Today’s highly controlled cold chain carries produce from the grower to the operator in just-picked condition, offering peak flavor, impeccable appearance and extended shelf life. Photo courtesy of mann packing. With modern supply-chain efficiencies and the application of new technology, produce’s “flavor life” is better than ever
By Katie Ayoub
Today’s diners seek more than just good food; they seek a flavor experience. With produce, they yearn for stories of provenance. They also expect their favorites year-round, bursting with freshness and flavor.
“You have consumers today who are looking for the experience of their grandmothers’ tomatoes,” says Lorna Christie, executive vice president and COO of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). “You have to satisfy that quest for experience.”
That’s no small task, but one that both produce suppliers and chefs are taking on. With modern innovations and technical advances in the supply chain, produce is staying at its peak longer, preserving the flavor line from farm to plate. And chefs, driven by both culinary passion and consumer sophistication, are asking suppliers for customized products, crisper flavor, longer shelf life and reasonable food costs.
“Today, warehouses are divided into different climate zones,” says Paul Rothe, director of culinary education for Ft. Worth, Texas-based Ben E. Keith Foods. “We understand that citrus can’t be held next to lettuces, because citrus will make the lettuces wilt sooner.” He also says the cold chain is tighter today, with no broken links. “The cold chain, from field to truck to receiving to our customer, remains intact,” he says. “So between cross-breeding for hardiness and big flavor and then how produce gets to the plate, the freshness and longevity of produce today have improved tremendously.”
There’s also a new wave of convenience products to ease myriad operational pain points, implied in the convenience part of that delivery. What’s not implied — and what makes these innovations newsworthy — is the preservation of fresh, crisp flavor.
MULTI-UNIT PURCHASING POWER
Multi-unit chefs can wield their substantial purchasing power to propel innovation forward. “The news here is that processors are selling differently to restaurant chains,” says the PMA’s Christie. “They’re working through a partnership model rather than the old transaction model.”
Chefs tell growers (either through their distributors or directly) what flavor profile they’re looking for and how they need it to get through their particular supply chain. Christie illustrates that collaboration through the procurement of red corn: “A retailer worked with the grower to create red corn that had specific sugar and flavor specs.”
Today’s produce innovations are helping to preserve the flavor from farm to plate. Photo courtesy of grant kessler / mana. Here’s another example: A few years back, the manager of culinary-product procurement for a large national chain contacted David Adams, president of David Adams Marketing, a firm based in Monterey, Calif., that specializes in produce innovation for foodservice. She asked for a uniformly sized lettuce leaf that offered perfect bun coverage. That’s no small request, but the order would be sizeable: this particular chain several hundred units.
Adams teamed up with Progeny Advanced Genetics in Salinas, Calif., to develop this designer lettuce. “The need of a restaurant chain drove us to develop a unique lettuce leaf,” says Adams. “But not through genetic modification — we did it through cross pollination.” Progeny developed Crispers, a seed variety that is a cross between romaine and green-leaf lettuce. Each lettuce leaf weighs almost 1 ounce and measures 4.5 inches, covering this multi-unit’s burger bun perfectly.
“Crispers are a complete plant; they’re not harvested before they reach maturity, so they bring fully developed flavor and crunch to the table,” says Adams. Available industry-wide now, these lettuce leaves reduce waste and labor, Adams says.
Advancements in seed “technology” not only create customizable produce, but they create produce that survives the supply chain with more grace. “Seed development today gives us produce that’s more resistant to pathogens, that offers unique flavors and can withstand the rigors of the supply chain,” says Christie.
“Distributors and suppliers are doing a better job today understanding what the end-user wants,” says Rich Dachman, vice president of produce for Houston-based Sysco. “Innovation is the new business norm. We can’t innovate without understanding our customers’ needs, so we’re sitting down as a team and really listening to them. We then do our best to execute accordingly.”
Dachman underscores what Christie says about business models changing from transaction to partnership: “The multi-units order from distributors. They order from vendors, from growers. The lines have been blurred, and there’s definitely more transparency in the system.”
What’s new and exciting in convenience cuts for foodservice? “Innovations in fresh cut processing allow growers to process and pack produce to a chef’s specifications, lowering the back-end cost and still providing fresh flavor,” says Christie.
