(May 25) Thanks to the media’s attention to the obesity epidemic and the healthy image of fruits and vegetables, restaurants are opening up to developing menu items using produce, and it isn’t as expensive as many people believe.

Food costs are at least $1 cheaper on plates heavy on produce rather than protein, said Lorna Christie, senior vice president of industry products and services for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

She was one of two speakers at the workshop session “Fresh Produce and Foodservice: Putting Taste and Profitability on the Menu” at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago May 22.

According to a recent survey, 43% of consumers consider the presence of fruits and vegetables to be a key factor when they choose a restaurant, she said, adding that it also benefits retail.

“Thirty-seven percent of consumers who order produce (at restaurants) look for it at the supermarket.”

Entree salads are the No. 1 growth item in full-service restaurants, she noted.

THANKS DESERVED

The produce industry has Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King to thank for their efforts with salads, said Janet Erickson, executive vice president of purchasing & quality assurance for Del Taco, Lake Forest, Calif., who also spoke at the workshop session. She also is PMA’s board chairwoman.

Erickson said Chick-fil-A recently made a commitment to support the 5 a Day message in its fast-food restaurants, and the menu partnership between Applebee’s and Weight Watchers has gone well with sales exceeding the expectations of both partners.

MAKING IT WORK

Quoting from Mark Erickson, vice president for continuing education for the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., and managing director of its St. Helena, Calif., branch, Janet Erickson offered several ideas to build success with fruits and vegetables on the menu:

  • Restaurants need to position produce as a feature rather than as an afterthought;


  • Consider fresh-cut to save labor costs;


  • Emphasize salads;


  • Offer more fruit options; and


  • Consider vegetable juices instead of high-sugar soft drinks.



Suppliers have more success getting their items on restaurant menus when they try to sell it based on flavor and profitability rather than on the fact that it’s healthy, she said.

Suppliers also are more successful if they approach the chain’s menu developers rather than its buyers, Erickson said.

“There’s a negative perception (that produce) has high labor costs and a short shelf life. Help them overcome that thought,” she said.