Trends In Fresh Produce — Can Desires Translate Into Scalability?

Trends In Fresh Produce

by Sherry Tseng

June 2019 – Spring has sprung, and with a new season comes new trends in fresh produce. According to Datassential’s Plant-Based Eating Keynote Report, more than half of consumers say they’re eating more fruits and vegetables than they were a year ago, signaling a shift in dietary preferences as consumers seek out healthier foods. In order to capture consumers’ interest, it is essential that restaurant operators find innovative ways to incorporate fruits and vegetables on the menu. For inspiration, here are a few ways to leverage the following nine fastest-growing types of produce, compiled from Datassential’s MenuTrends tool, which tracks more than 100,000 U.S. menus.

  1. Heirloom carrot

One-year menu growth: 88.6%

These aren’t your grandmother’s carrots – or maybe they are, seeing as how the term “heirloom” denotes a species that has been passed down for generations. Found in multiple colors that make for an Instagram-worthy presentation, heirloom carrots are being roasted and served whole by chefs to add a pop of color to the plate. They can also add a premium halo to a dish or product, too – the Plant-Based Eating Keynote Report notes that 40% of consumers would be more likely to buy an heirloom fruit or vegetable at retail if the term “heirloom” was specifically called out.

  1. Nectarine

One-year menu growth: 39.8%

Nectarines often are used in sweet applications (think summery cakes or tarts) but now are also starting to show up in savory dishes, from seasonal salads to pizzas. For instance, Milo and Olive in Santa Monica, CA, tops its pizza with braised bacon and nectarines (move over, ham and pineapple) for an unconventional sweet-salty pie.

  1. English pea

One-year menu growth: 35.2%

While the name might sound exotic, you’ve probably already had English peas – they’re more commonly known as garden or sweet peas. On menus, the term English peas usually denotes fresh peas, which are best enjoyed within a few hours of being picked and can even be eaten raw (toss them in a salad for a burst of spring flavor, for example). Although many operators are taking advantage of English peas to add flavor and textural contrast to dishes such as pastas or risottos, others are taking the familiar ingredient to the next level. Chicago’s Sociale offers a fresh spin on a Mediterranean staple with its mint and pea hummus — according to Datassential’s issue of On the Menu: August 2017, more than one-third of consumers are interested in trying alternative hummuses, which swap traditional chickpeas for other vegetables.

4-6. Calabrian, hatch, shishito peppers

One-year menu growth: 31.0% (Calabrian); 24.8% (hatch); 24.6% (shishito)

Seems like just about everyone’s looking to add a little spice to their life — in fact, more than 60% of consumers say they love or like spicy foods (Datassential FLAVOR). Italian Calabrian chiles are most often being used to add a spicy kick to traditional Italian dishes (on top of pizzas, mixed with pastas), but operators are also leveraging them as a flavor for sauces, glazes and butters. Hatch peppers, on the other hand, have a similar appearance and taste to jalapenos, and are finding their way into fiery versions of classic comfort foods (think nachos, burritos, stews or mac and cheese). And although Japanese shishitos aren’t usually spicy (although one out of every 10 to 20 can be), they’re a common offering at trendy izakayas (Japanese pubs).

  1. Purple cabbage

One-year menu growth: 23.0%

Purple cabbage isn’t just for decoration anymore. Operators are discovering new uses for this brightly-colored veggie, which is said to be rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Find purple cabbage in many of the same applications as regular cabbage — lightly pickled with salt and vinegar for an eye-catching topping on tacos, in colorful slaws or salads (appealing again to that Instagram craze) or braised with ham or bacon for a hearty, veggie-based side dish.

  1. Black garlic

One-year menu growth: 22.0%

Though black garlic looks like regular garlic that’s been charred, it’s not actually burnt. Its pitch-black appearance is due to the Maillard reaction, which occurs when the garlic is roasted at low temperatures for a long time. It tastes sweet, earthy and slightly acidic like balsamic vinegar, and since it’s more mellow than raw garlic, operators are using it to add a punch of umami to just about anything. Find black garlic in sauces; ground into a paste and slathered on proteins; or even stir-fried for a riff on garlic fried rice.

