(Dec. 11) As you ponder the year gone by, consumer food and quick-serve restaurant trends are easy to pick out. You would have to live in a cave not to have caught the concern with obesity, the increase in fad diets and the mounting number of salads on fast-food menus.

But what are the long-term foodservice trends? It would be interesting to know how the industry is doing and what it will do with produce on the plate. Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., recently conducted a joint study to grasp these trends. The results were published in one of PMA’s FreshTrack series reports called “A Menu of Opportunity: Produce in the Foodservice Industry.”

Fifty-nine foodservice operators responded to the survey covering the gamut of operations — quick-serve restaurants, fast casual, family dining, casual dining and fine dining.

Produce rarely stars with the entree as the main attraction. But it’s becoming more important. The survey asked respondents the importance of produce relative to center-of-the-plate items in 2002 and then asked them to project its importance in 2005. Sixty-nine percent said produce was important or very important in 2002, but the number jumped to 83% percent who said it would be important or very important in 2005.

The report notes that the casual dining segment especially is keen on fresh produce. In that segment, 88% of respondents said produce was important or very important relative to center-of-the-plate items in 2002, and 93% ranked it that high for 2005.

That means produce could play a bigger role than garnish or token vegetable in the future. What’s leading this trend?

The survey asked respondents to rate the importance of nine factors in adding new produce selections to the menu. The factors they could choose from were:

  • Superior taste.

  • The competition already has it.

  • Consumers are requesting it.

  • The desire to be “on trend” or ahead of trend.

  • Consistent with format.

  • Offers a perception of a healthy image.

  • More “authentic/ethnic” produce product.

  • Color and/or appearance.

  • Improves the “value perception” of a meal.

Improved value perception was the No. 1 reason for considering new produce items on the menu. All respondents listed it as important or very important, according to the survey. Ninety-eight percent said color and/or appearance was important or very important, followed by 96% placing value on superior taste and 93% considering more produce because consumers are requesting it.

The least important consideration on the list for adding more produce was because the competition has it. Only 43% rated that as important or very important.