Foodservice manufacturers amp up the playing field to provide winning menu items.

When sitting down at a restaurant, it’s not too uncommon to find yourself skimming every last detail of each item. What are the ingredients? What are the sides? Is it a chef’s choice?

From the taste and texture to the plate presentation, the detail is in the design of the product. It’s what separates the amateurs from the professionals. Just ask famous chef Gordon Ramsay.

To ensure that each refrigerated and frozen food item becomes a hit, manufacturers continuously revamp their lineups, passing the torch from one formula to another.

End result-hopefully a winner.

Medals or no medals, today’s food producers are certainly competing against the best to become the best in a segment that’s really beginning to pick up the pace.

Smooth operators

When the recession hit, restaurants suffered. In fact, more and more consumers ditched the diners to prepare meals at home.

What a difference a few years makes.

Today, restaurant sales and traffic results present a rather optimistic outlook, according to the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Performance Index (RPI).

“Bolstered by improving sales and traffic results, restaurant operators’ outlook for capital spending reached its highest level in more than four years,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the research and knowledge group for the Washington, D.C.-based organization. “This will have positive implications throughout the supply chain of the restaurant industry.”

Restaurant operators reported positive same-store sales for the 10th consecutive month in March, the study shows, whereas 65% reported a same-store sales gain between March 2011 and March 2012. Only 21% of operators reported lower same-store sales in March, compared to 18% from February.

Meanwhile, operators reported positive customer traffic results in March-55% experienced higher customer traffic levels between March 2011 and March 2012, while 24% saw a traffic decline.

This means that many of today’s refrigerated and frozen foods producers have more reason to compete in the foodservice channel and provide restaurant goers winning menu options.

“This industry has a fantastic competitive set, and it serves as incredible fuel to our employees, who truly go for the gold every day,” says Doug Knudsen, president of sales, consumer foods for ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Neb. “Triumphs are built in this category through hard work, attention to detail, innovative thinking and perseverance. We do not take shortcuts on the quality, taste or experience of our foods.”

Plus, nothing tastes better than a freshly cooked meal. In fact, freshness will always be a key priority for diners, according to Howard Eirinberg, president of Kronos Foods, Inc., Glendale Heights, Ill.

“The refrigerated and frozen categories are the best way to enjoy products as close to the natural flavors,” he adds. “Variety is also key to consumers. The bulk of the flavor and new ingredient explosion are in the frozen food aisle. Consumers are allowed to try a wide variety of ethnic and fusion dishes with minimal risk or investment.”

Let the games begin.

Foodservice Bakery Products: Breakfast of Champions

Food manufacturers take the most important meal of the day and turn it into the most exciting.
--Marina Mayer, Editor-in-Chief

You’ve heard it over and over again-breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Yet, a majority of today’s consumers still tend to skip it. Maybe they don’t have the time to prepare, or maybe there aren’t as healthy of options on the menu. Whatever the excuse, it’s game on for food manufacturers.

That’s why Ralcorp Frozen Bakery Products, Downers Grove, Ill., introduced a new twist to an old favorite with Toaster Biscuits.

These grab-and-go biscuits are easy to prepare individually, are ready in less than two minutes and provide hand-held convenience for breakfast, lunch or on-the-go snacking. They come in Buttermilk, Sweet Cinnamon and Cheddar varieties, and are ideal for coffeehouses, cafés, limited-service hotels, C-store foods-to-go sections, food courts and business/college cafeterias.

Likewise, various fast-casual restaurants are heating up the competition in their bakery departments.

Panera Bread’s bakery café, for example, raked in $3.3 billion in sales in 2011, according to Technomic’s “Fast-Casual Top 150 Chain Restaurant” report, thanks to some new items on the menu such as a fresh fruit artisan pastry and an all-natural white bread option.

“Fast-casual operators continue to outshine every other segment within the U.S. restaurant industry,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, Chicago. “Fast-casual restaurants fill the gap between quick-service and casual dining. People want fast, fresh, quality meals at a fair price point. This segment seems to hit that sweet spot right now.”

Desserts also thrill the crowd

Sara Lee Foodservice, Downers Grove, Ill., builds upon its Chef Pierre line to now include pre-sliced pies. These eight-slice, pre-sliced pies are developed to help operators cut costs and manage portion control, says Jason Katzman, vice president, category marketing, protein and bakery. They come in French Silk, Traditional Lemon Meringue, Traditional Chocolate Cream, Coconut Crème de la Cream and Banana Crème de la Cream varieties.

