WINTER IS COMING!
Is Your Menu Ready for Hearty Diners?
The recent arrival of Labor Day has triggered perhaps the starkest of seasonal transitions for Americans. Not only is summer unofficially over and kids are back to school, but the days are now noticeably shorter and (for most of us) cooler as well. Any fan of the HBO hit series Game of Thrones knows that “Winter Is Coming!”
As the hearty season approaches, it is time to start thinking about what that means to your customers and how your restaurant can capitalize on it. To benefit from some of the insights tracked throughout the year, it helps to look at both overall and seasonal trends that influence menu choices among consumers. The hope is these points help you address the dining public’s evolving tastes and preferences in the marketplace.
For those manufacturers that make premium soups and side dishes for restaurants, colleges and universities, and institutions, this is the beginning of the busiest production season. Over the next six to seven months, artisan chefs will oversee the small-batch production of more than a quarter billion servings of soups, chowders, and bisques, as well as an array of gourmet side dishes created specifically to stand out from the “typical” offering that underwhelms so many good chefs. None of these creations will ever see the inside of a can.
Fresh soup has enjoyed more than a decade of incredible growth. That growth and success requires an ongoing and unwavering dedication to research and trend-watching/forecasting. These days we are closely watching the following interrelated consumer dining trends:
- “Wholesome” is the new “Healthy” – For years, “experts” have told the food industry that consumers demand healthy choices, which as an industry we have bent over backwards to accommodate. The problem has been that while diners tell us they want these options, when they come in to eat, it’s not what they order.
It can be argued that while very few diners strive to eat unhealthy meals, what consumers really want are options that feel wholesome, which is to say they are made with care, use real ingredients anyone would use at home, and are presented with pride.
The best way to accomplish this is with products that come with a clean ingredient label, include locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients when available, and offer items that meet special dietary restrictions, like vegetarian, low fat, gluten-free and lower-sodium. Wholesome items on your menu are incredibly easy to showcase, and in many cases sell themselves.
- Organic finally achieving critical mass – Organic foods are no longer exclusively for tree-hugging hippies living on a commune. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, organic food sales in the U.S. have maintained double-digit growth in each of the last ten years, mainly driven by the success of natural foods retailers and the creation of natural/organic sections in traditional grocery stores. Organic food sales in the U.S. are expected to clear $35 billion this year.
This commercial success has been the catalyst for not only more organic farms, but also a broader, more reliable selection of products coming off those farms. The growth has also led to price improvements that bring the organic foods market ever closer to the mainstream.
Improvements in both selection and product reliability allowed for the creation of whole lines of certified-organic soups and sides. Bringing these products to market requires capital investments in production, handling and sourcing, all of which are now more easy to justify based on market growth and demand.
Improvements in how manufacturers source, handle and process organic foods, which obviously cannot include artificial preservatives, allow products to ship refrigerated, in some cases with a 50-day shelf life, which is about double what it would have been five or six years ago. These products are off to a very strong start in both distribution and velocity. Some are already generating many requests for limited edition special recipes from restaurants around the country.
- If you can’t bring your customers to the world, bring the world into your menu – This is an article about the change of seasons, so it would be remiss if it didn’t point out that kindergarteners across the country are likely learning and singing Walt Disney’s “It’s a small world” during their music lessons. After all, it is arguably the single most performed and most translated piece of music on Earth.
The song’s sentiment, so masterfully captured by Disney staff songwriters and brothers Robert and Richard Sherman in 1964 plays out in restaurants and kitchens across the country every day. As millennials ascend to their place of consumer power and influence, they are bringing with them an adventurous appreciation for spicy and exotic flavors and dishes.
Success today requires a willingness to let the flavors of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, Latin America and the Caribbean influence not only your specials, but also some of your mainstream dishes.
- Hearty Equals Happy – It’s nice to talk about offering guests wholesome, organic soups and sides that reflect the flavors of the world, but we would be remiss if we did not take the time to also realize that with shorter, colder days ahead will come the renewed opportunity to sell more warm-your-bones comfort food.
Your menu should absolutely offer selections like organic lentil & chickpea soup, but when the raw winds of autumn begin to arrive in the coming weeks, your kitchen also better be ready to serve up hearty bowls of traditional favorites like beef stew and chili as well.
The change of season creates new opportunities for your menu. But only if you are willing to break out of the seasonal rut too many find their way into.