Sometimes the sincerest form of flattery is complete surprise. Steven Sturm, the corporate executive chef at Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, a 39-unit polished-casual dining chain, had never heard of the Produce Excellence in Foodservice Award when he discovered he was on this year’s short list. The fact he made the cut, without any personal promotion, was a sign that Sturm’s peers were recognizing an ethos cultivated and cared for since Firebirds first opened its doors at the turn of the millennium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I didn’t even know anything about the award,” Sturm says. “So they told me and I went online and I looked at it and I was extremely interested. I looked at past winners and it made it even more amazing that we were considered at all for it.”

In the end, Firebirds was more than just considered. At the United Fresh 2016 Convention and Trade show, which took place June 20—22 in Chicago, Sturm stood on stage in front of more than 500 people and accepted the winning honor on behalf of Firebirds.

“What was funny was that I didn’t find out we had to give a speech until half an hour before going on stage. Probably better that way. Best not to overthink it,” he recalls.

The United Fresh Produce Excellence in Foodservice Awards Program is in its ninth year and Firebirds topped the Casual and Family Dining Restaurants category. Last year, Chef Ype Von Hengst and Silver Diner accepted the recognition. Some other past winners include Yard House, Ted’s Montana Grill, and True Food Kitchen.

Just as it sounds, the award is based on a restaurant’s commitment to embracing fresh produce. There were over 120 nominations from foodservice operations around the country. At Firebirds, Sturm says produce has always starred on its diverse menu, especially when it comes to featured and rotating items.

“We offer features five times a year and we really focus on the seasonality of items, and obviously nothing screams the different seasons in the country more than produce does,” Sturm explains.

Some highlights: “I know a couple of things they really liked is we did a shrimp bruschetta, which had an avocado black bean corn salsa that was really dynamite, and that they made a couple of comments on,” he continues. “We tested and ran a couple of times last year a mushroom blended burger. We replaced 25 percent of the burger meat with roasted and ground mushrooms and it actually was just amazing. It increased the flavor because of the natural umami in the mushrooms. You could cook a well-done burger and it was still unbelievably juicy. It enabled us to reduce the amount of seasoning or salt we put on the burger because of the umami.”

Also, since Firebirds has historically billed itself as a scratch kitchen, the influx of fresh produce is crucial to daily operations, Sturm notes. In the last two years especially, he says the brand has focused in on seasonality, making sure to bring in peak produce, which helps the bottom line from a sourcing standpoint as well.

“It’s the best of both worlds and enables us to put an item on the menu that’s naturally growing at that time. And we can do some unique presentations and flavor profiles, with our wood-fired grill obviously being our biggest focus for the food that we’re doing,” he says, referencing the concept’s staple cooking method.

Despite the casual dining sector’s tendency to shift meat to the center of the plate, Sturm says Firebirds tries a different approach. Instead of crafting sides that become forgotten garnishes, the chain lets produce and vegetables lead the presentation at times. This, he adds, is becoming a more prominent trend by the day. “More and more people are demanding better-for-you food. They still want the restaurant experience, but they might not need a 20-ounce steak,” he says. “They might want a steak with lots of vegetable options; great salad or great sides; veggie centric. … We try not to put anything on that plate that isn’t going to make or enhance that meal. A lot of places will put these fancy garnishes that don’t really make up any part of it. We try to make every component matter, and increase the creativity, the flavor, the crunch, and just the overall value of that plate and the dining experience.”

The other winners were:

  • Business in Industry: Dining at Microsoft, Redmond, Washington, Chef Craig Tarrant, Chef Elijah Coe, Chef Zach Therioakes
  • Colleges & Universities: Chartwells at University of Miami, Chef Anthony Lauri         
  • Fine Dining Restaurants: Arbor, Chicago, Chef Leonard Hollander        
  • Hotels & Healthcare: Bryan Health System, Lincoln, Nebraska, Chef Nazim Khan
  • K-12 School Foodservice: Atlanta Public Schools, Marilyn Hughes
  • Quick Service Restaurants: Tender Greens Hollywood, Hollywood, California, Chef Oliver Plust

By Danny Klein

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Chef Profiles, Health & Nutrition, Industry News, Menu Innovations