Tim York, Markon Cooperative
Tim York, Markon Cooperative

Social responsibility? Local sourcing? “Clean” food?

What starts out as a niche driver of demand often grows into a meaningful aspect of a business’s go-to-market plan.

Millennials are changing the game with sustained demand for transparency, more adventurous menu options, and values that are aligned with environmental protection (defined broadly).

These younger diners are fast outpacing baby boomers in dollars spent, meaning who we are and what we say and do as companies has never been more important to our ability to survive and thrive.

What’s more, over the past couple of decades, chefs have become celebrities, and food has become a dominant pastime. In short, people are obsessed with what they eat.

New demand drivers pose game-changing opportunityThis puts us in the driver’s seat — if we are able to shift some of our ingrained business models, the growth opportunities are huge.

At the recent Menus of Change conference jointly presented by the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, Mass., a group of top scientists and researchers shared data that drove home these opportunities and encouraged all of us in foodservice to take more action to align with new demands and grow business.

The experts translated the data into bite-sized perspectives we can all leverage to some degree while continuing to offer customers what they want and how they want it.

Here are a few of the Menus of Change insights I feel are most applicable to the produce world.

Globally inspired, plant-based cooking: Chefs are being asked to increase produce presence by 10% each year over the next five years.

Let’s be there to meet this demand by offering a wider range of fruits and vegetables. Some say okra is the next kale, but cauliflower, cabbage and rhubarb are also getting delicious makeovers. It’s truly anyone’s game.

Meat in a supporting role: More and more chefs are realizing the power of using meat as a condiment, to their customers’ health and the health of their budgets.

Promoting seasonal flavors (ramps and peas in spring, tomatoes and corn in summer, potatoes and onions in fall, and citrus in winter) can easily shift the focus of any dish.

Evolving scientific consensus: One year, butter is enemy No. 1; the next, it’s clearly preferable to alternatives. Whether dealing with lard or carbs, studies touting what’s in or out are often disproved at a later date, but one thing is for sure — fresh produce is always the right choice for healthy consumers and the environment.

Demonstrate respect for consumers’ increasing appreciation of the fundamental role of produce in health and wellness by emphasizing health benefits to customers and on menus.

Chefs as educators: Many consumers remain confused about what constitutes a healthy choice and look to chefs for guidance.

Help these front-line sources pass along straightforward information about the nutritional value of your produce and the measures you take to grow it.

Transparency: Demands for transparency in what happens beyond the kitchen floor are here to stay.

Diners who have access to information about every step of the production process will feel better about where they spend their dollars.

Some will look an inch deep and some will wade into the information. Regardless, sharing your approach to sourcing, food safety programs, recycling efforts and labor practices may all support customers looking for your products — or asking for them by name.

This portrait of the future of foodservice suggests strongly that more change is coming, whether we want it or not. For those of us who lead the charge, the rewards could be significant.

Bottom line: buyers and chefs are being steered toward reducing meat and increasing fruit and vegetable content on menus.

As suppliers of these products, we must continue to educate and share actionable information our customers need to realize these shifts.

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif., Markon Cooperative, made up of eight North American foodservice distributors. Centerplate is a monthly column offering a peek at “what’s now and next” for foodservice and the implications for the produce industry.


What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.