Melissa’s Produce, a distributor of fresh produce based in Los Angeles, now offers foodservice packs of whole, peeled baby red beets. “Through Cryovac technology, the preserving process is all-natural,” says Robert Schueller, director of marketing. These shrink-wrapped fresh beets give operators a six-month refrigerated shelf life.
Although not new in retail, Melissa’s offers a 5-ounce package of pomegranate arils, those luscious sweet-tart crunchy seeds found in the thick-skinned pomegranate. “If foodservice is into it, we’ll develop foodservice-sized packs,” says Schueller. Each retail pack provides seeds extracted from approximately three pomegranates and has a refrigerated shelf life of two weeks.
Christopher Ranch of Gilroy, Calif., known for its garlic products (Natural Roast, Olive Oil Roast and Lightly Seasoned), has branched out into both peeled pearl and cipolline onions. Launched last summer, both of these baby onions are currently available in 6-ounce retail packs that stay fresh refrigerated up to seven weeks from pack date. “We’re very interested in getting input from chains on whether there’s interest for foodservice-sized packs,” says Rick Dyer, director of national chain-industrial at Christopher Ranch.
LESSONS FROM RETAIL
Since the retail market is much more responsive to consumer purchasing patterns, especially when it comes to produce, operators would be wise to keep an eye on produce hits at the retail level.
Designer lettuce varieties like this head of baby iceberg give operators added menu flexibility as well as enhanced freshness from advances in packaging and shipping. Photo courtesy of boggiatto produce. “Generally, foodservice has been a few years behind retail adoption of newer items,” says Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Rainier Fruit Co. The Selah, Wash.-based company is a grower of pears, cherries and apples, including the increasingly popular Honeycrisp variety. Wolter describes the rapid growth of Honeycrisp apples in the retail market, noting that in the fourth quarter of 2010, it was the top-selling apple by dollar volume, outpacing Gala by almost 40 percent in dollars.
“As the largest grower and packer in the country, we can’t pack them fast enough to keep up with demand throughout most of the season, and in particular, during the early fall when consumers haven’t had them for a few months,” she says.
Even though the cost is significantly higher than other varieties, growth of Honeycrisp apples has continued at a rapid pace in many regions of the country as it becomes more popular with consumers. Given this level of interest in the retail market, Wolter sees opportunities in foodservice.
“Foodservice operators have the opportunity to add Honeycrisp to menu items throughout the season and be fairly confident consumers will be willing to pay a little extra, since they already do so in the retail environment,” she says.
“I also believe operators should look for other ‘Honeycrisp-like’ items in their region by talking to their local produce retailer to find out what’s hot and what item can’t they keep in stock.”
SPANKING NEW ROLLOUTS
Mann Packing Co., based in Salinas, Calif., has just moved its new salad blend out of its test market and into a national rollout. Called Arcadian Harvest Salad Blend, it boasts fully mature leaves that are small but offer developed flavor and good structure. “Instead of baby greens that are found in a spring mix, we’ve developed a blend with leaves that are cut from the field full grown, never chopped,” says Gina Nucci, director of healthy culinary innovation at Mann. “The feedback is that it holds dressing better, and you can use a little less on the plate. It gives the crunch of romaine with the colors of a spring mix.”
Mann is also looking to expand its butternut squash distribution. “We’ve optimized the shelf life of our cut squash to 16 days, so we can roll it out nationally,” says Nucci. Operators can choose from 1/2-inch and 1-inch cubes. “Between our smart-film technology, our cutting and cleaning process, and our quality raw product, we’re able to offer that extended shelf life,” she says.
Dole launched its very successful Chef-Ready Cuts in 2009 but just added a few products to this frozen-food line that offers washed, cut and ready-to-use fruit in resealable pouches. Pineapple spears, trimmed to 2.5 inches, will be available this spring. Diced tart apples hit foodservice in January. “There’s no waste. There’s no labor,” says Stuart McAllister, director of marketing, packaged foods division for Dole, which is headquartered in Westlake Village, Calif. This astutely named frozen-food line also offers diced and sliced strawberries, mango cubes and diced peaches.
“We were able to change the conversation away from the stigma that ‘frozen’ has to the convenience that chefs seek,” says McAllister.