Wild Blueberries of North America

Is This Ingredient the Key to Attracting Environmentally Conscious Diners?

As more consumers become mission-focused, restaurants look for new products that can help them appeal to these guests.

Today’s diners are mission minded. They care about the health and environmental impacts of the foods they eat and choose to spend money with brands that demonstrate commitment to similar goals. Sustainability is one mission that is growing in importance in the industry.

In a recent Nationals Restaurant Association (NRA) survey, more than 66 percent of restaurant chefs identified sustainability as one of the “Hot Trends” in restaurants today. Customers are looking for restaurants to be environmentally conscious in how they source their ingredients and where their ingredients come from. Further NRA research reports that customers associate sustainability with food freshness and quality, which is an added benefit for restaurants.

Shelley Balanko, senior vice president of the Hartman Group, says customers are looking for smarter, fresher, more exciting food experiences and value fresh sourcing of ingredients in choosing where to eat. “Sustainability continues to be about doing the right thing for customers, the community, and the environment,” she said during the NRA’s 2016 Sustainability Executive Study Group. “[Consumers] want an honest account of what your goals are and where you’re at in the process. Transparency is about consumer choice—letting them see and judge for themselves. It’s the gateway to building trust with customers.”

Wild Blueberries of North America

By using more ingredients that are sustainably sourced, such as wild blueberries, restaurants can appeal to these mission-driven diners. One big reason this tiny fruit is viewed as a sustainable choice is that as the name implies, wild blueberries are not planted by man, but grow wild in places like the Maine barrens.

“Wild blueberries have been here thousands of years,” says David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “The plants are there as nature intended, but we’re harvesting them, which is beneficial to the plants.”

The bushes are harvested using minimally disruptive methods before they are cut as close to the ground as possible, says Kathleen Hoffman, chef and national culinary manager with USF Kitchens. Then, after two years of regrowth they are harvested again, much the same as they were when they were being harvested in the area by Native Americans.

“I really see [wild blueberries] as a legacy edible,” Hoffman says. “These plants have been around on the planet for thousands of years. You’re able to harvest them very efficiently, in a very sustainable way that produces a clean product the way Mother Nature intended it to be.”

Wild Blueberries of North America

Another important feature of wild blueberries is that they grow in areas where other crops won’t, Hoffman says, making the most of available land resources. This is largely because wild blueberries are a hearty plant well-matched for the thin, acidic soil where they grow, and they have little competition for space. The plants also use the resources that are naturally available, such as rainfall, resulting in sustainable water usage and more natural disease resistance. This means that they grow without needing much in terms of the human inputs required by most other agricultural operations to control pests and disease.

Because of all these environmental benefits, using wild blueberries as an ingredient on the menu can appeal to consumers who are more environmentally conscious. In a recent quantitative consumer survey conducted on the value of wild foods by Portland Marketing Analytics, nearly two-thirds of consumers and 77 percent of consumers living an environmentally sustainable lifestyle felt food made with wild blueberries would be more sustainable than that same food made with cultivated blueberries.

This is a plus for restaurants. Not only can using wild blueberries help attract these environmentally-conscious diners, but they help demonstrate a commitment to sustainability that can help brands increase sales. For example, Neilsen reports that 77 percent of all millennials are willing to pay more for products and services that come from companies committed to sustainability.

Restaurants can incorporate and call out wild ingredients like wild blueberries on their menus and use marketing to share all these environmental benefits that attract diners concerned with the environmental impact of the businesses they patronize. Balanko says using social media to illuminate the use of sustainable products like wild blueberries can help influence sustainability driven consumers to pick your establishment.

In addition to their small environmental footprint, wild blueberries offer restaurants a multitude of benefits, from attracting and retaining customers to providing chefs with an ingredient that has many varied uses. Their sustainable sourcing make them the perfect food to put on environmentally conscious menus.