Menu Innovations | June 2010 | By Barney Wolf

Sacre Bleu, Cheese!

There’s one ingredient that can take your concept from fast food to fancy food quick. It’s blue cheese.

As restaurants look to establish extra color and flavor in their menus, they are discovering that they can easily add a little bit of blue—blue cheese, that is.

Americans are increasingly experimenting with more robust flavors, so the big, flavorful, and salty taste of blue cheese is no longer restricted to wine and cheese parties and white tablecloth bistros. It’s part of everyday restaurant life.

“People are getting more educated and exposed to foods of all kinds and with many flavors,” says Liz Thorpe, vice president of Murray’s Cheese, a New York cheese retailer. “Today, blue cheese is a common option among Americans, both at home and in restaurants.”

A recent survey by Technomic, a Chicago-based food research and consulting firm, found a 9 percent jump in blue cheese menu items at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants during the past two years. And the cheese is showing up in all types of menu categories.

Consumers “want something different,” says Scott Robert Paul, chef and Southeast sales manager for Wisconsin-based BelGioioso Cheese Inc. Restaurants are seeking “more savory ingredients instead of a slice of cheddar, which has been done forever.”

At the same time, “adding blue cheese increases the perceived quality of the menu items and can be sold at a higher price point,” says Bernadette Noone, director of product management at Technomic.

Although blue cheese is a relatively recent addition to the typical American’s palate, it has been a staple for years in Europe, where that cheese had its origins.

The name blue cheese is derived from the blue veins or spots created by a penicillium mold that grows naturally within the cheese made from the milk of cows, sheep, or goats.

It can be soft or hard, mild or intense, and includes varieties such as Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton, and Cabrales, says John Fischer, an associate professor in hospitality and service management at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and author of Cheese.

“When you’re making a cheese at the outset, you’re deciding if it is hard or soft cheese by how big the curd is” before it is squeezed and pressed, he says. Aging also has an effect, because “the more it ages, the more it dries. Like a sauce, what remains is more intense.”

With blue cheese, “the feistiest varieties have more veining, with more flavor and fat content,” Fischer says.

“Customers came to crave very robust flavors, so blue cheese stuck with the market after the low-carb fad came and went,” says Tom Ryan, a long-time restaurant veteran and the founder of Smashburger, a 55-unit, Denver-based burger chain that launched in 2007.

But not all blue cheeses are the same. Café Express features crumbled Danish blue cheese as part of a Smoked Turkey Cobb salad, which also includes turkey, several types of lettuce, half an avocado, grape tomatoes, bacon, chopped eggs, and homemade croutons in a vinaigrette dressing.

“We had very specific criteria for our blue cheese, and that’s why we chose the more expensive Danish one,” says Greg Martin, corporate chef for Café Express, which has 17 locations in Texas.

“It had to have the blue color, unlike cheaper kinds that can be sort of greenish,” Martin says. “It is not overly salted like an inferior cheese, and it has good crumble. That means it doesn’t gum up or stick together after it is crumbled from a wheel of cheese.”

Many fast-casual restaurants have made blue cheese part of their salad offerings. For instance, Zoup!, a 22-unit soup and salad chain based in Southfield, Michigan, offers a Sonoma salad with Gorgonzola, sliced almonds, dried cranberries, and raspberry vinaigrette.

And at Village Burger Bar, a three-store operation in the Dallas area, cofounder and menu developer Susan Matta created the Baby Blue salad, which features blue cheese crumbles, greens, strawberries, oranges, and sweet-and-spicy pecans with tangerine balsamic vinaigrette.

While blue cheese has long been popular in salads, the biggest breakthrough for American mass acceptance of the colorful cheese occurred in 1964 at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. That’s when Dominic Bellissimo, the bar owner’s son, asked his mother, Teressa, to prepare something for a few hungry pals who stopped by the bar one night.

She took some chicken wings destined for the stockpot and fried them. Then she mixed the fried wings in a hot sauce she whipped up and served them with sticks of celery and a dipping sauce that included blue cheese, wine, and several other ingredients. And Buffalo wings were born.

Today, more than two-dozen quick-service and fast-casual restaurant operations offer some sort of Buffalo chicken sandwich, wrap, or panini. While some skipped the blue cheese dressing and opted for a milder variety, most retained the original style.

At O’Naturals, a small, Maine-based organic fast-casual chain, blue cheese is a major ingredient in the Buffalo Chicken flatbread sandwich, mainly because of tradition, says Mac McCabe, president and CEO. Customers can add blue cheese to other O’Naturals sandwiches, but it’s “rarely chosen” for anything other than Buffalo Chicken.

Blue cheese is also well known for its versatility with beef. “Beef is generally fatty and rich, and it is balanced very well by something sharp and salty, like a blue cheese,” says cheese expert Thorpe.

Blue cheese is among the top five favorite cheeses chosen for build-your-own burgers at The Counter, a modern update of the classic burger joint. The Culver City, California, chain launched in 2003 and has 23 locations in nine states, along with two overseas.

Founder Jeff Weinstein says The Counter uses Danish blue cheese, because it is “mild enough for the nonadventurous and still pungent enough for the real blue cheese lovers.” It also has “great texture” atop beef, turkey, chicken, and veggie patties.

