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Creating innovative menus… Providing healthful food options… appealing to customers' appetites… making a cafeteria or dining room an engaging place to eat. These are daily challenges that face every onsite foodservice operator. And because they serve food to the same customers every day, they have a much greater impact on their customers' overall diets than a “special occasion” or once-a-week dining venue does.
For help in both areas — and in keeping menus fresh, food options healthy, appetites whetted and cafeterias fun — it is useful to tap the expertise of those who grow and make our food.
Producers, including agricultural commodity boards, can be very helpful resources for operators. Commodity boards, commissions or councils are typically established by their agricultural industry. Avocado growers, grape farmers, peanut farmers, rice growers, olive oil producers and many others exist to help maintain and expand markets for their respective products. Depending upon the organization, their activities may include research, trade and issue management, advertising, as well as education and outreach to their respective target audiences. As a noncommercial operator, you fall into this latter category.
So what, exactly, can a commodity board offer? First, these organizations are typically a treasure trove of customer research, trend studies, nutrition and health information, new recipes, promotion ideas, marketing materials and training programs. In some cases, commodity groups may even provide promotional dollars to help leverage promotional efforts.
Consumer research can help provide insight into your customers and their dining habits as well as interesting facts to share with them in your own merchandising activities. For example: the California Table Grape Commission recently translated some general consumer research into actionable information for onsite foodservice operators. Cindy Plummer, vice president domestic marketing, for the Commission, explains:
“We compiled and printed the results of a pilot test we did with Stanford Dining that measured the impact of using grapes as an alternative to French fries. We looked at their use in salads and as a takeout item both in student dining and retail venues.” The report is called, “Stanford Dining Does Its Research: Fresh Grapes are Good to Go,” and is now available to any operator.
“It provides concrete data that clearly supports the use of grapes in these ways, but in the case of takeout grapes, gives specifics on which merchandising methods, in which venue, generated the highest sales,” says Plummer.
Producers understand the diversity of the onsite market and appreciate that school foodservice is not the same as a B&I environment, and that both are different from college campus dining or a healthcare setting. So they often conduct customer research to individual segments.
Here's another example: after conducting research among foodservice professionals, the USA Rice Federation designed its web site to specifically address the unique requirements that each segment has.
“Whether an operator is looking for rice recipes, trend articles, or information on how rice can best fit into an operation's menus, our site ensures the most relevant content is being delivered whether the recipient is a K-12 , healthcare, or from another segment,” says Judy Rusignuolo, director of national consumer education and foodservice marketing for the Federation.
Commodity boards make it their business to understand, anticipate and apply both culinary and health trends to the use of their products so that they can offer relevant information and tools to operators. A commodity board may work with an array of experts to achieve this knowledge, including renowned chefs and culinary schools, cookbook authors, journalists, scientific researchers and health professionals such as dietitians and doctors. They also stay updated on the ever-changing and competitive environments that operators face and seek to provide menu solutions that truly make sense given such challenges.
For example, the environmental issue of sustainability is increasingly being addressed by producers. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) recently created a new set of materials for foodservice operators that address the issue of seafood sustainability.
“Seafood is front and center when it comes to this issue and operators want tools and specifics that can help educate their customers,” says Claudia Hogue, foodservice marketing director for ASMI.
Nutrition and health information
Nutrition and health research is a priority for many producers. This information is readily available to operators and can spark new program ideas or help expand special offerings under the “healthy” umbrella.
Nearly all commodity boards provide basic nutrition information. Many also have a keen understanding of the phytonutrient components of their products, including the potential for certain foods to benefit various aspects of health, because they are constantly tracking published research and/or directly funding research initiatives.
As global exporters, many producers observe menu ideas from all over the world first hand and apply that knowledge to their efforts within the U.S. Savvy commodity boards know that your customers are looking for some combination of flavor, health and culinary innovation. Certain cuisines lend themselves beautifully to this, relying on fruits, vegetables and grains as the foundation and using spices and fresh herbs to carry the flavor. Producers work to adapt and deliver such concepts via recipe cards, brochures and online recipe collections and video demonstrations.
Here's a sampling of such recipes available from commodity boards that suggest the wide range of what is available: Cardamom Saffron Rice Pudding; Chicken Kabobs with Almond-Pomegranate Vinaigrette; Chinese Barbecued Tofu with Sesame Noodles; Curried Idaho Potato Latkes, Curried Turkey Kofta; Five-Spiced Ahi Tuna with California Avocado Wasabi Vinaigrette; Lemongrass Pork Satay with Spicy Peanut Sauce; Masala Chicken Salad with Grapes, Mediterranean Avocado Salad with Mint Vinaigrette; Mediterranean Rice with Feta, Mint and Olives; Southwestern Pan-Fried Catfish and Thai Green Curry Alaska Salmon.
Commodity groups also have lots of ideas and resources to help you run a healthy-eating or seasonal food promotion. Most are available at no charge, and promotions can be used as-is or customized to your operation's need.
