Produce Takes Center Stage On Restaurant Menus

By Hudson Riehle, Senior Vice President, Research & Knowledge Group, National Restaurant Association

Restaurant menus have always been — and still are — driven by consumer demand as much as by chefs’ creativity. Today’s consumers have a more adventurous and sophisticated palate than ever before, and they are taking a stronger interest in what’s on their plate and where their food comes from. As a result, restaurants are blending new ideas in sourcing, nutrition and flavor profiles to create innovative menus — and produce is taking center stage.

No one has a better view of restaurant menu trends than the chefs of the nation’s nearly 1 million restaurants, and that is why the National Restaurant Association surveys these culinary professionals on what’s hot on restaurant menus.

The top trends this year — local sourcing, sustainability, and nutrition — reflect wider societal trends and consumers’ growing interest in these issues. Many restaurants are sourcing seasonal fruit and vegetables locally, and you often see chefs shopping for fresh produce at farmer’s markets to create the menu options that today’s diners want.

The National Restaurant Association’s annual survey of more than 1,500 professional chefs (members of the American Culinary Federation) reveals that produce plays a central role on restaurant menus this year. Locally grown produce, restaurant gardens, farm-branded ingredients, organic produce and fruit/vegetable side items in kids’ meals all rank in the Top 20 trends. In addition, other high-ranking trends, such as nutritionally balanced children’s meals and culinary cocktails often feature fresh produce.

The leading culinary theme revealed by the survey is sustainability, which is ranked as the third hottest trend. Whether applied to produce, meat, seafood or alcoholic beverages, the concepts of environmentally friendly practices and local sourcing — farm-to-fork — are appealing to both restaurant operators and consumers for several reasons, including freshness, minimal transportation and supporting local communities and businesses.

Locally grown produce is sharing the top spot with locally sourced meats and seafood, with 86 percent of the chefs surveyed saying it’s a hot trend this year. Organic produce lands at number 14 out of the 226 items in the survey, with 72 percent of the chefs saying it’s a trend. Sixty-nine percent agreed fruit/vegetable side items in kids’ meals are a trend.

The NRA has been conducting the What’s Hot chef survey for five years, and locally grown produce has landed as the top or second hottest trend each year, demonstrating that it is a longer-term trend rather than a fad. This doesn’t mean that chefs and restaurateurs shun non-local produce; simply that sourcing local is a popular option that reflects consumer sentiment. According to National Restaurant Association research, more than two out of three (69 percent) American adults say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced food items.

The chefs ranked 226 individual food/beverage items, preparation methods and culinary themes as a “hot trend,” “yesterday’s news,” or “perennial favorite” on restaurant menus in 2011. The chefs were also asked about “recession strategies,” operational trends and promoting nutrition.

One in five chefs (19 percent) said increasing the use of fresh produce options on menus is the most effective way for chefs and restaurateurs to best promote health and nutrition to guests. The top answer was to create diet-conscious menu selections (21 percent). The top operational trend is food trucks, followed by restaurants growing their own produce in rooftop, backyard or communal gardens.

The National Restaurant Association and Produce Marketing Association (PMA) also conducted research on opportunities for increased use of fresh produce on foodservice menus. The research shows that restaurant operators see fresh produce as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Nearly three out of four restaurant operators (72 percent) said emphasizing fresh produce in their marketing efforts drives more customers to their restaurant. In addition, 46 percent of restaurant operators said they look for fresh produce items that their customers cannot buy at their supermarket, including 78 percent of fine dining operators. Fifty-six percent of survey respondents serve locally sourced produce in their restaurants.

In addition, 67 percent of restaurant operators said they wish they had more options regarding fresh produce selections, while 60 percent of operators said they wish there was more information on how to incorporate fresh produce on their menu. Forty-one percent said they expect to serve more fresh produce in the next two years, while 56 percent said they expect to serve about the same amount.

What this translates to is that consumers, chefs, and restaurant operators all want more fresh produce. Finding ways to open up opportunities between growers, distributors and restaurant operators will help make that happen, and we are working with the PMA and International Foodservice Distributors Association to break down some of the barriers.