Fresh has become a mantra of the restaurant industry these days, and there’s nothing that conveys fresh better than using raw items, particularly fruits and vegetables. The growth of salads on limited-service menus has fueled operators’ use of all types of raw foods, and there are an increasing number of menu items across all dayparts that rely on fresh fruits and vegetables for their taste, texture, and color.
Americans consumed 20 percent more fresh food in 2013 than they did a decade earlier, according to market research firm The NPD Group. The company expects all three dayparts to get even fresher during the next five years, driven by Millennials and Generation Z.
“There’s been a slow but steady shift to fresh food,” says Darren Seifer, NPD’s food and beverage industry analyst. “There seem to be a number of cultural reasons for this, but a significant factor is the impact of Millennials.”
The financial impact of the Great Recession and life changes, notably starting families, led many in that generation to prepare more meals at home, often using the fresh ingredients they had discovered at restaurants. But, even though Millennials have reduced their restaurant visits, they still dine out.
“When they do, they’re homing in on things they find valuable—like freshness,” Seifer says.
Safely cleaned raw fruits and vegetables also provide more nutritional value. “When foods are cooked, nutrients can be lost,” says Holly Michaels, marketing dietitian at blender manufacturer Blendtec. “Eating the food raw maintains its nutritional value.”
Another key factor in the rising use of raw food is America’s large and growing Hispanic demographic. Seifer says there is a strong emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables in that demographic’s meal preferences, especially among younger Hispanics. That shows up in various Mexican-inspired limited-service restaurants, such as lime wedges served with some tacos at Del Taco and chopped onions, tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables in menu items at Moe’s Southwest Grill.
One key raw item in Mexican cooking is the avocado, which is the main ingredient in guacamole. Avocados are increasingly showing up in their raw form, peeled and sliced.
El Pollo Loco serves fresh avocados in numerous items, including sliced in a line of Avocado Tostadas and chopped in several chicken burritos.
“It gives a fresh, premium halo,” says Heather Gardea, vice president of research and development at the Costa Mesa, California–based company. “We do make fresh guacamole, but we feel guests respond better to the real avocado.”
Whether they are served cold or in a warm burrito, the rich, creamy taste and texture of avocados holds up well, she adds. The fruit can balance an otherwise acidic or crunchy dish.
“I relate it to a bowl of tomato soup,” Gardea says. “After eating a little, you can get bored. But if you add croutons, bacon, and other ingredients, you wonder what the next bite will bring. You get all these textures.”
Avocados have gone beyond Southwestern cooking to become part of sandwich, salad, and entrée builds in hundreds of limited-service restaurants nationwide, ranging from the breakfast Anaheim Scrambler at Corner Bakery to Habit Burger’s Santa Barbara–Style Charburger. Key to the fruit’s growth is its plentiful year-round supply; California’s product is plentiful from spring through summer, while Mexico, Peru, Chile, and other nations produce avocados in other months.
“The other thing playing into it is a better understanding today than in years past of the nutritional value avocados bring to the table, as well as their versatility,” says Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission. “It adds a kind of richness to a dish when you can incorporate it. On the nutrition piece, the whole profile of good fats in the diet has become elevated in the consumer’s mind, and avocados are a great provider of good fat.”
El Pollo Loco also uses other raw fruits and vegetables to provide taste and texture, including serrano peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, lemons, and mangoes.
While raw produce is usually integrated in dishes, sometimes it’s served alone. McDonald’s began offering fresh, sliced apples as a kids’ meal option about a decade ago, and others followed. Some places feature small oranges and peeled carrots.
The most prominent use of raw fruits and vegetables at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, however, is in salads. Wendy’s has been a leader in this, having launched the Garden Sensations premium salads in 2002. In recent years, the Dublin, Ohio–based company has added fruit and nuts to its salads, which include vegetables like romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and red bell peppers.
This year, Wendy’s created an ad campaign that stresses its salads’ field-to-fork freshness, showing how the vegetables are washed, chopped, and hand-placed into salads at each unit. A companion Internet video shows the trek romaine makes to the restaurant.
“We wanted to get across not just the fact that we have salads, but what we do every day in our restaurants to prepare the freshest salads,” says Frank Vamos, director of brand communications. “Not a lot of customers know this, and it’s a story we’re very proud of.”
Outer leafs of lettuce are used in burgers and chicken sandwiches, and the rest goes into salads, says Shelly Thobe, director of culinary product innovations. Sliced cucumbers, diced tomatoes, and other ingredients are prepared daily as well.
“We have a strong supply chain and are constantly getting trucks to the restaurants [delivering produce],” she says. That results in few shelf-life issues.
Wendy’s features apples in its Apple Pecan Chicken Salad and used blueberries and California strawberries in its popular seasonal Berry Almond Chicken Salad.
Strawberries are a natural fit for a wide range of menu items, says Christine Christian, senior vice president of the California Strawberry Commission. “It’s a nice way to bring in natural sweetness, natural acids. It’s sweet, but it’s low in sugar.”
