Menu Innovations | September 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Fruit Blooms on Menus

Consumers are demanding fresh fruits in quick-serve meals, and brands are answering with apples, berries, and much more.

As consumers increasingly seek healthy, great-tasting food, it seems that more chefs and restaurant operators are looking to fruit as a perfect ingredient for menu items.

The health benefits are obvious. Most fruit is low in fat, sodium, and calories; full of vitamins and minerals; and has no cholesterol. It also provides natural sweetness.

Fruit has been part of limited-service restaurants’ menus for decades, mostly in desserts or in beverages like orange juice or strawberry milkshakes. Now it’s expanding.

“There is a genuine response to consumers asking for healthier, fresher food,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies at WD Partners, a food and retail design and consulting firm based in suburban Columbus, Ohio.

“As customers are slowly learning to eat better and make better choices, you find the restaurant industry is responding wholeheartedly.”

The result has been the introduction of more menu items that contain fruit.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for growth. According to a 2010 study by the NPD Group for the Produce for Better Health (pbh) Foundation, fruit is an underdeveloped ingredient at restaurants, with only 3 percent of all the nation’s fruit eaten there.

“It shows we have a way to go,” says Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Delaware-based not-for-profit foundation, which wants to motivate people to eat fruit and vegetables.

The percentage would have been significantly higher had the study considered tomatoes as a fruit, which they are. For cooking purposes, however, tomatoes are largely considered vegetables, in part because they are savory rather than sweet.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate dietary guidelines point out fruit’s importance. Half of an individual’s daily diet should consist of fruits and vegetables.

Therefore, fruit provides “a huge opportunity” for eateries, Pivonka says.

Restaurants that want to use more fresh fruit can take advantage of improvements to the fruit supply chain, says Dave Cope, CEO of Purfresh, a California company that provides safe options to purify, protect, and preserve fresh produce.

Fruit often takes weeks to get from the farm to market, and may be picked early in order to ripen in transit. Fruit often is sprayed with chemicals to maintain freshness.

Consumers, however, “increasingly want not only fresh food, but safe food with as few chemicals as possible,” Cope says. “New technology is helping that happen.”

While some restaurants are using more fresh fruit, others are finding success with the individually quick frozen (iqf) process, which captures the flavor, freshness, and texture of fruit by quickly freezing it.

All these fruit alternatives give operators a chance to differentiate themselves across the menu, from salads to soup and bread to beverages, Lombardi says. “What you’re seeing in fruit is a way to enhance all types of dishes.”

Diners are taking notice. A survey by the PBH Foundation last year noted that a quarter of the nation’s moms found it easier to get their families to eat fruit at limited-service restaurants than before. That’s up from 19 percent in 2008.

Pivonka credits this increase in part to McDonald’s, which recently vowed to include apple slices in all its Happy Meals and offers the Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfait, with blueberries and strawberries, as a healthy snack option.

“McDonald’s has single-handedly done so much with fruit,” she says.

For much of the past decade, fruit has been “an integrated part” of McDonald’s pantry, says Dan Coudreaut, the company’s executive chef and senior director of culinary innovation.

McDonald’s introduced Apple Dippers—fresh sliced and peeled apples with a low-fat caramel dip—in late 2003. Next was a fruit and walnut salad, followed by various other items, including recent smoothies and oatmeal with fruit.

“Have we made a concerted effort to add more fruit to the menu? Yes,” Coudreaut says. “It’s in tune with what guests want. This is all part of a trend, because people are more and more exposed to having” fruit as part of their daily menu.

Other limited-service restaurants have added fresh fruit, too. Most of the bakery cafés and many quick serves have pieces of fruit (apples, bananas, or oranges) on the menu, while more than a dozen chains have fresh fruit cups and salads.

In 2004, Wendy’s was among the first fast feeders to offer a fresh fruit cup and the first to have a full fruit salad on the menu. But it didn’t last long.

“Consumers said they wanted it, but they didn’t flock to it,” says long-time company spokesman Denny Lynch. Now, considering the growing interest by consumers in fresh fruit items over recent years, “we were probably ahead of the game,” he says.

In the succeeding years, Wendy’s didn’t give up on fruit. The chain just decided to use items like apples, dried cranberries, and mandarin oranges as salad ingredients.

This summer, the company added a seasonal Berry Almond Chicken Salad, with strawberries and blueberries and a raspberry vinaigrette. The idea is to have the salad available from May through September, when the fruit is at its peak.

The strawberries and blueberries, which are also in a new parfait, are domestically sourced, which is quite a feat when nearly half of the fresh fruit in the U.S. is imported.

“We can get the strawberries from the fields to the restaurants in two to three days,” Lynch says. “Advances in distribution and technology are truly helping this process.”

Fruit is key to the menu at Corner Bakery, where more than a dozen items contain at least one fruit ingredient.