Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Trends from U.S. chain menus, words from N.Y.

Fast-food, that most American of social constructs, is turning downright jingoistic in its sourcing.

Cock an ear to Wendy’s new ad campaign and you’ll hear the chain boast of using only North American beef in its square burgers. Fuddruckers, the chain that was fast-casual before fast-casual was cool, is more pointed in its nationalism. Units in Texas and New Mexico have switched to a proprietary grind called Fudds Prime, made exclusively with “All-American” prime beef from “select U.S. ranches,” the announcement sniffs. Chew on that gristle, Canada and Australia.

The rah-rah mentions of homefront ingredients are part of a larger struggle by the chain business to accommodate the public’s insistence that it be told the source of what it’s eating. Ideally, that point of origin would be a local one. Indeed, the demand for locally grown produce was forecast by chef-participants in a National Restaurant Association survey to be the Number One consumer trend of 2009.

The menus of many independent restaurants show those respondents were dead-on. The shorter the distance from field to fork, the louder the establishment tends to crow about it in menu descriptors. Not that it’s obnoxious at all. Guests want that sort of horn blowing. Why not brag about the seasonal items you’re putting on the plate?

But it’s hard to serve up that kind of lingo when you’re a sprawling chain with a nationwide supply system. Their economics call for low-cost ingredients hyper-processed to the point of absolute consistency and cooking readiness. Just add heat, forget about seasonal freshness. It was a trend many figured they’d watch independent counterparts enjoy without challenge.

Wrong. It took awhile, but regional chains are clearly finding religion. And even the national ones are buying local ingredients in some spots—or at least spotlighting the instances where that’s been the practice. Outback Steakhouses in the Louisiana area have apparently always used shrimp harvested by the state’s Gulf shrimpers. It briefly changed its mind because imported shrimp was selling at a lower price, then opted in the eleventh hour to stay local. The news prompted Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to hold a press conference where he lauded the casual chain as the video cameras hummed.

Last month, New England-based Papa Gino’s Pizzeria and its sandwich-serving sister, D’Angelo’s, added a bunch of products that feature Cheddar cheese produced in Vermont. The chains were aiming for what one executive called “a distinctive New England flavor,” which you don’t usually associate with pizzas or subs. Yet “Vermont Cheddar” is included in all but one of the new products’ names (the exception, a Bruschetta, incorporates just “Cheddar”).

This summer, the New England outposts of Panera Bread Co. featured a lobster sandwich, a local favorite usually described as a lobster roll. It was priced at $16.99.

Units of the Smashburger fast-casual chain feature reginal riffs on burgers and hot dogs (i.e., Colorado units feature the popular local topping of green chilis), and the Kona Grill casual chain told investors that it'll introduce a menu next month that includes a section for local favorites from any given store's host area.

Then there’s the poster-concept of the localization movement among chains, the Pacific Northwest’s 38-unit Burgerville group. Right now the brand is featuring sweet potato fries made from local sweet potatoes, which are currently in season. It’s also featured Washington State cherries, in a Cherry Chipotle Pulled Pork Sandwich, and is currently touting a hotdog garnished with a slaw made of local apples.

The novelty of finding local ingredients on chains’ menus should start to wear off as several large-scale players start shopping closer to their stores. Chipotle Mexican Grill, for instance, has pledged to purchase 35% of at least one produce item per restaurant from local farmers.

With roughly 900 branches, Chipotle may be the largest chain to pursue seasonal fare. But it’s certainly not the first, nor the model example. Critics have noted that its so-called local fare may be drawn from a 250-mile radius, which certainly stretches the definition.

Contrast that with Eat’n Park, the Pittsburgh-based family dining chain. The company has a director of sourcing and sustainability who goes out to find farmers who can supply the chain. When local items like radishes are used by any of the brand’s 75 stores, notice is often given to customers via the chain’s blog.

Those early adapters are being joined by the likes of Darden Restaurants, best known as the parent of Red Lobster and Olive Garden. Its youngest brand, Seasons 52, features seasonal ingredients blended into entrees with fewer than 475 calories.

P.F. Chang’s, a strong competitor to Darden, has invested in a start-up concept called True Food Kitchen. Like Seasons 52, it features seasonal fare, but goes a step further to use local and organic foodstuffs.

Where chains can’t tout the use of local ingredients, they’re doing the next best thing of highlighting the source. Seasons 52, for instance, is currently featuring Colorado Buffalo Chili, Canadian Black Mussels Marinara and a Gulf Shrimp Cocktail.

Is there any doubt that the source-naming trend, and the local variant in particular, is going to continue?

Indeed, there’s one form in particular that we’re likely to see. It’s not widely known by the public, but outlets of the giant burger chains buy their buns from a network of regional or local bakeries set up by the home office. Those suppliers aren’t exactly mom-and-pop shops. But they do offer an opportunity for the behemoths of the business to tout a little localization. I bet we see that start to happen, sooner versus later.

1 comment:

Peter Romeo said...

Five Guys Burgers & Fries has a whiteboard by the order counter where the source of that day's French fries is posted.