To bring home the gold medal, manufacturers need to go above and beyond the basics, Katzman says.

“While on-trend products are essential and could bring home a bronze [medal], true champions will strengthen their relationships with operators by giving them access to valuable information, such as consumer insights and proprietary research,” he adds. “True leaders make their teammates better, and processors that can help operators run their businesses more profitably exhibit the type of sportsmanship and team play befitting of a gold medalist.”

Whether it’s a soft biscuit or a sweet treat, today’s menu options reign as the breakfast of champions.

Top 5 Trends in Breakfast/Brunch

1. Ethnic-inspired
2. Traditional ethnic
3. Fresh fruit
4. Prix fixe
5. French toast/stuffed French toast

Source: National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2012” survey.

Foodservice Dairy: The Dairy Challengers

Today’s dairy processors are in position to bring home winning combinations.
--Marina Mayer, Editor-in-Chief

When it comes to dairy products, there are several factors that play in to creating a winning item.

“More and more consumers are increasingly becoming health conscious in their food choices,” says Howard Eirinberg, president of Kronos Foods, Inc. As a result of this consumer trend and the new menu labeling transparency changes, the foodservice industry is being forced to revamp their menus and recipes.”

That’s why the Glendale Heights, Ill.-based supplier delivered the company’s first non-fat Greek yogurt option, developed specifically for the foodservice market.

“Beyond the traditional snack or breakfast option, our Greek yogurt can be used as a 1:1 recipe substitute for sour cream and mayonnaise to help foodservice operators revitalize their menus to offer healthier options,” Eirinberg adds.

Smaller portion positioning continues to experience growth in the foodservice market, according to Jason Katzman, vice president of category marketing, protein and bakery for Sara Lee Foodservice.

As a result, the Downers Grove, Ill., company introduced the Bistro Collection Ice Cream Individual Desserts, which combine ice cream and cake into perfectly sized, personal indulgences. They come in Triple Chocolate, Peanut Butter Chocolate, Turtle Pecan, Banana Split, Cookies and Cream and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and are ideal for coffee/dessert pairings, meal bundles and dessert flights.

Bring on the dairy challengers, as these teams are ready to carry home a winner.

Top 5 Trends in Desserts

1. Artisan/homemade ice cream
2. Bite-size/mini
3. Savory
4. Deconstructed classic
5. Dessert flights/combos   

Source: National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2012” survey.

Foodservice Fruit & Vegetables: Scoring Big

Fruits and vegetables continue to be top-of-mind, especially as the USDA urges Americans to make half their plate of each.
--Marina Mayer, Editor-in-Chief

Fruits and vegetables have always been a competitive topic.

One day, fruits contain too much sugar, the next day, they make the cut to remain on MyPlate, an update to the food guide pyramid released June 2, 2011 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Washington, D.C.

Vegetables also remain top-of-mind, especially as more and more Americans tip the scales toward obesity. That’s why the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommends that consumers make half their plate fruits and vegetables.

“From our perspective, the outlook [for the refrigerated and frozen foods industry] is positive, as more consumers work to change their eating patterns and behaviors to include a greater variety of fruits and vegetables in daily meals and snacks,” says Elizabeth Pivonka, president and CEO for Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), a non-profit consumer education foundation based in Hockessin, Del., whose mission is to foster an environment where consumers can include fruits and vegetables at every eating occasion.

As a result, “more and more restaurants are working to do their part in the fight against the obesity epidemic in the United States by adding fruit and vegetables to kid meals and by offering a greater variety of fruit and vegetables on menus,” says Pivonka.

Despite the controversy, fruits and vegetables are in position to score big on restaurant menus.

Top 5 Trends in Produce

1. Locally grown
2. Organic
3. Superfruits
4. Exotic fruits
5. Heirloom apples

Source: National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2012” survey.

Foodservice Meals & Entrees: Passing the Torch

As consumers hang up their aprons to dine out instead, food makers design meals and entrees that deliver that home-cooked feel.
--Marina Mayer, Editor-in-Chief

When it comes to food, mom knows best. From the meal options to the side dishes, mom’s touch tends to add a bit of tender, love and care.

However, to compete in today’s stringent restaurant world, meals and entrees need more than tenderness; they need innovation, authenticity, and okay, some TLC.

Today, more and more moms are passing the torch over to the professionals to sink their teeth into a home-cooked meal.

“We know that consumers are looking for more original or classic foods, foods that they grew up with, that mom used to make in the kitchen,” says Robby Brandano, president and CEO of Maristella’s Fine Foods.

