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70 Percent of Consumers Love This Product (and Chefs Do, Too)

How this popular, versatile ingredient is helping combat the supply chain crisis.

It’s no secret that menus are being trimmed across the industry, with Datassential reporting in 2021 that 60 percent of restaurants had shrunk their menu. There are myriad reasons for this, but the main ones seem to be that labor pains, and supply chain inflation, have made it difficult to execute the wide-ranging menus that restaurants were once able to.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this means innovation has ceased. Many chefs are finding that the past year or so has been a great time to hit the reset button and focus on creating on-trend dishes with versatile, reliable products that can help shape a menu that is cost effective without sacrificing on excitement and intrigue.

“If you bring in a SKU, it has to have multiple uses,” says Norman McKoy, food away from home marketing at TreeHouse Foods.  “It doesn’t matter if it’s elbow macaroni, chicken, pickles—if it only has one use, that becomes a supply chain challenge. With a lot of vendors, that means your purchasing team will be scrambling to gain leverage on pricing and even risk not getting the product at all if they can’t ship full truckloads of it.”

Tim Miller, vice president of supply chain at Red Robin, says his company has not been immune from the headaches stemming from the supply chain crisis. Like many restaurant brands, Red Robin experienced an increase in diners during summer 2021 and quickly found that many vendors were not ready to resume business to the levels they were once at.

“I think labor has really been the biggest thing, as manufacturers don’t have the help to run shifts or trucks,” Miller says. “We all thought when the extra federal assistance ran out in September there would be this flood of workers back to the workforce, but it’s been more of a trickle. And now you add into the mix inflation—it’s been a very challenging six months or so.”

One area where Red Robin has had no trouble fulfilling its supply and finding inspiration for exciting menu items is with pickles, which they source from multiple brands, but have had a longstanding relationship with TreeHouse Foods, manufacturer of Schwartz’s® pickles and Bay Valley Foods® pickles. Red Robin uses pickles across its menu, including on top of burgers and sandwiches, and in its Fried Pickle Nickles appetizer. In many ways, pickles have been the reliable, versatile item that many operators are looking for, Miller says.

On top of that, pickles are wildly popular with diners, with Datassential reporting that 70 percent of consumers love pickles. In this way pickles are not just a reliable and versatile item, but they are also a place that can help lead to or enhance culinary innovation.

“One thing that really stands out about TreeHouse is that every time I talk to them they’re working on a different capability with their pickles,” Miller says. “It’s great to see people still being innovative, and TreeHouse seems to always be moving forward and coming up with new ways to make their product or to help you use their product.”

McKoy—a self-proclaimed pickle lover and connoisseur—ticks off a host of applications that pickles have always been a big part of: burgers, fried pickles, Bloody Mary’s, and fish sandwiches. There’s also the ever-expanding reign of the fried chicken sandwich, now found on menus across the industry—in fact, TreeHouse supplies major restaurant companies with the pickles that top their chicken sandwiches. But then there’s a new subset of menu items that are being pickle-fied, including pizza, where pickles have grown as a topping by 26.8 percent over the past four years.

“There are so many ways to use pickles,” McKoy says. “I really think people are just starting to explore the possibilities. Many operators out there are using pickle brine in the marinade for their chicken. I’ve seen pickles in Mediterranean wraps, or diced up and put into tuna salad. I’ve even seen pickles on fish tacos—it’s truly a versatile ingredient that you can bring in and you’ll be able to add character to your menu with just that.”

Another item that can be made with just a single SKU, fried pickles continue to rise in popularity on menus across the country. Red Robin isn’t the only restaurant brand that has added them to the menu, with Chili’s, Zaxby’s and others featuring the item at least on occasion. As fried pickles have begun to achieve notoriety, McKoy and his team recommend taking the “familiar, with a twist” route and playing with flavor profiles. One menu item McKoy suggests is Spicy Fried Pickles using their Schwartz’s® jalapeno infused pickle chips or spears.

“Everybody loves fried pickles,” McKoy says. “And I think that’s a really great way to use the product in a high margin menu item.”

At a time when the industry faces so many headwinds, TreeHouse’s reliability and assistance with innovation is a breath of fresh air to restaurant brands, Miller says. The company can help brands thread the needle and achieve innovation despite smaller menus and limited inventory.

“TreeHouse has been a longtime supplier to Red Robin and we really value those relationships as an organization,” Miller says. “When times have gotten tight like they are now, it’s clear that they have looked out for those restaurants they have relationships with. They’ve always been a good supplier in that regard as well, they’ve just been really good to work with.”

“Finally, the consistency and quality that they produce is outstanding,” Miller continues. “You pop open their pickles and they’re ready to go. You know what you’re getting.”

For more on adding pickles to your menu, visit the TreeHouse Foods website.