Restaurants and corporate food product developers long have had a symbiotic relationship. Food processors often adapt restaurant innovations to the needs of retail, while chain restaurants and other foodservice accounts look to their food processing suppliers to supply on-trend new menu items. Besides new product development, R&D chefs also refine formulations, improve profitability, streamline foodservice operations and oversee food safety and quality control.
Restaurants and foodservice is one of the three business units (retail, foodservice and home delivery) that make up Schwan Co. (www.schwans.com), Marshall, Minn. "Chefs have a very important role here. It begins with the Chef Collective being a resource and catalyst for culinary passion and innovation," says Michael Gunn, director of Schwan's culinary R&D department. The Chef Collective, first created in 2015, consists of 17 internal and external chefs from across the U.S. who incorporate trends and new flavors into great-tasting frozen food concepts.
Gunn heads a team at Schwan's primary R&D center in Marshall that supports product development with trend research, gold standard creation, product formulation, recipe development and culinary education. "We share our knowledge with customers, supplementing what they already know, and try to alleviate their diverse set of pressures, including the rising cost of doing business, increased regulations and finding people to work in their operations."
The chefs are engaged early on in the product development process, providing culinary perspectives during ideation, creating gold standards to benchmark concepts against and working with food scientists during formulation and scale-up, especially on flavor development.
The fresh food experience is important, Gunn says, as more consumers shop the supermarket perimeter for healthy produce and seasonal, locally grown food items. The same holds for out-of-home diners. "Consumers increasingly equate fresh to quality and health. This is an opportunity and a challenge to foodservice operators. As operators utilize more 'fresh' ingredients, it can be more difficult to manage cost, consistency, quality and waste. So we offer solutions operators can pick and choose from that deliver fresh on their menus."
An example is Schwan's 16-in., thin-crust raw foodservice pizza dough, which is preproofed and lightly topped with pizza sauce and cheese to provide convenience and allow operators to focus only on topping the pizza. "Cutting and topping it with fresh basil, peppers, onions and other ingredients communicates fresh, while our crust provides a base of quality and consistency that can help ensure the success of their pizza program," he says.
Food processors can better serve restaurant and foodservice customers by listening to them and understanding their specific needs, he points out. "Once we understand, we can truly commit time and resources to develop solutions. Our Chef Collective recently spent time in the world of school foodservice operators, learning about nutritional regulations and guidelines, ingredient availability, equipment availability, cost and labor constraints, talking to students and the foodservice director. We then developed and refined recipes for several of our Minh Asian sauces that could be used to bring fun and flavorful new menu ideas to our nation’s schools."
Finding commercially available ingredients at the right price is a challenge when delivering an authentic product, true to the gold standard, he says. "Ingredient availability can sometimes lag behind the trend and the resulting demand. We have a great sourcing team and network of vendors to overcome this hurdle. We enjoy continuously learning, staying abreast of trends and advances in ingredient and manufacturing technology. We research the trendy products retailers can use before presenting a new item or idea. The demand for cleaner, simpler ingredient statements has made us better product developers, making us think about things from a consumer's perspective."
Nuevo Asian fare
How do mid-America chefs and foodservice operators jump on a trend like regional Asian cuisine? Get some help from your food processing partner.
"Your patrons are craving Asian," says the marketing material at Schwan's Food Service. One of the business unit's answers is Minh appetizers -- egg rolls, spring rolls and potstickers – one of the developments from the Schwan Chef Collective.