The restaurant industry and the college dining market have long been bellwethers of food and beverage trends. Chefs looking for new ingredients and products to delight culinarily sophisticated customers seek out unique and daring offerings. Dormitory dining hall operators must rise to the challenge of satisfying young adults who are ever more particular about what they eat.
The winning products of the 2019 National Restaurant Assn. (NRA) Food and Beverage (FABI) Awards reveal what food processors need to do to stand out in the foodservice crowd. A large proportion of the winners are vegan, environmentally sustainable and gluten-free; others boast Mediterranean, Latin American or Asian flavors, convenient new formats and “clean label” simplicity.
Seizing the attention of judges, one FABI recipient—Caviaroli Drops by Albert Adrià—consists of spherical liquid olives encased in a light gelatin shell. Approximately 20mm in diameter, these spheres, developed by a well-known Barcelona, Spain-based chef, can be used as a garnish or consumed as a snack or drink enhancement.
Another winner, ReadyCarved Al Pastor Pork Slices by Grecian Delight Foods, Elk Grove Village, Ill., is a product boasting multinational origins. A popular Central Mexico street food, shawarma-style marinated pork slices seasoned with savory chilies, garlic powder and spices took hold in Mexico with the arrival of Lebanese immigrants. Grecian Delight emphasizes that its value-added ReadyCarved product is free of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.
Made by Fora in New York City, FabaButter also claimed a FABI. Said to be sustainable and highly functional, the plant-based butter contains upcycled aquafaba, the viscous water left after chickpeas have been cooked.
Beyond the environmental benefits of using discarded food waste to produce a vegan product, “the biggest selling point of our butter is first and foremost its functionality,” says Aidan Altman, Fora’s CEO and co-founder. “FabaButter tastes just like butter. It also cooks and bakes and clarifies and browns exactly like butter. But it has an even higher smoke point at 360°F and a six-month shelf life, which is double that of dairy butter.”
Fora engaged in considerable experimentation before arriving at FabaButter’s final formulation. “We combined coconut oil and added salt and nutritional yeast to get a cultured butter flavor,” Altman shares. “But we also needed an emulsifier, something that was clean like the rest of our ingredients; a lot of the emulsifiers in the market are too processed. Aquafaba turned out to be an incredible, functional ingredient for us that also provides a really nice buttery feel and a umami flavor.”
Altman notes that winning a FABI has been a “real coup” for Fora. Introducing a product to the restaurant and hospitality markets before the retail market reflected strategic decision-making, he says.
“The really great restaurants and high-end chefs that we work with are extremely receptive to trying new products,” he explains. “And once they endorse your product and promote it, approaching retail becomes easier because you have testimonials from highly trained professionals, which means something to consumers.”
Using healthful, functional food waste to develop new products is not just about being environmentally conscious; it’s also about making good food more affordable, points out John Li, a judge of the FABI Awards and the vice president of culinary innovation at The Wendy’s Co., Dublin, Ohio.
As Li explains, “the innovative use of waste streams generated through current practices such as [fish processing waste from] fisheries and ‘ugly produce’ and the utilization of new processing technologies to make new products not only help bring value to undervalued raw material sources, but potentially do so at a very advantageous cost to producers, their customers and the end guests at restaurants.”
Most consumers today have less disposable income, Li notes. “This makes it even more important for manufacturers to ensure that their development efforts create products that truly will either lower costs or lower in-store complexity or both, while being differentiating and relevant to current trends,” he says.
‘Healthy halo’ products preferred
Millennials are known for prioritizing healthful eating, which they believe means avoiding potentially harmful ingredients as well as consuming more-nutritious foods and beverages. The same is true for members of Generation Z, the demographic group to which contemporary college students belong. In fact, Gen Z cares even more about environmental sustainability and believes plant-based agriculture to be more ecologically sound, market research has shown.
In the college foodservice market, “food processors will be successful by focusing on delicious plant-based convenience food options,” suggests Timothy Dietzler, the director of dining services at Villanova (Pa.) University, who also served as a judge of the FABI Awards.
Because many young adults are flexitarians rather than strict vegans, food processors should also look for ways to limit rather than eliminate animal protein in traditional meat products. “Blending animal proteins with vegetables to reduce saturated fats and the carbon footprint is an emerging trend,” Dietzler observes. “Blended burgers and blended forced meat sausages are sustainable and healthier.”
In addition, beverages with a “healthy halo” are in demand on campuses, Dietzler emphasizes. Food and beverage companies should develop “unique beverage blends incorporating ingredients with a sustainable and health focus: low sugar and nutrient dense,” he says, recommending cold-pressed juice blends as a fertile area for innovation.
At last year's NRA Show, “beverages infused with herbs, spices and botanicals were attention-getters in terms of taste and potential,” Dietzler adds.
Syncing supply with demand
Food and beverage processors should develop more innovative products and solutions for various foodservice segments “as that is what the customer is seeking,” says Chef Neil Doherty, senior director over culinary development for Houston-based Sysco. Plant-forward options such as soy- and pea-based meat alternatives continue to be popular, he says, and protein of any type—as in fish-based noodles, for example—has only grown in demand.
But innovation isn’t just about formulation, Doherty maintains. “There is also a desire to move away from large pack containers and have smaller pack sizes available for smaller operations,” he notes.
Restaurants and other foodservice operators often can’t access the trendiest and most healthful products and ingredients because they aren’t available commercially in many locales, at least not at an affordable price, observes Brad Barnes, the director of The Culinary Institute of America’s CIA Consulting and Industry program.
“Ten or 15 years ago, restaurants had access to products that were desirable that grocers and markets did not have access to, but that has shifted,” Barnes says. Non-commercial foodservice segments such as hospitals and nursing homes have even greater difficulty obtaining high-quality, better-for-you products within their budgets, he adds, despite the greater dietary needs of the clienteles served.