What will the next generation of restaurant diners request or demand?
What will the next generation of restaurant diners request or demand? Campus dining professionals have insights that are influencing the restaurant industry’s focus on the future. Produce is perfectly positioned to take center stage and be a powerful player.
Chef Martin Breslin, director for culinary operations at Harvard University Dining Services, talked extensively at the recent CIA-Harvard Menus of Change Summit about his use of a new dark green leafy vegetable called Mankai in cafes at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Kennedy School.
“Our School of Public Health students are definitely interested in health, but they also want quick grab-and-go options,” he said. “We started by offering a variety of Mankai smoothies, and then we created a new vegetable burger. We’ll be rolling out other new menu items with Mankai across our campus operations this fall.” Breslin went on to note, “Across all campuses student interest in healthier, plant-based menu items is driving much of our culinary innovation today.”
What does a “plant-based meal” mean? According to Datassential research, one-third of consumers say that it contains some meat but is plant-focused, while 30% say it’s vegetarian, and 29% say it is vegan.
Demand for plant-based or plant-forward menu items is increasing across the food system as more and more consumers shift to less meat and more vegetables. Consumer research from Datassential shows that while only 7% of the general population are meat avoiders, 22% are meat limiters, meaning they are consciously limiting their meat and poultry consumption while striving to eat more vegetables. In fact, consumers report their No. 1 strategy for reducing animal protein consumption is to simply eat more vegetables.
On college campuses, the number of diners who choose to follow vegetarian and vegan eating patterns skews higher, and campus dining professionals are using a variety of strategies and products to meet the demands of their customers.
“Offering a salad bar is not enough,” says Rafi Taherian, associate vice president of Yale Hospitality, which serves more than 3.1 million meals annually. “We have to meet our students’ demand for authentic, delicious foods and flavors. We are focusing our menu development on Mediterranean cuisine. Doing so has increased our produce purchases by more than 68,000 pounds between the 2016-17 school year and 2018-19.”
“We are developing more bowl recipes as a way to deliver more plant-forward meals to our campus dining accounts,” says Lisa Feldman, director of recipe management for Sodexo and chair of the CIA Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative Plant-Forward Working Group. “We focus on global cuisines, regional flavor profiles and putting as much produce as possible in the bowl,” she says. “We tested a Mango Barbecue Tofu Bowl in Hawaii this spring. Students loved the mango and were very enthusiastic about tofu as the main protein source. Most of our bowl recipes use very little meat or poultry —about 2-3 ounces cooked. We use produce to add appealing colors, textures and flavors.”
Not all innovation in campus dining features new ingredients. Many operators interviewed for this article talked about the popularity of familiar ingredients offered in new ways. Chef RJ Harvey, the culinary director for Potatoes USA in Denver, promotes the use of potatoes as the base for plant-forward bowls. “We know people want to try new foods and flavors in restaurants, but they don’t want to risk too much. Potatoes offer a vegetable people love. Operators that add new flavors, prep methods, and presentations can wow customers with memorable menu items they’ll order again and again.”
An example of this is Harvard’s Garden Potato Bowl with Avocado Ranch, a bowl concept that combines three ingredients well known to, and loved by, Gen Z college students — potatoes, avocados and Ranch dressing. “It’s a vegan menu offering that even our meat-loving students order because it feels familiar and is so delicious,” says Breslin.
“We love partnering with produce suppliers to showcase new ways to use familiar ingredients,” says Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which serves more than 8 million meals a year. Ken and his team host an annual Flavors of the World event each June, where they bring in suppliers and chefs to inspire the next round of menu innovation in their operation.
“We have a new culinary lead on our team, Chef Alex Ong, who is taking inspiration from various partners and creating healthy, delicious food, our students love,” says Toong. “Our students not only want delicious food, they want healthy food. We do this by focusing on sustainable sourcing, smaller portions, abundant produce and world cuisines.”
Toong’s last comment is a wonderful summary of the many trends being led by campus dining operations today that are changing our food system in ways that will benefit the produce industry.