Over the past couple of years, the declining economy has put quite a clamp on the foodservice industry, due to consumers preparing meals at home instead of dining out in a restaurant.

However, stronger same-store sales and customer traffic, mixed with a more optimistic outlook among restaurant operators, provides for an uptick in the Restaurant Performance Index (RPI), according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), Washington, D.C.

“The solid March increase in the RPI was fueled by stronger sales and traffic levels, which bounced back from the weather-challenged results in recent months,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the research and knowledge group for NRA. “Looking forward, restaurant operators are increasingly optimistic about sales gains, and a majority plan to make capital expenditure in the next six months.”

Furthermore, research shows a strong demand for beef in the foodservice arena, making it a top protein pick for restaurant operators, etc. According to the “2013 Usage and Volumetric Assessment of Beef in Foodservice” report, produced by the Beef Checkoff Program, Cattlemen’s Beef Board, Centennial, Colo., beef experienced significant volume growth in the past year.

For example, beef sold in foodservice increased by 79 million pounds, equaling 8 billion pounds in just last year. Beef represents about one-third (32%) of the total protein market share in foodservice, and about 97% of restaurant operators feature beef on the menu. Volume was also up in every major beef category across the board, including steaks, ribs, roasts, ground beef and pre-cooked roast beef.

“This research supports what we already know to be true—no other protein can satisfy like beef,” says Sid Viebrock, chairman of the checkoff’s Value Subcommittee. “Operators understand the value that beef brings to their business, and they know beef is and must continue to be a mainstay on the menu due to strong consumer demand.”

Here’s how protein and seafood providers continue to dominate restaurant menus.

Italian beef for the every consumer
Kronos Foods, Inc., Glendale Heights, Ill., introduced an Italian beef product line that utilizes traditional Italian spices and superior cuts of beef. The beef is carefully cooked to perfection and chilled immediately after cooking to set its color and retain its natural juices. The au jus—prepared with a hot cook process—captures the optimal flavor from the seasonings. It’s also packaged in a resealable tub, making it easy to store.

Smithfield Foodservice, a division of the Smithfield Packing Co., a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, Smithfield, Va., now offers cook-in-bag smoked pork butt, making it easy for operators to maintain fresh pork quality and right-from-the-smoker taste without the need for special cooking equipment. Each 8-pound, bone-in butt is wrapped in a pre-smoked net, infusing flavor throughout the cooking process as the pork develops its signature barbecue bark. The vacuum-sealed packaging helps reduce the risk of cross-contamination and allows the pork to cook evenly and consistently. This high-yield product also allows for maximum usage with minimal waste, since the cooked pork can be customized for a variety of applications and flavor profiles.

Cheddar bratwursts
San Luis Sausage, Orange, Calif., added smoked cheddar bratwursts to its line of gourmet sausages. The 6-inch links are hickory smoked bratwursts filled with fresh pork and real cheddar cheese, and are available to restaurants, hotels, resorts and other foodservice channels.

Chicken and turkey take their turn
For its part, Butterball Foodservice, Garner, N.C., launched new 4-ounce turkey breast filets for chefs and foodservice operators looking to expand on better-for-you menu options. The filets are low in fat, calories and sodium, contain no trans-fat or MSG and are individually packed in easy-peel, perforated film, allowing for one-at-a-time use. Also, the filets can be cooked from frozen with no thawing necessary for freezer-to-grill convenience.

Also available to foodservice operators is The Broaster Co.’s 4-ounce spicy chicken filet, a 100% real breast filet specially marinated to provide the right amount of heat without being too intense. It can be served as a sandwich on a bun, an entrée with a side dish or a snack with tasty dipping sauces. The Broaster Co. is based in Beloit, Wis.

Now available to grocery and deli retailers nationwide is Tyson Simply Fried boneless fried chicken, which provides deli shoppers with home-style fried chicken taste. Produced by Tyson Foods, Springdale, Ark., Tyson boneless fried chicken requires nothing more than using existing chicken frying equipment and limited training, so grocery store deli managers can produce a consistent product. Master cases contain enough breasts and thighs to complete nine 4-piece boxes. 