While beef and blue cheese work well, bacon can add even more flavor. “The blue cheese certainly complements the bacon’s sweetness,” says the Culinary Institute’s Fischer.

Smashburger includes blue cheese and bacon as options for its build-your-own, one-third-pound Angus-beef burgers, but the cheese and bacon are also ingredients in special burgers created for restaurants in specific states.

When the three-year-old chain opened its first store in Iowa, it launched the Iowa Smashburger for local markets. The burger has Maytag blue cheese, Applewood-smoked bacon, haystack onions, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise on an egg bun.

Maytag blue cheese was first produced in 1941 at a dairy farm owned by the Maytag appliance family, using an Iowa State University process for making blue cheese from homogenized milk. Smashburger offers the more expensive Maytag blue only in Iowa.

When the company entered New Jersey late last year, the chain hearkened back to the great steakhouses of the region to create the New Jersey Smashburger. The beef burger is topped with Applewood-smoked bacon, blue cheese crumbles, grilled onions, haystack onions, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise served on an onion bun.

A similar steakhouse philosophy is behind the Bobby Blue Burger at Bobby’s Burger Palace, a five-unit fast-casual chain developed with celebrity chef Bobby Flay. And this year, one of the world’s largest quick-service restaurant companies, Wendy’s, added its own blue cheese burger, the Bacon & Blue burger, after testing it last year.

The quarter-pound burger is topped with mild blue cheese crumbles, Applewood-smoked bacon, sautéed onions, creamy steakhouse-style sauce, lettuce, and tomatoes.

Finding the right blue cheese was key to developing the sandwich, and Wendy’s had to work with its supplier to get the right balance, says company spokesman Denny Lynch.

“The profile is not as dramatic as some varieties,” he says. “Blue cheese can be repellant to people, but ours is toned back a little. I’ve had people who say they don’t like blue cheese call this a great cheeseburger. But if you like blue cheese, this also will be on your radar screen, because the cheese is still very flavorful.”

One of the more unusual blue cheese and beef offerings is the Tri-tip and Bleu sandwich at the Red Smoke Grill in Pleasanton, California. Tri-tip is a bottom sirloin sold extensively in California, and it is cooked using the Santa Maria barbecue style, named for the central California coastal town where it became popular.

Owner Jim Painter says his seven-year-old fast-casual restaurant uses Stella brand blue cheese crumbles on the sandwich, along with caramelized onions and horseradish sauce. And it’s not just burgers, chicken, and salads that use blue cheese in the quick-service restaurant industry. Pizza has long employed Gorgonzola as a cheese topping, and at least one small Wisconsin pizza chain offers a blue-cheese pizza.

Glass Nickel Pizza developed the Socre Bleu Pizza, with crumbled blue cheese, Canadian bacon, yellow onions, hard salami, and fresh-diced tomato. Walnuts are added on request.

“It’s been on the menu nine or 10 years, and it’s pretty popular,” says Megan Nicholson, one of the owners. “I think some people are a little wary of the walnuts, but that’s what makes it. When people say they want to try something different, that’s the one I suggest.”

A pizza with Gorgonzola, Granny Smith apples, Applewood-smoked chicken sausage, walnuts, sautéed yellow onions, and house blend cheese is being tested.

Soup is another menu segment for creative chefs to try blue cheese.

The Pumpkin Butternut Squash soup at Souper Jenny, a 10-year-old Atlanta shop, uses Point Reyes blue cheese crumbles to top the dish. In addition to pumpkin and squash, the soup includes onions, garlic, and vegetable stock.

“The Point Reyes variety seems to work best,” owner Jenny Levison says of blue cheese from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. in Marin County, California. “It crumbles well and I like the texture. The soup has a savory, creamy flavor, and a little goes a long way.”

At San Francisco Soup Company, the zucchini and blue cheese soup “is an example of how we try to upscale soup,” says Steven Sarver, co-owner of the 11-unit, Bay-area chain.

“Broccoli cheddar soup is known around the country, so we upgraded it with zucchini and blue cheese,” he says. The zucchini is oven-roasted, with some of it diced and some puréed before being added to the soup stock. The blue cheese provides flavor and texture.

Some side dishes even count on blue cheese, including the macaroni and cheese at Boston Market.

“We use three cheeses, and blue cheese is one of them,” says Richard F. Davis, vice president of culinary innovation at the chain headquartered in Golden, Colorado. “Blue cheese is not a huge percentage of the recipe, but it’s enough to make a difference.

About six years ago, The Loop Pizza Grill started serving warm blue cheese potato chips at the chain’s 19 restaurants in the Southeast.

“Because we are counter service, it is hard to serve appetizers,” says Cathy Manzon, director of marketing. “But since it takes up to 15 minutes to cook the entrées, we thought the blue cheese chips would be a possible option for customers.”

Thin potato slices are deep fried and topped immediately with rosemary, thyme, and salt. The Loop’s homemade blue cheese dressing is drizzled on, crumbled blue cheese is added, and the chips are heated before being garnished with thyme, oregano, and parsley.

“They have gone over great,” Manzon says.