The U.S. produce industry just may yell a couple of ‘hallelujah’s’ over new survey results which suggest a revival is underway in the fruit and vegetable industries.

Consumers want to eat more fruits and vegetables and expect restaurants and other foodservice entities to place these foods front and center on menus.

Surveys of about 4,000 consumers nationwide and 600 foodservice operators conducted by Datassential in May and June conclude that ‘produce’ is now a hot food item. Foodservice operators are getting the message and plan to roll out more produce on menus soon.

Foodservice operators, or ‘operators’ for short, include away-from-home food establishments, including restaurants, universities, hospitals, lodging, catering, and others.

“The survey data says about 80 percent of consumers want restaurants to feature more produce on the menu,” said Maeve Webster, senior director of Datassential, Chicago, Ill..

“This is a fundamental shift in what (foods) consumers will eat away from home. It’s not just a fad.”

 DataDatassential is a research and consulting firm specializing in the food industry. Webster spoke at the 2013 Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference held in Monterey, Calif. in late summer.

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The survey results are good news for produce growers and others in the fruit and vegetable supply chain. While produce is marketed as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, sales of fruits and vegetates have remained flat overall until the last several years.

Operators are heeding the call to put more produce on consumer’s plates.

“More than 80 percent of operators plan to use more produce and have it become more important on their menu within the next two years, not five to 10 years,” said Webster. “Many operators believe produce can help drive sales and traffic. In some cases, produce can help drive profit margins.”

Operators also view produce as healthy foods and an opportunity to offer consumers more choices and variety. Webster says foodservice is an extremely competitive business. Anything a company can do to set itself apart from the competition is key.

Foodservice concerns

Operators have some concerns with adding more produce. They are unsure how produce sales will impact the bottom line, concerned about price fluctuations with produce, and inconsistent ripeness issues in some produce.

Webster says the foodservice industry needs to shift from produce sales aimed mostly at a-la-carte items or side salads to main course fare as consumers are moving away from a-la-carte purchases.

“The real opportunity is to look for ways to use produce on the menu beyond sides and salads,” Webster told the foodservice crowd.

Why the stronger interest in produce? Webster says consumers associate produce with physical health and wellness. Operators want more menu items with produce since it demonstrates to customers that the company cares about the health and wellness of its patrons.

Produce is also gaining favor due to the increasing popularity of farmer’s markets and the local food movement. Consumers are more exposed to produce than ever before.

Which meals can garner a larger menu share for produce – breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Produce is typically consumed for lunch and dinner. Operators are missing the boat at breakfast. Webster calls breakfast a “missed opportunity.”

“There are many ways to use produce in breakfasts, including breakfast sandwiches, omelets, skillet creations, re-inventing Eggs Benedict, pancakes, crepes, and waffles.”

Another place where produce can gain market share is kid’s menus. While McDonald’s offers apple slices instead of French fries in its Happy Meals, most operators do not offer produce for children.

“The whole (foodservice) industry needs to seriously look at kid’s menus. I believe produce can play a great role,” Webster said.

Sandwiches are a menu item already gaining traction with produce. Over the last 5-10 years, Webster says a “great renaissance” in sandwich consumption has occurred.

For operators, burgers are not only about beef, cheese, garnish, and the bun. Operators are adding eye- and taste-bud-popping garnishes including avocado, mango, roasted bell peppers, mushrooms, corn, and arugula to create piled-high sandwich sensations.

In turn, this can lead to profitability across the produce food chain.

Produce equals more profitability?

“Consumers have demonstrated over and over a willingness to pay more if you give them a reason to feel like they are getting their money’s worth,” Webster told the foodservice group.

“Consumers will pay more if they believe it is better quality, a fresher item, and something that is interesting - up to a point.”

Pizza is another item where produce is adding tantalizing pizzazz. Popular new toppings include fresh arugula, potatoes, and roasted butternut squash.

Other fruits and vegetables gaining favor with consumers and operators include kale, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, oyster mushrooms, and pickled vegetables.

At fine dining establishments, the use of kale by chefs is up nearly 50 percent. Other popular items include lima beans and Medjool dates. In casual dining, hot produce tickets include kale, Brussels sprouts, and roasted carrots.

“Roasting not only changes the flavor but it changes its visual appeal,” Webster said.

Other produce foods gaining acceptance include: ghost peppers, one of the hottest peppers on the market; and trumpet mushrooms, a new player in the mushroom category used in chicken and pasta dishes.

More produce footholds include the classic fruit kumquat; the fruit quince used as a paste, the salsify plant root, plus chayote squash used in Southwestern, Mexican, and Asian cuisine foods.

Beets, yuzu fruit, cipollini onions, pumpkin, sweet potato fries, Habanero pepper, pomegranate, and edamame are also gaining traction in food circles.

Americans have a growing connection with their food supply, in part tied to online food photography, television cooking shows, and social media.

“More and more consumers are communicating with photos on Facebook and other photo-sharing applications,” Webster said. “Produce photos are gorgeous. People now communicate more with pictures than with words.”

In addition, the word ‘fresh’ is a popular buzzword with consumers.

“Fresh sells,” Webster said. “Consumers want to believe that something is fresh – either fresh from the farm or made fresh for them.”

About 85 percent of all menus have at least one item identified as fresh.

cblake@farmpress.com

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