To help promote “Grapes-To-Go” during a Sodexo summer promotion, for instance, Bill Mitchell, senior director of brand management for Sodexo Corporate Services, used a photograph provided by the California Table Grape Commission for posters, table tents and more. According to Mitchell, “The photo captured the freshness and portability of grapes as a grab ‘n go item, in keeping with Sodexo’s messages. This meant that we could use it in our campaign and stretch our existing promotional budget further.”
Many producers also offer sophisticated marketing materials that can help sell new menu selections or create excitement around a special promotion. Such items include menu guides, posters and recipe cards, photography and artwork that can be used to create promotion materials. They can also include point of purchase materials that are ready to go. Many producers offer kid-specific resources and promotional items for those serving children.
For example: the Washington Potato Commission features a Potato Kids section on its web site and offers transfer tattoos, recipes, and activity workbooks that could become fun giveaways. For materials targeting children, browse the consumer section of a commodity board's website to see if they have developed anything specifically for kids, such as downloadable coloring sheets.
Many producers also offer culinary training resources such as CDs, DVDs and printed materials designed to increase the comfort level of kitchen staff in working with their product.
As just one example, the Idaho Potato Commission offers a foodservice “How-To Kit” as its ultimate reference on using fresh, dehydrated and frozen potatoes. It includes educational CDs on working with each type of potato product so staff can be taught in an in-service training seminar or independent-study situation.
Some producers have partnered with the Culinary Institute of America to develop comprehensive E-Learning courses that are hosted on the CIA's website, and targeted to foodservice chefs. Such culinary educational tools, designed specifically for foodservice, are great go-to resources to improve staff knowledge and skills.
One of the best benefits of working with commodity groups is the large number of ideas you can get from them for expanding and promoting healthful offerings.
Offer more fruits and vegetables The Produce for Better Health Foundation, a consortium of producers, offers a simple tagline that could be useful in any promotion: “Fruit and Veggies: More Matters.” Here are just a few to consider:
Expand the salad bar: New introductions to the bar - whether almonds, avocados, edamame, grapes, lentils, or any other item-can be promoted with materials from commodity boards. Make photo enlargements of the new item, providing little known facts. Consider a “What's My Line?” promo for the new item by providing a clue each day leading up to the introduction. People who guess the right answer might get a free salad on the opening day.
Feature a “Festival of Fruits”: Educate your customers about what is available, fresh and in season by tapping the commissions and boards for interesting facts, photography and unique menu ideas to showcase each fruit's versatility in support of your promotion efforts.
Add something extra: Encourage the addition of fruits and vegetables to proteins, grains and other menu items. Everyone is comfortable with celery in tuna salad, so why not almonds, cranberries, walnuts or grapes? Add chopped leafy greens or even legumes like cannellini beans to pasta dishes. Enhance simple chicken, pork or fish entrees with fruit sauces. Top a baked potato with a vegetable sauté. Fruits and vegetables added to everyday dishes increase nutritional value and pump up their flavor appeal.
Capitalize on the global flavors trend. Add interest to all categories of healthful foods by expanding the flavor profile with spices and seasonings and decreasing reliance on less healthful flavor enhancers such as fat. Fish, lean meats and poultry, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are more interesting when made into a Mediterranean, South American, Asian or other ethnic dish.
Provide healthy alternative choices. If you always offer French fries or chips as a side to grilled items, consider adding the choice of a healthier alternative. When Stanford Dining tested this, offering fresh California grapes as an alternative to French fries, they realized that they had struck a chord when 30% of those opting for a side chose the grapes. Other possible substitutions might include the option of a grilled portabello mushroom burger or a veggie lasagne choice instead of the traditional hamburger.
Free resources and fresh ideas for healthy eating options are just a call, check or click away for onsite foodservice operators. Call your produce distributor, or commodity board representative, to find out what materials are available. Check in at producers' exhibit booths at state, regional and national trade shows for all the latest promotional items and to share with producers the successes and challenges of your operation.
Finally, don't forget to check the producers' web sites for recipes and many other great ideas. Commodity boards have the information and ideas to help foodservice operators create innovative menus and provide healthful food options that appeal to customers' appetites and make the cafeteria or dining room an engaging place to dine.
How uniforms add value
What value do uniforms bring beyond what you’d get by just requiring staff to dress neatly, wearing clean aprons? A recent survey conducted by Weintraub Associates, an independent management consulting firm, found that:97% of the public believes that uniforms make employees easier to recognize.
70% of customers feel that uniforms make employees look neater and more professional.
60% of prospects feel that uniforms make your workers look better trained and proud of their company.
“Employees in uniform are the face of your business,” says Brian Garry, director of segment marketing for Cintas Corp., a major provider of uniform programs and other services to business.
“Fresh, crisp uniforms reinforce your brand identity and improve employee morale by creating a sense of teamwork and pride among your staff.”
Courtney Romano, MBA, RD, is principal of Romano & Associates, LLC, a strategic food marketing communications firm specializing in consumer and foodservice markets. She can be reached at 425-889-8817 , or at firstname.lastname@example.org.