Culinary Cues For Retail

As I attended PMA’s 25th Anniversary Foodservice Conference & Exposition in Monterey, I was struck by the learning opportunities for retail and foodservice. Watching students from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) as well as published experts weave their artistic magic, I wondered how we could capture some of that artistry into retail merchandising.

Dining out is a mind- and taste bud-expander for retail shoppers. Consumers enticed by a restaurant culinary experience often set the food trends that migrate to retail. It is the wise and profitable produce manager who monitors and capitalizes on foodservice cues to meet the next trend before it begins.

PMA research reveals 37 percent of people indicated they tried a fruit or vegetable in the last year while dining out and later looked to buy that fruit or vegetable at retail. This is most likely for those 46 to 54 or under 30, those earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans.

When asked to specify which fresh fruit or vegetable that was, a cluster of produce items rose to the top of the list — headed by mangos at seven percent. Broccoli, asparagus, apples, strawberries, and cantaloupe were all mentioned by six percent of those surveyed.

If I were a savvy retail salesman or marketing guru working for a produce company, I would be checking foodservice trends to advise my retail customers what they need.

All research points to convenience as a major reason foodservice enjoys nearly half of consumer food dollars. Dining out is in a variety of ways a liberating experience for the time-starved consumer.

Retailers are blurring the lines between foodservice and retail with a new generation of takeout/home meal replacement products and services. Consumers interested in duplicating the foodservice experience at home are responding in droves.

Menu items become recipe ideas for the home. The following are retailer-relevant highlights from two PMA-sponsored foodservice studies — each involving 1,000 consumers — in recent months.

Taste matters most (and produce rules)

I will beat this drum until the message truly resonates — taste matters most. It matters most in foodservice and retail, and it matters most if we are to reach our goal of increasing consumption. Consumers rate fresh fruits and vegetables on a menu as a key factor when deciding which restaurants and entrées to choose. PMA consumer research indicates flavorful produce availability is a major factor when choosing a retail store.

Lessons learned in a restaurant apply to retailers

Almost four in 10 consumers liked a produce item so much when dining out that they sought it out when shopping. This is a great introductory tool. Retailers can take the cue — consumers are willing to try what was previously a mystery if they have sampled it.

Nutritional content is important…

Consumers claim to focus on health when dining out, particularly those over 45. Twenty percent say they order from healthy sections on menus when they’re available. PMA research shows that, at foodservice establishments, women consider nutritional value in addition to taste. Fifteen percent of consumers regularly ask for more healthful substitutions.

…but don’t make the dining table a nutrition lab

People are conscious of a meal’s nutritional component, but they don’t want too much information. Most consumers do not want nutritional content listed on the menus. Two-thirds of the public prefers nutritional information be available separately upon request.

Organics are in demand, but the premium has limits

While a substantial number of consumers are likely to order organically grown produce from a menu, a 20-percent cost premium would move a majority away from the choice.

Our research shows organic produce has met great acceptance but has not yet captured the public’s heart. When consumers were asked, “Are you more or less likely to order a fresh fruit or vegetable menu item if it is organically grown?” 34 percent said it made no difference, 35 percent said more likely and 28 percent said less likely.

The most likely to order organics are under age 30. The 35 percent who say they would be more likely to order fresh fruits or vegetables from a menu if they were organic often give health-related reasons, followed distantly by taste, overall nutritional value and environmental friendliness.

Salads are hot

Side and entrée salads were a popular consumer choice. Satisfaction with produce is similar for fine dining, casual dining, and fast-food venues. Attentive produce merchandisers see a broad dining sector that consistently wants salads. The market for salad ingredients and the broad range of dressings, kits, and toppings seem in no danger of a slowdown. Consumers are looking for ways to easily mix packaged salad basics with a ready-to-eat protein to mirror the experience of salad entrées prevalent in casual chain restaurants.

It’s very important to note 87 percent of consumers indicate they order produce at the foodservice level because of taste. A note to retailers: only 8 percent said this is “somewhat important!” One percent indicated taste is “not very important” and 2 percent said the taste is “not important at all.”

One of the biggest challenges we face is how we reward suppliers who deliver great tasting, de-commoditized products time and again so that retail merchants can sell, and sell and sell. It’s one thing to say the taste is where it’s at for the consumer, but it can be another thing altogether for suppliers to receive consistently higher returns for the value they’ve added in this way.

We must listen to our consumers and understand what they treat as value. With taste at the top of their decision tree, where do we then put it on our industry’s value chain? There is so much more value in our produce than meets the eye.