​​Establish Safety, Consistency, and Creativity in Your Menu

[Editor’s Note: This is a sponsored post.]

News isn’t the only thing breaking these days — at times, so is consumer trust, which is understandable considering the latest food safety outbreaks that have forced society to eye the industry warily under a harsh light.

According to the CDC, we have seen cases of salmonella in cucumbers, resulting in 838 affected people and four deaths across 38 states, and we have seen cyclospora in cilantro affecting 546 people across 31 states, all within the last several quarters. (Others were noted in this food safety tips editorial written by FCSI Consultant Barbara Pyper.)

And of course, it’d be an elephant in the room to neglect mentioning Chipotle’s E.coli outbreaks in October. Due to the wave of consumer unrest and stormy opinion flooding in, Chipotle Mexican Grill took measures to stay afloat by closing its doors nationwide in February for an all-staff meeting on food safety.  

With all of these events, Foodable Labs, using unstructured data tracking 141 million U.S. foodservice consumers and 207K industry terms through the Restaurant Social Media Index (RSMI), has seen a 12.5-point jump in food safety sentiment in the last two quarters of 2015.

There are five major areas of food sentiment, which, aside from safety, include quality, value, consistency, and creativity. Safety has become the No. 1 area of consumer concern, making up 34 percent of the overall food sentiment score.

Where will this lead the industry in terms of frozen versus fresh when it comes to food safety? How can multi-unit brands maintain consistency at all store locations? And how can these brands innovate the creative process of menu development, especially through sourcing and ingredients?

Fresh Versus Consistent

“It’s unfortunate that the incident with Chipotle is tied to fresh ingredients,” says Diana Fricke, corporate chef and director of culinary at J.R. Simplot Company. “Because that’s what consumers want most, but [they] also have to understand those risks that go with fresh ingredients versus processed ingredients.”

The frozen versus fresh debate has conflicting data illustrating that exact point.

Take in the case of the avocado. As an ingredient, and as seen in this video [also seen above] featuring Smashburger, avocado is a popular and adaptable choice, both in the kitchen and on the platter before the guest.

Foodable Labs revealed that from a consumer standpoint, out of 150 ingredients, avocado ranked third in consistency in the last half of 2015 with a sentiment score of 91.12. Chefs around the globe had 781K social conversations about avocado use in menu items, more than a quarter of these discussions in the United States alone.

“People love the avocado," Fricke says. "It’s not like a weird ingredient we’re trying to feed them, like tofu or something, that they’re not familiar with, so having that prevalence with customers, I think it’s pretty easy to get into the menu."

While the avocado is relatively simple to incorporate into the menu, how do consumers want them? Fresh for taste or frozen for consistency?

When asked if they preferred avocados fresh or consistent in quality and taste, more than 60 percent of consumers in various age groups preferred freshness. But on the other hand, when asked if they preferred food safety or freshness in avocados, Foodable Labs determined that more than 70 percent in those same age groups chose food safety.

From last June to December, 12.5 million social consumers showed consistency as the third most important factor when selecting a restaurant, following value and flavor. Consistency was also bouncing around the chef and foodservice operator landscape at more than 1.8 million social conversations in that same time period.

While freshness will often be the preferred choice for taste and buzzword on quality among consumers, when it comes to food safety and consistency, frozen and processed products seem to dominate in a way freshness cannot guarantee.

“Our avocados are Mexican Hass avocados and go through ultra-high-pressure processing,” says Karrie Bolen, marketing manager at J.R. Simplot Company. “UHP deactivates any foodborne pathogens, and it’s 100 percent avocado. Pit, peel removed. Food safe and the perfect alternative to fresh avocado at a consistent price.”

Along with consistent pricing, Fricke adds that consistent portioned measures, as well as sourcing ingredients from trusted companies, bolsters the consistency of a brand as a whole.

The Creative Menu Development Process

Creativity is mentioned as one of the top five consumer sentiment areas in food, but in a playing field that values consistency, how can brands become more competitive by innovating their menus and pushing the boundaries of the menu development process?

“They’re always looking at trends. They’re trying to bring that into their menu...and make it relevant to them. ...They’re always looking at how they can marry the trending ingredient, concept or different ethnic cuisine and make it so people want to have it,” says Fricke.

“When I do menu development, the first thing I look at is what is on the current menu and what they already have. Usually they don’t like to change the back-of-house ingredients, and so for avocado, I fit it in with their customers and their menu and what’s trending. Those are the specific, poignant sort of demographics I look at,” she continues.

When examining avocado, Foodable Labs revealed that the top five consumer mentions of avocados by cuisine use are: sandwiches, burritos, salads, tacos, and nachos. Yet, in what ways can chefs and operators elevate this crowd-pleasing ingredient beyond its typical applications as an example of creativity in menu development?

“Avocado is extremely versatile in all menus. We’ve already seen it move from a standard side of guacamole or Mexican food, and across the menu as a main ingredient. The next stage is in...the bar. Avocados in Bloody Mary, how we can use avocados in cocktails and things like that,” says Bolen, also referring to avocado in egg salad, potato salad, or any spread. “We see it in a lot of other different places, replacing any sort of fat. We see it especially with the conversation about it replacing mayonnaise.”

“It’s like a stealth-health, really awesome mayonnaise. And if people are somewhat adverse to it, pair it with another ingredient. It’s just amazing. You can even bring it into desserts,” Fricke agrees, listing avocado use in brownies, fudge, truffles, and more. “It’s a healthy fat, ultimately. I think breakfast — handheld, portable, something you want healthy — is another area you don’t see it prevalently. It’s just a matter of where you want to take it and where your menu can afford to have avocado.”

Whether you avocado or avoca-don’t utilize this ingredient, there’s no denying the power of its formability in consistency, safety and creativity. With these three factors to consider in menu development, what other ingredients will arise in the future to match its capabilities in foodservice?