Blueberries More Plentiful on Top Chain Menus, Adding Interest to Meals & Reflecting Consumer Demand


Big Lessons From Little Fruit

By Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

Research based on menu mentions is always difficult to interpret, particularly if one’s goal is to identify whether consumption of a particular item is increasing in foodservice. After all, though an increase in mentions on menus could indicate an item is featured in more menu items, it also could indicate other things.

Perhaps menu styles have changed to feature more descriptions of ingredients. Or, perhaps, positive news about an item has led restaurants to think highlighting it on the menu is a great idea, even without changing recipes at all.

Even if, in fact, increased menu mentions indicate that more items are being sold with a particular ingredient, we can’t tell how well they are actually selling or what percentage of the dish this ingredient represents.

If one’s interest is not strictly the sales of the particular ingredient but, rather, a broader interest in increasing produce consumption in foodservice, menu mentions are opaque in terms of interpreting the total composition of sales. Did more sales of blueberries at the restaurant level mean fewer sales of strawberries? Or did the produce category grow overall? One can’t really ascertain any of this from a study of menu mentions.

Still, blueberries are an incredible product and one for which the stars seem to have aligned. The research highlights the trifecta of health benefits, good taste, and convenience as powerful forces driving increased usage in foodservice and increased consumption overall.

We would add two more factors that have contributed to the success of blueberries in foodservice: Innovative packaging, such as the ready-to-eat pack that Naturipe Farms used to get McDonald’s to sell blueberries with oatmeal, has allowed for the product to enter new market segments.

In addition, imports from Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, New Zealand and Canada have exploded — thus making the integration of blueberries onto infrequently changing menus more plausible.

Of course, it is easier to surf if there is a good wave coming by, and kudos belong to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council for seeing the massive smoothie wave and riding it to glory. Hooking in on a hot culinary trend is a surefire way of building demand, and the blueberry industry is making it happen.

To increase demand, the industry needs to move beyond traditional usage patterns. This is especially true when some of those traditional uses — say blueberry muffins — are somewhat at odds with the healthy positioning that the industry is going for. And the whole effort of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council is right on target; it might as well be called “beyond blueberry pancakes….”

Not so obviously stated within this research is a hidden gem, a thought important to all produce marketers and an element that chefs and restaurateurs should pay mind to – The value of featuring an item can go beyond the sales and profit associated with that item directly. Featuring blueberries and other fresh produce items doesn’t just lead to sales of these items; it changes the consumer perception of the whole restaurant.

Years ago, the California Avocado Commission ran a series of ads that played off the famous Perception/Reality campaign, which Rolling Stone magazine used to run. In those ads, Rolling Stone would feature images such as an old Volkswagen minibus on the left (perception) and a BMW on the right (reality), showing that although Rolling Stone might have been perceived as a rock anthem magazine from the counter-culture era, in fact, its readers had high incomes and bought materialistic cars.

The California Avocado Commission ads would feature a plain food item, say a basic chicken sandwich, on the left. The ad would say something such as “Chicken sandwich: $1.99” and then on the right page, they would put the sandwich on a colorful plate, add a slice of avocado and declare it, “Chicken sandwich a la Mexicana: $3.49.”

The point? Small changes — a slice of avocado and a nice plate — can lead to big changes in perception.

So restaurants should lead with produce because that fresh, healthy image is what they want for the whole concept. This research by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council tells us that featuring this little fruit can warp the arc of consumer perception. That is an important lesson for restaurants and for produce marketers.