That’s why the Boston-based company created a line of authentic Sicilian Arborio Rice Seafood Arancini’s.

“Our Arancini’s are sized to fit multiple menu price points, which makes them ideal for menu applications like small plates or on bar menus,” Brandano adds. “They provide foodservice operators with a low-cost, high-profit margin product.”

As the economy shows signs of recovery, convenience, quality, freshness and value remain top competing qualities in the foodservice channel, says Kim Ruiz Beck, chairman of Ruiz Foods, Inc.

To keep up with these ever-changing trends, the Dinuba, Calif., company introduced El Monterey Hearty & Delicious Burritos. Made with whole grain tortillas, they feature 12-14 grams protein each, high fiber, reduced sodium, low calories and preferred nutritionals. Varieties include Chicken with Fire Roasted Veggies, Steak with Fire Roasted Veggies, Egg, Turkey Sausage and Cheese and Huevos Rancheros.

“As with any Olympic athlete committed to their sport and to winning, our brands display a commitment to both their customers and the consumer,” says Ruiz Beck. “Our brands excel because the Ruiz team members behind the scenes (R&D, marketing, sales, etc.) are perfectionists with an inner drive, pushing themselves to constantly be better until they offer the best they can be.”

Meanwhile, US Foods, Rosemont, Ill., helps chefs get their grill on thanks to a launch of 30 new foodservice products, including Pat La Frieda Angus Chopped Beef Burgers, Wild-Caught Alaskan Salmon Sliders, Pit Smoked St. Louis Style Ribs and a butter croissant burger, among others.

“Our 30 new products will help energize restaurants and foodservice operations around America by adding spark and spice to menus and giving diners strong reasons to keep coming back again and again,” says Pietro Satriano, chief merchandising officer.

For its part, West Liberty Foods, LLC, West Liberty, Iowa, debuted a sun-dried tomato turkey product for sandwiches and a baked breaded chicken patty that replaces traditional deep frying with an air-cooked alternative, “resulting in a healthier breaded chicken offering,” says Mark Russell, director of business development. “To be a gold medal supplier, processors need to lead the pack with new and innovative items that anticipate consumer needs.”

While a little bit of tender, love and care go a long way, mom’s passing of the torch allows chefs to slide in as formidable forerunners in providing home-cooked meals with a home-cooked feel.

Top 5 Trends in Main Dishes

1. Locally sourced meats, seafood
2. Sustainable seafood
3. Newly fabricated cuts of meat
4. Non-traditional fish
5. Half-portions/smaller portion sizes

Source: National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2012” survey.

Foodservice Snacks, Appetizers & Side Dishes: Time's Up... Or is It?

Food processors race to the finish line to deliver timeless meal components.
--Marina Mayer, Editor-in-Chief

Crossing that finish line can be treacherous. Timing is everything and can make or break chances of not only completing the competition, but also winning it all.

Thankfully, for many refrigerated and frozen food manufacturers, time is on their side. That’s why companies like Tyson Foods created Tyson Timeless Recipe fried chicken.

“Our goal was to make serving fried chicken more convenient and profitable for operators, so we looked at all of the operational challenges typically associated with fried chicken and designed a product that would solve those challenges,” says Nanette Luningham, director of foodservice poultry marketing for the Springdale, Ark.-based company.

Each case of Tyson Timeless Recipe fried chicken contains proportionally-cut bone-in breasts, thighs and drumsticks, and comes in Southern-featuring a down-home savory marinade, finished with a simple salt and black pepper seasoning-and Spicy-lightly coated and seasoned with a blend of red cayenne and black peppers.

ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston introduced Sweet Things Seasoned RibCut Sweet Potato fries, which are ridged, wide-cut fries featuring a unique savory seasoning. The Kennewick, Wash., company also launched House Cut fries, which are sliced from potatoes with the skin on.

“We need to have strength and stamina to go the distance,” says Robert Owen, marketing director. “We also need to be nimble and flexible to quickly react to changes in the environment and our competition. We can’t put our head down and plod along. We need to stay ahead of the pack and make our moves at the appropriate time.”

Time doesn’t have to be up for these competitors. Stop the clock and let manufacturers keep rolling out the next best menu options.

Top 5 Trends in Appetizers

1. Vegetable/vegetarian
2. Ethnic/street food-inspired
3. Charcuterie plates/samplers
4. Amuse-bouche/bite-size hors d’oeuvre
5. Warm appetizer salads

Source: National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2012” survey.