Stacie Sopinka, the vice president of product development and innovation at US Foods, refers to it as “food court behavior.” Restaurant owners understand the theme all too well. Just because you’re a traditional Italian restaurant doesn’t mean everyone at the table wants pasta. Somebody might eat paleo. Another gluten-free.
“It used to be that restaurants could provide an offering and the customer would come to them and pick a subset,” Sopinka says. “… But now, you really need to have something for all those different food tribes.”
There’s an umbrella term for this: The discerning diner, and it’s exactly the kind of customer US Foods imagined when creating its Summer Scoop product lineup. The problem, naturally, is that the discerning diner could be 100 different people on a good day.
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Sopinka says this summer’s iteration of the company’s seasonal rollout was “particularly challenging” given how diverse—and sometimes contradictory—diner’s choices can be. But there is good news. As mindful eating has gained steam in recent years, manufacturers and distributors have taken notice, which makes meeting this broad appeal not only possible, but also promising. The products aren’t just substitutes, they’re actually desirable, too.
“There’s not really the sacrifice you used to have to make to enjoy a meatless item or enjoy a gluten-free item,” she says. “Diners should be able to have a great experience, and we’re making sure they do.”
US Foods is calling its Summer Scoop 2017 lineup “It’s a Matter of Choice.” The 24 versatile products run the gamut of taste and lifestyle preferences.
A Packaged Facts Report showed that 44 percent of adults say food restrictions, allergies, or avoidance of certain ingredients dictate what they eat. Sopinka also says flexitarians, people who eat mostly plant-based meals with an occasional meat dish tossed in, are the dominant target group for operators. In a 2016 Washington Post article, it was reported that 22.8 million Americans fell into this distinction.
“So for operators what that means is it’s a big opportunity. It’s not an either or all the time,” Sopinka says.
The “It’s a Matter of Choice” lineup includes a variety of meat and meatless options to help operators deliver on all fronts.
There’s the Patuxent Farms Chick-Arrones, which is a first-to-market appetizer or topper made from chicken thighs and chicken skin that is fried. Designed to soak up sauce, US Foods suggests tossing in a Korean barbecue sauce over vegetable fried rice or in a Buffalo wing sauce with a side of Blue cheese.
Next is the Molly’s Kitchen Meatless Breaded Boneless Wings. The 100 percent vegetarian wings deliver the texture and flavor of chicken. Sopinka explains that around 20 years ago, meat alternatives, or analogs, weren’t popular thanks to an off-putting texture that also presented a very strong bean-like flavor.
“You had to be someone who really wanted to have a faux wing experience,” she says. “Now, the opportunity is very different. Many people who are die-hard carnivores tried these and couldn’t believe how great the texture was. They win hands down in competitive tastings.”
In similar vein, the lineup also includes Molly’s Kitchen Meatless Crumbles. These can stand in for ground beef and fit into a myriad of menu items already being featured.
Two standout sides US Foods is featuring are the Cross Valley Farms Spiral Cut Kohlrabi and Molly’s Kitchen Battered Elote Corn Bites.
The Cross Valley Farms product is on trend according to Datassential MenuTrends statistics from 2016 that showed Kohlrabi has grown 1,165 percent on menus in the past four years. It’s neutral and can take on the distinct flavor of a dish or substitute for pasta. The same report said Elotes have nearly doubled its menu presence in that span.
Inspired by Mexican street corn, the product featured charred corn kernels with lime, garlic, green onion, cilantro, chili, and smoked paprika mixed with a blend of five cheeses and fried in corn masa batter.
The ensuing category is something US Foods is calling “Baked Expectations.” With gluten-free offerings growing 450 percent on menus in the past four years (Datassential), it’s clear this is a topic worth adhering to. Also, it’s critical now to actually have a gluten-free option that doesn’t taste like burnt cardboard.
For US Foods’ Chef’s Line Gluten Free Italian Pizza Crust, Sopinka says the team ventured on a three-year mission to find a suitable product. The answer: Go to Italy. The Chef’s Line item is made in a traditional method using a stone over and “has a great texture,” Sopinka says. US Foods also put it to the test, understanding that pizza crust needs to be able to hold up to the rigors of chopping and everything else a chef might throw at it.
“We tried to think of absolutely everything that could happen to that pizza crust and make sure that it’s going to perform and beat expectations,” she says. US Foods says this product is comparable in flavor and texture to traditional wheat-based pizza crusts.
There’s also the Chef’s Line Kouign Amann. The caramelized croissant rosette was inspired by the baked goods found in the Brittany region of France. The pastry is made with croissant dough laminated to 65 layers and filled with salted sugar and real butter.
“We continue to go boldly into the future of foodservice and we do that because we believe that it’s a dynamic market and we can play a big role in helping our customers make it,” Sopinka says. “And part of that is providing them with innovative products.”
Another aspect of this Summer’s Scoop lineup was the introduction of enhanced online ordering for operators. Customers can now view personalized product recommendations, order status, details, and history, as well as did-you-forget reminders, and complimentary products that allow operators to cross merchandise. Additionally, it’s offered in Spanish now.
“A key area for us in terms of adding value to operators is that it’s all about ensuring they have operational efficiencies as well as innovative products, and online ordering is central to that,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of rapid success in moving and encouraging our customers to adopt online ordering for that reason. It’s efficient. And they get to see the breadth of offering as well. There are many benefits.”