eating sweet potatoes over [regular] potatoes because there’s a health element.”
The often-hectic pace of Millennials led US Foods to another talking point: appetizers. “I’m trying to coin my own new term—I’m calling it food browsing,” Sopinka says. “They don’t tend to eat traditionally, and sit down for an hour and eat a meal. They tend to browse throughout the day, a lot of it through technology. … It’s a small amount of food more regularly through the day as they find the food.”
This kind of popularity is the foundation behind many small-plates restaurants. It’s also true of Millennials who meet after work for a couple of drinks and want to sample some food in a social setting without plucking an item off the dinner menu.
“We know that 65 percent of Millennials are keen to eat with co-workers and friends. So it’s a very social activity,” Sopinka explains.
Some of the options US Foods is promoting are:
Molly’s Kitchen Beer Cheese Dip. In this case, Sopinka says there will always be a market for savory breaks. “People want to eat healthy but they also make time for indulgence and the beer cheese dip is there,” she says. “We know that people love having a story behind the product and the fact that we use micro-brew beer, it’s all a great authenticity story as far as we’re using real ingredients.”
There’s also the Chef’s Line Bavarian Soft Pretzel, which is crafted from a 200-year-old Bavarian recipe. Another is Glenview Farms Spreadable Brie. “We made the pretzels so they’re individual because we all agreed that there are certain foods you don’t mind sharing with other people. But with a pretzel it’s hard to tear it into four chunks or three chunks when you get a big one,” Sopinka adds.
The next topic circled around beverage trends as social currency. In other words, delivering a cocktail worthy of an Instagram post can signal a boon for any bar program.
“It’s probably overdue when you think about it,” she says. “When you think about how many trends have funneled through the food side of foodservice, mixology is kind of the next frontier in terms of customers being able to get exactly what they want. Mixologists have the chance to create drinks that are their own signature. It also allows for globalization of flavors. For us too, if you had looked at traditional bar mixers 10—15 years ago, you could have named the top three no problem, but now those drinks taking different forms.”
A twist on the classic comes in the form of the Rykoff Sexton Bloody Mary Mix. This allows chefs and bar managers to wax creative off a sturdy base. “Great product. People taste it and understand it’s a much better version of the Bloody Mary,” Sopinka notes. “And, of course, there’s the whole craze around over-the-top garnishes on Bloody Mary’s. Everything from little sandwiches to pizzas to you name it, and there’s a level of one-upmanship to that as well.”
The Rykoff Sexton Watermelon Limeade can stand alone or serve as a unique part of a mixed drink. “It’s a great kids drink but it also makes an amazing mixed drink as well. It allows people to express themselves through the drinks they order. It allows the bartenders to kind of demonstrate their skill set and bring back a lot of skills that maybe got lost in the last 30 years in terms of bartending,” she says.
A concluding trend that Sopinka talks about is the influx of Mexican cuisine into foodservice. “Consumers have a new expectation of Mexican food. It’s not OK for it to be what they would have got 20 years ago,” she explains. “They also want a real chipotle chicken or real carnitas that has the texture and flavor that they’re anticipating. It plays on fresh—it plays on globalization. And there’s an element of the familiar, but it’s taking the next step and being more authentic.”