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.