(July 24) MONTEREY, Calif. — Proving that flavor is a top priority in foodservice, some operators are going to unconventional lengths in their bid for the taste bud.

Earlier this year, Ruby Tuesday Inc., Maryville, Tenn., took a giant step away from fresh-cut produce in favor of chopping whole product in its nearly 850 units — for the sake of better flavor, said Julie Reid, vice president of culinary research and development.

Reid was one of five foodservice panelists at the workshop session “Menu Developers’ Wish List” July 15 at the Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference and Exposition.

In an effort to ensure better-tasting burgers, Ruby Tuesday purchases fresh beef instead of frozen. The chain stages its tomato ripening and cuts them at the restaurant level. Reid said Ruby Tuesday tears its own lettuce for sandwiches, and the company soon will discontinue buying lettuce mixes in order to make its own salads.

“Fresh lettuce tastes better,” Reid said, adding that customers want to go out and eat something better than they could make at home.

The changes to in-house preparation have cost the chain $15 million, she said, “but the customer is in the mode of quality over cost.”

STAYING CURRENT

The foodservice panelists explained how their menus evolve. Before anything appears on the menu at Ruby Tuesday, executives look at it from eight angles — quality, cost, supply and food safety being the first four, Reid said.

There are other considerations, she said.

“Is it on trend? Will guests understand it? Is it a good value, and is it unique enough that guests will come to us over someone else?” Reid said.

While there’s little room for menu mistakes at large chains, other companies have the luxury of experimenting. Food management company Aramark, Philadelphia, handles foodservice operations for colleges, business dining and health care facilities.

Because Aramark’s customers visit its cafeterias almost daily, “it’s a great opportunity to experiment with trends and try new flavors and new ways to serve things,” said Michael Crane, corporate executive chef for the company’s innovative dining solutions division.

Experimentation with new ingredients at Ruby Tuesday happens at the salad bar, Reid said. For example, if the word “edamame” appeared on a menu, customers wouldn’t order it, but they would try it at the salad bar. Ruby Tuesday restaurants move more edamame than raisins as a salad topper, she said.