Web Exclusive | March 2012 | By Daniel P. Smith

Keeping Up with the Consumers

New US Foods products highlight need for on-trend, innovative dishes.

Members of US Foods’ leadership team, including chief merchandising officer Pietro Satriano, corporate chef Bill Brooks, and director of innovation Stacie Sopinka, revealed 30 new company products on March 27.

The new products, which are inspired by the summer grilling season, aren’t just intended to boost operators’ perception that US Foods is an innovative food provider. They also address quickly evolving consumer demand and the push toward quality and unique flavor profiles.

In introducing one new product after another, the trio of company leaders urged restaurant operators to stay on trend and be inventive and responsive in the back of the house.

“We’re doing all this in the spirit of keeping things easy, versatile, high quality, and on trend for our operators,” Satriano says of the new products.

US Foods is addressing a number of culinary trends, including an increased focus on American regional cuisine, home-style dishes, international flavors, consumer customization, and new twists on old favorites.

The new line-up is led by a chopped beef burger, made with a combination of short rib and chuck, from celebrity butcher Pat LaFrieda.

“Because it’s chopped meat and not ground, it tastes more like steak than a burger,” Brooks says.

The company also introduced a wild-caught Alaskan salmon burger, all-vegan veggie burger, nine-grain sprouted bun, and the world’s first all-butter croissant sandwich bun.

Kathy Hayden, a foodservice analyst with Mintel Menu Insights, says US Foods’ new offerings underscore increasing calls from consumers for items that taste scratch-made. “People want to know that things are made from scratch and exclusive, not from some factory farm,” Hayden says. “Every part of the burger has to be exceptional to catch peoples’ attention.”

To address the rising popularity of ethnic foods and infuse any dish with genuine global tastes, US Foods debuted a Portuguese churrasco sauce, Korean barbecue sauce, and Mexican adobo and beer sauce.

Food companies are smart to offer ethnic flavors in controllable doses, Hayden says.

“People want more authenticity in their choices when it comes to international cuisine, but a lot of the research we’re seeing is that people want these authentic aspects in something that may not be a full meal,” she says.

“As the economy's slowed and we've bottomed out on price, we're hearing repeatedly that new menu items and LTOs are the best ways to get into consumers' consciousness.”

By adding the Portuguese churrasco sauce to chicken wings or the Mexican adobo glaze to back ribs, Hayden says, operators can put an international spin on American favorites and provide guests a shot of unique flavors.

“It’s a way to trial these experimental flavors without going wholesale to one culinary identity,” she says.

US Foods’ new international grilling sauces also speak to the rising customization trend.

At quick serves such as The Counter and Smashburger, customers have a number of sauces to choose from to distinguish their meal. It’s similar at LYFE Kitchen, a chef-driven quick serve based in Palo Alto, California, where made-to-order dishes boost the customer’s overall experience and allow them to define their dish.

“Consumers are driving this issue and it’s smart to answer their calls,” LYFE consultant Tal Ronnen says.

For as much as diners are embracing global cuisine, there’s also been an emerging call for regional specialties that characterize American cuisine. It’s a trend US Foods addresses with its pit-smoked St. Louis–style ribs, which are smoked naturally in an open pit for seven hours prior to distribution. For quick serves, the home-style dish can be heated up within minutes and served with any sauce.

In fact, Satriano says, many of the latest US Foods’ offerings provide chefs the versatility to craft their own distinctive signature item. A desert item like the melting cake batter, for instance, affords chefs dozens of creative opportunities, from brownies to molten lava cakes.

“Many of these new products are not in finished form, which provides chefs creative freedom,” Satriano says.

While many fine-dining menus are quick to embrace culinary trends and seasonality, quick serves have long handled more defined, predictable menus. That, however, is beginning to change, Hayden says, as quick serves have become more nimble and innovative in the kitchen.

“As the economy’s slowed and we’ve bottomed out on price, we’re hearing repeatedly that new menu items and LTOs are the best ways to get into consumers’ consciousness and excite them about the brand,” she says.

Satriano believes US Foods’ latest offerings allow operators to be more creative, bold, and distinctive, adding that restaurant industry growth depends on innovative menu options rather than price wars.

“It’s all about innovation now and about satisfying operators’ and consumers’ appetite for new options,” Satriano says.