  1. Pickled red onion

One-year menu growth: 21.1%

When it comes to pickles, chefs are beginning to look beyond just cucumbers, seeking out other vegetables that can be used to add acidity and balance the fatty flavors of a dish. Pickled red onions offer a simple solution and are versatile enough that they can be used in a number of global cuisines. New York’s Dos Caminos adds them to its fish tacos; California Gogi in Irvine, CA, offers them as an accompaniment to its bibimbap bowls; and fast-casual chain Panera Bread uses them in its Greek Salad with Feta and olives. Pickled red onions can even be menued as a premium pizza topping option: according to Datassential’s Pizza Keynote Report, Millennials are more likely than any other demographic to choose pickled veggies as a topping.

With great taste being one of the top motivators behind consumer consumption of fruits and vegetables (Plant-Based Eating Keynote Report), it’s more critical than ever that operators and manufacturers keep abreast of the latest produce trends. Those who are able to implement trending produce in ways that put a fresh spin on familiar dishes will stand out from the pack.


Can Desires Translate Into Scalability?

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

Here is the key take-away from Datassential’s research: “…more than half of consumers say they’re eating more fruits and vegetables than they were a year ago, signaling a shift in dietary preferences as consumers seek out healthier foods.”

Consumers “say” they are eating more fruits and vegetables – but they are not!

We have reasonably good disappearance data in which we track domestic production of fruits and vegetables; we then add in imports, subtract exports, and when we do all this, there is just no indication that consumers are, in fact, buying or consuming more fruits and vegetables.

Part of the problem is likely that produce consumption is so widely recognized as a
good thing: Good for health, good for the environment, good for farmers, etc. – that consumers feel a need to respond in a positive manner.

In other words, asking if you are trying to feed your family more fruits and vegetables is virtually the same as asking if you are trying to be a good mother. So, if you want to know what is actually happening, you have to cross-check consumer expression with other measures of consumer activity.

Of course, as interesting as it is to know what consumers are actually doing, knowing what they say they are trying to do has its own importance. Consumers reporting behavior like this is often an expression of aspiration. It is like joining a gym, but never going. People want to be fit, they know they should work out, they want to be and be seen as that fit, healthy, disciplined person. The problem is that they are not.

This is a problem if you are a public health authority, but, if you are a marketer looking to sell products, understanding people’s aspirations may be just as important as understanding their actual purchasing behavior.

There is a question, however, whether marketing produce as healthy is, in fact, an important motivator to purchasing. Maybe there are secondary effects that would be more effective in marketing. In other words, being healthy is something your mom or doctor or nanny might urge. What if we can persuade people that if they are healthy, they will be more attractive and have better sex lives? Or we emphasize the joys of health in terms of longevity and getting to see your children and grandchildren grow?

The list of booming produce items is interesting and, certainly, one sees many hot culinary trends such as pickling that can be used on other items. But there are three facts that long experience with efforts to increase produce consumption has taught us:

First, never assume that increases in consumption of any one produce item will translate into an increase in overall consumption of produce. There is a very high substitution factor in produce. So if people used to order a side of spinach with a steak and now they get a side of kale, that causes kale sales to boom, but only at the expensive of spinach. There is no net increase in produce consumption.

Second, beware of dramatic increases in sales on low volume items. All the items listed by Datassential together do not account for even 1% of produce sales. Dramatic changes can indicate new flavor profiles being accepted, new culinary trends, new cooking techniques, the impacts of ethnic change and travel. But in and of itself, even large changes on such a small base don’t do much to boost consumption. Think about what is being done to increase the sales of bananas and then you see something really happen.

Third, remember the importance of price. There is a reason Walmart is the Number One shopping venue in America. There is a reason Aldi is the fastest growing substantial food retailer in the country. There is a reason that McDonald’s is the biggest restaurant chain. In order for something to be more than an inspiration, it has to be scalable. This means it has to be available at a price the general public can afford.

White table cloth restaurants are a font of innovation and inspiration, but they are, perhaps, 1% of the foodservice market! To boost consumption in a meaningful way, we have to offer products that appeal to, are available to, and are affordable by the large population that lives paycheck-to-paycheck. So they may appeal to consumer aspirations to be healthy – and promise the results of being healthy – but also be sold at Walmart and Aldi and served at McDonald’s and not bust the budget.

Then consumer aspirations to eat more produce are likely to be actualized.