Menu Innovations | September 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Fruit Blooms on Menus

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“We butcher a lot of fruit every day,” jokes Ric Scicchitano, senior vice president of food and beverage for the Dallas-based company. “If done right, fruit can be a great differentiator for a restaurant.”

One of the earliest items Scicchitano created for Corner Bakery was raisin pecan bread, which remains on the menu. Since then, fruit has only grown as an ingredient.

The Chilled Swiss Oatmeal, which is European-style muesli, has green apples, bananas, currants, and dried cranberries. The Fresh Berry Parfait features fresh seasonal berries, and the D.C. Chicken Salad uses currants and green apples.

But the most popular fruit at Corner Bakery is avocado. “It is one of the sexiest items right now,” Scicchitano says. “It’s been popular in California for years, and it’s grown in popularity around the rest of the country.”

Avocados are in the company’s top sandwich (Uptown Turkey on Harvest Toast), the No. 1 breakfast egg dish (Anaheim Scrambler), and a favorite salad (Southwest Avocado Wedge with jicama slaw).

Most Mexican restaurants use avocados to make guacamole, so it’s part of the menu in thousands of quick-service and fast-casual locations across the country. The fruit is also in sandwiches and salads at wichcraft, a 13-store chain based in New York that was founded by “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio.

Other fruit is part of creative menu ideas at wichcraft. The Heritage Smoked Ham and Cheddar sandwich includes chutney made from dates and almonds, while the Grilled Cheddar sandwich on the catering menu features pears and cranberry-pecan bread.

“We try to use fruit for natural sweetness,” says Jeffrey Zurofsky, president and partner at the company. “Sweetness in any food is part of creating balance in the flavor profile.”

Although unusual combinations in sandwiches and other menu items are becoming more acceptable to diners, there are also old, reliable combinations, such as wichcraft’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich that uses preserves with a high concentration of fruit.

“The sweetness balances the saltiness and fat of the peanut butter,” Zurofsky says.

Fruit has long been a favorite for flavoring beverages, and that’s expanding today because of the growth in smoothies.

“Fruit is at the core of what we do every day,” says Brian Lee, vice president of innovation and quality at Jamba Juice, which serves various fruit drinks.

The Emeryville, California–based chain’s smoothies use various berries, apples, bananas, mangos, oranges, passion fruit, peaches, pineapple, and more. Açai is in some beverages, and yumberry was offered last year.

“Folks are getting a little more adventuresome,” Lee says, explaining that tartness is one growing trend along with more “interest in the superfruits, which carry lots of antioxidants.”

In recent years, Jamba Juice’s menu has expanded with oatmeal, frozen yogurt, and baked goods, all of which rely in part on fruit ingredients. This summer, the company launched Fruit Refreshers, which meld coconut water with pineapple, mango, or strawberry lemonade.

The most notable operator adding smoothies has been McDonald’s, which already had a vast beverage line that included that old fruit-flavored standby, the strawberry milkshake.

McDonald’s mixed berry and strawberry banana smoothies were launched last summer, and a mango pineapple flavor was added this year.

Caribou Coffee also began a line of smoothies with four mixed-fruit varieties. The company uses fruit in its oatmeal, yogurt parfaits, and bakery items, as well.

“We have evolved certain areas to accentuate fruit ingredients,” says Alfredo Martel, senior vice president of marketing for the coffee chain, based in suburban Minneapolis. “The trend is for more natural flavors that are sweet, nutritious, and, hopefully, healthy.”

Increased acceptance of various fruits is leading to many new menu items.

“New fruits and flavors emerge, like pomegranate now,” Martel says. “Remember when kiwi was all the rage? It was not part of the American palate at the time. And as we look at more ethnic flavors, that exploration naturally lends itself to fruit, too.”

That’s the case at Eegee’s, a 23-unit, Tucson, Arizona–based sub sandwich chain that features smooth, slushy-like beverages. There are three regular flavors—lemon, strawberry, and piña colada (coconut and pineapple)—plus a new flavor each month.

Robert Jensen, director of operations, says the chain’s restaurants are constantly looking for new flavors, including exotic fruits. At times, customers have needed a little while to get used to some items.

“We did a mango lime about eight years ago, and it was about 50-50; half of the people liked it and half didn’t,” he says. “But when we did mango this May, people loved it.”

As fruit has grown across the quick-serve menu, it remains key to desserts, especially ice cream.

“Fruit with cream in any form has been popular for many, many years,” says Ray Karam, senior tastemaster at Cold Stone Creamery. “It adds dimension.”

Strawberries are the top fruit at Cold Stone, followed by blueberries and raspberries. Most fruit is individually quick frozen, giving the company access to a wide array of flavors at any time.

Although Americans have become more open to exotic fruits, they don’t always like those stand-alone flavors in ice cream, Karam says. “To make it mainstream, sometimes you have to mix it with other fruits or ingredients,” he says.

Among Cold Stone’s new creations this summer were Strawberry Basil and Mojito, both mixing sweet and savory in ways that customers are more willing to try today.

The future is likely to see even more menu innovations with fruit, says McDonald’s Coudreaut, because consumer demand requires it.

“My team, for instance, is constantly saying, ‘How can we get more produce in the menu?’” he says. “You don’t want to push guests farther than they want to go. At the same time, it’s apparent that we’d like to have more fruit, whenever possible.”

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