Seafood and beer
High Liner Foods Inc., Danvers, Mass., collaborated with Diageo, the producer of GUINNESS beer, to create GUINNESS Distinctive Seafood. The blend of seafood cuts under theIcelandic brand includes cod, salmon, tilapia and shrimp with the taste of stout. Available in battered, Panko-breaded, flame-seared barbeque-glazed and flame-seared herb-glazed varieties, GUINNESS Distinctive Seafood beer-battered selections are made with premium seafood and a light, authentic GUINNESS batter. The flame-seared options are pre-seared and then glazed to provide the look and taste of seafood made from scratch. Available in 4- and 6-ounce portions, the flame-seared Atlantic salmon is glazed in a rich barbecue sauce with real GUINNESS stout, black pepper and molasses. The tilapia is glazed with real GUINNESS stout and a savory blend of herbs that includes rosemary, thyme, garlic and onion. The battered varieties include a 1- to 2-ounce battered cod tender; 2-, 4- or 6-ounce battered cod fillet portions; and battered shrimp in the large 21- to 25-pieces-per-pound size. They come in two options—large shrimp perfect for dinner-sized baskets and platters, and popcorn shrimp for appetizers and sharing.

Scallops that pass the test
High Liner Foods also developed a scallop line for foodservice operators under the American Pride Seafood brand. This scallop portfolio features all-natural domestic scallops harvested in the North Atlantic and landed in New Bedford, Mass.

Trout in so many ways
Clear Springs Foods, Buhl, Idaho, added a unique, on-trend item to its line of foodservice items. Made from 100% guaranteed boneless rainbow trout, new Crunchy Potato Crusted Rainbow Trout Filets are specially encrusted with a crispy potato stick coating that brings together classic fish fry flavor and texture. They come packed in 10-pound cases and are simple to prepare, whether by oven baking or pan sautéing. Plus, they’re packed with over 25 grams of protein, have heart-healthy omega-3s and contain zero trans-fat.

Clear Springs Foods also added Fiddlestix Ranch-flavored trout sticks, which are delicately seasoned with red and green peppers and spices, combined with potatoes and served in a fun finger food shape. One 8-stick serving meets ¼-cup vegetable serving and 2-ounce meat equivalents, perfect for school lunch programs.

Additionally, Clear Springs Foods added Whole Grain Citrus Sesame Trout Taco Portions to its portfolio of foodservice offerings. Citrus Sesame Trout Taco Portions meet CN equivalents of 1 grain per bread serving and 1 ½-ounce meat equivalents. And, by adding ½-ounce of shredded cheese, schools can achieve 2-ounce meat equivalents.

Seafood stuffing
Sea Watch International Ltd., Easton, Md., introduced Seafood Stuffing, a blend of clams, crab and lobster with breadcrumbs, herbs, spices and a little cheese. The stuffing also comes in half-ounce nuggets, giving restaurant operators the flexibility of using three nuggets to stuff a piece of fish or one to stuff a mushroom cap or shrimp.

King & Prince Seafood, Brunswick, Ga., launched what it calls “the real deal” in gourmet seafood cakes. Made with quality ingredients and designed with a hand-crafted appearance, the flaky filling is packed with either Canadian Cold Water Lobster or Snow Crab caught in the icy waters of the Bering Sea. Both products offer operators consistent sizing, authentic flavor and texture and a wide variety of menu applications.

Culinary-inspired seafood items
Clearwater Seafoods, Nova Scotia, expanded its value-added retail and foodservice offerings with new culinary-inspired seafood items, including Reduced-Sodium Shrimp (MSC-certified, wild-caught shrimp harvested from the icy waters of the North Atlantic and cooked, peeled and frozen within 20 minutes of arrival, ensuring optimum freshness, taste and texture), Scallop Selects & Bacon Wrapped Scallop Selects (individually-formed scallop portions made with MSC-certified, wild-caught Patagonian scallops available in Natural and Bacon-Wrapped varieties), Scallops & Sauce now available in Marinara and Sun-Dried Tomato varieties and Nova Scotia Prime Split Lobster with Butter (Premium Hardshell Fresh lobsters that are harvested when protein levels are the highest, ensuring high quality and maximum meat content).