According to Nielsen, the plant-based food sector experienced 8% overall growth in 2017 and the plant-based protein market is projected to reach $5 billion by 2020. With the proliferation of plant-based foods and vegetables being more frequently showcased as the heroes of the plate, produce is a crucial component to building your brand and reputation.
Whether you operate a pizzeria, steakhouse, or family diner, you should be implementing a produce strategy that aligns with your brand and highlights fresh, seasonal produce across your menu. Your produce strategy shouldn’t just cater to vegan and vegetarian diners – it should focus on incorporating flavorful seasonal produce into any dish on your menu to make them more desirable, satisfy customers, and increase profits. Implementing a produce strategy can help boost your brand, attract more customers, and give produce-focused menu items the thought, attention, and execution they deserve.
New York has four distinct seasons with four personalities, creating the opportunity to drive seasonality on your menu. As nature’s “limited-time offer,” seasonality allows chefs to establish menu versatility and create different moods, character, and tastes throughout the year. Peak-season produce is all about supply and demand, creating lower food costs and higher profit margins for seasonal produce when compared to imported, out-of-season produce with higher costs and inferior flavor. Eating seasonally also typically means traveling the least distance for the best products, and customers appreciate and support businesses that source locally grown products. Maines is a Pride of New York house, meaning we travel the least amount of distance for the best local produce, offering it at excellent value to our customers.
The key to incorporating seasonal produce into your menu is having a well-researched strategy of compatible ingredients and flavors. What’s in season is crucial knowledge when menu planning and ordering fresh ingredients. Once you’re knowledgeable of the flow of in-season produce, you can plan and prepare for the changes necessary to utilize seasonal ingredients. Maines offers peak-season produce charts that are a helpful tool to hang in your kitchen for your staff to use as a guide each season. It’s also a good idea to create a separate chart that notes which recipes you featured these items in on past menus so you can draw inspiration from them or serve them again the following year.
Promising Produce Profits
The food cost of seasonal produce is less expensive than most meat, but that doesn’t mean you need to charge less for produce-forward meals. More often than not, various vegetables are incorporated into one veg-centric dish with multiple components, from cooking grains to sautéing/roasting and blending vegetables. Produce also requires a more hands-on approach, demanding more prep time in the kitchen and an increase in labor costs. If you’re dedicated to the delicate process of crafting produce-centered dishes and devote a little time, effort, and care, you can ensure you’re serving customers a satisfying meal deserving of the same price as an animal-based dish.
A strategic way to build profits from produce is to tell its story. With customer interest in the source of their food higher than ever, take the opportunity to call out on the menu where your produce items were grown and who grew them. If it’s not listed on the menu, be sure to educate your front-of-house staff to relay this information. Saluting the farmer provides customers with a connection to the field and can even have a significant impact on consumers’ decisions on where to dine, bringing them through your doors.
Utilizing heirloom produce is another way to present more value to your customers and relay that vegetables merit the same price point as meat items. Heirloom produce is grown from previous generations’ seeds. All the nuances and idiosyncrasies that come along with a particular tomato variety, for example, would be captured and passed on using the seed from generation to generation. While heirloom produce tends to cost slightly more and is more perishable, it can add more value, interest, and flavor to your menu, especially when you call out this distinction.
It’s All in the Technique
According to Technomic Inc., of all the ways that flavor can be added to vegetables at a restaurant, the most appealing to consumers is through preparation style. Experiment with flavor-building cooking methods such as roasting, charring, frying, and braising to differentiate your produce offerings. While frying shouldn’t be your go-to method for increasing the appeal of every produce item, frying certainly develops new, intriguing dimension. For example, one of Mother of Pearl’s (restaurant located in New York) most popular creations is its fried guacamole that’s served with plantain chips. Charring also adds depth and intensity to produce and helps showcase the distinct flavor profiles. Experiment with charring using produce that’s already on your menu, and pair it with simple garnishes or signature sauces. The Little Beet, located in Long Island, NY, serves charred broccoli with preserved lemon, as well as charred sweet potato with smoked sea salt and olive oil.
The fascination of produce-centered dishes not only stems from how they’re prepared but also how they’re presented. Dirt Candy in New York, NY, takes hot dogs and transforms them into produce-forward grilled and smoked broccoli dogs with broccoli kraut and mustard barbecue sauce. Focusing on incorporating a variety of techniques that lend themselves to certain produce items and showcasing them with familiar presentations will not only add flavor but will also make produce even more enticing to customers.
Same Veg, Different Prep
Cross-utilizing produce throughout your menu is a smart way to reduce food costs, showcase your chefs’ craftsmanship and creativity, and expose diners to fresh, new combinations. Take time to brainstorm with your chefs on how to utilize the same vegetables in different, interesting applications. For example, beets can be served across the menu – for breakfast as beet pancakes, as a beet burger entrée, or a fudgy beet cake for dessert. Apples, another fall favorite ingredient, can be featured on a charcuterie board wrapped with prosciutto or in a house-made chutney, jam, or butter. They can also be incorporated into applications such as a side of apple coleslaw with fennel, a beet and apple ravioli entrée, and a baked stuffed apple with honey-mascarpone dessert.
Showcasing the same produce item throughout several applications is a smart move and so is making use of any extra inventory. If you have leftover vegetables, consider offering a simple produce-forward appetizer such as vegetable tempura. Maines Katy’s Kitchen tempura batter allows vegetables to appear simply “kissed” by the batter, maintaining the integrity of the produce while highlighting their fresh flavors. With produce, it’s all about layering flavors and achieving the same satisfying tastes and textures you get with meat that will capture just as much value for your customers. Utilizing the same produce items for different dishes can help your restaurant reduce cost and waste, which can then be passed on to your customers.
Datassential estimates that consumers eat about four to five snacks per day, and snacking in quick-service restaurants has become its own daypart. Snacks on restaurant menus typically feature robust, meaty items, leaving an opportunity to incorporate vegetable snacks into your menu. Produce-forward snacks challenge chefs to create intriguing items that are as good and as appetizing as their meat-based counterparts. For example, Chef Nicole Marquis, owner of Charlie Was a Sinner in Philadelphia, PA, serves a plant-based version of crab cakes. She showcases the familiar flavors of the classic savory cake, but substitutes spiralized zucchini for the crab, giving it the same satisfying flavor and texture you get with meat.
With high demands for global cuisine, vegetable snacks are also an excellent platform for incorporating worldly flavors, especially since many cultures have always prioritized produce. Serve a signature version of Mediterranean-inspired dishes such as fattoush, tabbouleh, or baba ghanoush. New Orleans restaurant Shaya draws its vegetable inspiration from Israel. From ikra (eggplant “caviar”) and lutenitsa (spicy vegetable relish) to eggplant and cauliflower hummus, they ensure small produce plates shine brightly on their menu. Produce allows for creativity, experimentation, and incorporation of ethnic twists and the snack category is an excellent place to explore endless possibilities.
A restaurant that leads with produce offerings sends diners a message that they prioritize health and freshness. Vegetables are creative, interesting, and inspiring, and consumers are longing to experience them in new and enticing applications. With creativity, dedication, and a solid produce strategy in place, your operation can engineer and execute superior dishes that celebrate the power of produce.