Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ecology, Economy Shape On-Site Dining in 2009
But culinary trends, innovations have their place in the new year
Dining Insights, Winter 2009

Layoffs and uncertainty among customers are having an effect on corporate dining services and, to a lesser extent, on campus operations as well.

But all is not gloom and doom. While the recession has focused operators' minds on ways to reduce costs and avoid loss of customers and sales, industry experts see some bright spots in the year ahead. Some trends are in health, nutrition and ecological areas, while new food, taste and preparation trends are emerging.

Making Lemonade

If customers are reducing purchases and bringing food from home -- a trend that began several years ago and shows no sign of relenting -- operators are looking for ways to capture the available dollars. "Value" is the buzzword for accomplishing this.

"To be successful during the present economic downturn and prepare for an eventual recovery, restaurant operators are offering the value customers desire in conjunction with operational improvements that cut costs, without detracting from the dining experience," The National Restaurant Assn. says on its website. The comment applies equally to in-house dining services.

Five dollars (or $4.99) seems to be the magic number in defining "value meals." At Chrysler auto plants, which have seen major layoffs, operator Aramark Corp. "is trying to adjust to economic realities [with] more budget items, such as a meal and a drink for $4.99," company liaison Len Bonner told FoodService Director. A Clarion client that introduced a substantial price incrase in the fall and saw a 25% drop in customer counts is offering a $5.00 daily special to lure back the defectors. Subway, Boston Market and Pizza Hut are offering $5.00 meals, according to Mintel Menu Insights, a market research firm, Food Institute Reports says.

Bold New Flavors

"In the'80s and '90s, we took flavor out of foods to make it low-fat," Nick Carmody, vice president of Parkhurst Dining Services, Pittsburgh, told FSD. "Now, we're putting it back with herbs, spices and oils. The menu mix . . . has lots of vegetables and plant-based foods that allow you to give a lot at value prices."

A concept called "stealth health" has been developed by the Culinary Institute of America, according to Dr. Tim Ryan, president. More ingredients and flavors from Asia, Latin America and the Mediterranean that deliver on both taste and health" are incorporated, he said. "These bold flavors offer both health and increased satiety, so we think the trend will only grow in strength."

"Smoking is the new frying," says "Expect to see comfort food stage a comeback."

Eco/Healthy Trends

"In 2009, we will see healthier menu options with an emphasis on produce and fruit, smaller dishes and fish, and an increase in . . . local and sustainable ingredients," the National Restaurant Assn. said in releasing an October 2008 survey of chefs. "Menus will continue to expand options for health-conscious diners.

"The hottest trends in culinary themes include nutrition/health . . . umami (the fifth taste [actually, MSG] and the slow food movement," the NRA reported. "In preparation techniques, braising tops the list, followed by smoking and sous vide."

The issue of disposable dishes, utensils and containers is being addressed with some new, innovative products that help resolve the problem of overflowing landfills. Vegeware, a fiber-based line of disposable tableware that breaks down naturally, manufactured in Scotland, is being introduced to the U.S. Reverte, a bio-degradable beverage bottle, also is being introduced by Planet Green Bottle Corp. and Northland International.