Pairing strawberries in salads with chicken has become popular because they balance each other, she adds. The fruit also can partner well with various nuts and cheeses. Beyond that, Christian says, strawberries provide a natural brightness to sauces, desserts, and beverages from craft drinks to smoothies.
Sliced fresh apples—both sweet and tart—have been a growing part of limited-service restaurant menus, both in single-serve portions for customers and in larger amounts for other items, such as salads, entrées, juices, and smoothies.
“We are servicing more quick-service restaurants these days,” says Tony Freytag, senior vice president of sales and marketing at apple provider Crunch Pak, based in Cashmere, Washington. “I think the majority today are used in salads, but we’re also seeing them in wraps.” Pre-sliced apples give operators a fresh option with fixed costs and minimal waste, he says.
For Jesse Gideon, chef and chief operating officer at Atlanta-based Fresh To Order, raw vegetables and fruit bring exceptional flexibility to a menu.
“One reason I use them on the menu in multiple places is because they are more versatile than proteins or sauces, not only to layer a wide variety of flavors, but also to play with textures,” he says.
One example is the Asian Chicken Crunch Panini, which features an almond-crusted chicken tender with ginger apricot coleslaw and avocado aioli and is served with green apples. “You get sweet, bitter, astringent, sharp, and a ton of different crunches,” Gideon says.
A roasted corn peanut relish is a component in several Fresh To Order dishes, including salmon. Fresh corn is shucked and the kernels are slightly grilled to change the flavor slightly. “Corn and peanuts together are an amazing flavor and texture,” Gideon adds.
Mushrooms, squash, zucchini, various tomato varieties, and other veggies dot the menu. Vegetables and fruit—many of them seasonal—appear not only in food, but also in beverages like cucumber water and citrus-mint sweet tea.
Menu items with raw fruit and vegetables come across as a lighter way of eating, especially in hot-weather areas, says Clint Woods, chef at Flower Child, a new fast-casual chain developed by Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts. “There’s nothing as refreshing as cool fruits and vegetables,” he says.
Flower Child uses a wide range of raw foods in its menu: kale, apples, avocados, heirloom carrots and tomatoes, radishes, Peppadew peppers, beets, broccoli, lemons, cauliflower, and more.
“We’re open to whatever the local farms are growing and try to work it into the menu,” Woods says. That extends to beverages, including seasonal lemonades.
Raw produce is not only full of vitamins and minerals, but it also brings color to the plate. “Our food is bright and fresh, with the beautiful raw colors of the vegetables,” he adds.
One restaurant industry segment historically using raw vegetables is pizza. Onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and mushrooms are particular favorites atop the baked pies.
At Miami-based Pizza Rustica, all kinds of vegetables make their way onto pizzas. Eggplant, zucchini, and squash are part of the Con Vegetable pizza, along with red and green peppers, broccoli, and red onions.
“We use only fresh ingredients, nothing frozen,” says the Roman-style pizza chain’s chef and founder, Pino Piroso. “We don’t even have freezers in our stores.”
Part of Pizza Rustica’s concept is to serve a full meal on a piece of pizza, Piroso says, and that can include pizza with proteins and vegetables or with produce alone, such as the Pizza con Potate, with slices of Yukon Gold potatoes among its ingredients. There’s also fresh fruit—strawberries and bananas—on a dessert pizza.
While most restaurants have raw ingredients as a part of their menus, some operators, particularly those featuring juices and smoothies, make dominant use of them.
“Raw fruits and veggies provide all the nutrients as advertised,” says Noah Burgess, research and development scientist at Juice It Up! “High levels of heat will de-nature the vitamins in fruits and vegetables.”
The Irvine, California–based chain uses 14 raw fruits and vegetables for its juices, smoothies, and açaí bowls. Among these ingredients, kale is “the big guy” for nutrition, he says, rich in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as numerous minerals.
Juices typically combine sweet and tart ingredients, while smoothies need a balance of vegetables and fruit for flavor and texture. For example, Juice It Up!’s Ever Green smoothie has kale and spinach, plus apple juice, lemonade, pineapple, and lime and pineapple sherbets.
The fruit in smoothies and bowls is often flash frozen, but Burgess says there’s no drop in nutritional value with these ingredients, noting that “freezing is nature’s pause button.”
While blenders are important for juices and smoothies, there are other roles the devices can play in helping chefs create menu items with raw vegetables and fruit.
“A number of sauces use raw ingredients, such as a tomato sauce or pesto sauce,” says Blendtec’s Michaels. “Salad dressings also can be made with raw ingredients.”
While heating vegetables in soup causes them to lose some nutritional benefits, she adds, they can retain those nutrients by being blended into cold or even warm soups.
“Warm soups are still considered raw at 110 degrees,” she says. “You can run it through the blender for 70–90 seconds, which warms it up. You don’t have to worry about putting it on the stovetop.”