Comfort foods and on-trend sides helped create brand consistency and unique menu items.

The past 12 months created a large amount of uncertainty for restaurant operators across the industry. Pivoting to off-premises, upholding safety regulations and protocols, managing a restaurant with fewer employees—the list goes on, but all of these things were moving targets, and restaurant brands had to find ways to adjust in a hurry.

With so much in flux, having strong relationships with foodservice vendors was imperative in order to ensure that ingredients were always available, giving restaurant operators one less thing to worry about. But some vendor partners went above and beyond in helping prepare on-trend, custom-made solutions that would help streamline operations and drive sales.

“Last year forced a lot of people to get outside of their comfort zones,” says Jeff Wirtz, corporate chef at Blount Fine Foods. “We tried to help simplify things by encouraging operators to do a lot of SKU rationing and to double down on items that were selling well.”

One of the top trends that Blount Fine Foods picked up on early in the pandemic was the growing appetite for comfort foods, and the vendor partner began making sure its clients had steady supplies of its fan-favorite soups and sides. In fact, Blount’s top-three selling side items of 2020 were all different styles of mac and cheese, an item that Datassential reports 62 percent of consumers associate with comfort food.

Seeing an industry-wide movement toward off-premises items that would feed a whole family, Blount began encouraging operators to use its popular mac and cheese varieties in family meal kits. Papa Gino’s, a New England pizza brand with about 100 locations, has held a 15-year relationship with Blount and was one of the brands that began menuing a family meal option during the pandemic.

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Blount helped Papa Gino’s create a new mac and cheese recipe that would help the brand take one of its catering items and transition it to a family meal option that  feeds a family of four for $6.99 a person. The pizza brand put their own twist on the indulgent mac and cheese, adding a buffalo chicken option to top it off. It’s similar to a unique offering that’s been on Papa Gino’s menu for a while now: Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese Pizza, made using Blount’s famous mac and cheese.

“One of the ways all restaurant brands are having to stay relevant is by offering points of differentiation on the menu,” says Deena McKinley, chief marketing officer at Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo. “Everybody is doing the same things when it comes to takeout items and family meal options, so having a foodservice partner that helps you create unique, high quality, fresh items is key.”

The Golden, Colorado–based Salad Collective—parent company of Mad Greens and Snappy Salads—owns a total of 41 restaurants across its two fast-casual brands, and also counts Blount Fine Foods among its most innovative, reliable vendors. In the fall of 2020, in order to help establish brand consistency and simplify operations, Snappy Salads went from making soups in-house to using a Creamy Jalapeno Soup made by Blount. The results were impressive, as Snappy Salads doubled its soup sales in the fourth quarter of 2020.

“With the exception of our soups, we make everything in house,” says Peggy Littleton, director of marketing and communications with Salad Collective. “So we have pretty high standards and want to make sure that whatever we put on our menu, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of a bag. Blount’s soups are exceptional in that way, and our customers often compliment the soup as though they think we made it from scratch.

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But the reason Littelton and her team most enjoy working with Blount is the reliability factor. She says that back in 2017, the vendor that had previously provided Mad Greens with soup was hard to count on, which created inconsistencies and left guests feeling like they didn’t even know if there would be soup on the menu at all, let alone which flavor. As Mad Greens began working with Blount, its culinary team sampled six different soups from Blount and settled on three they still have on the menu to this day: Creamy Chicken Poblano, Broccoli Cheddar, and Roasted Red Pepper and Smoked Gouda Bisque.

“Blount is such a reliable, consistent foodservice partner that makes a quality product that our guests love,” Littleton says. “I really can’t say enough about how much you can count on Blount.”

Wirtz and his team are proud of the relationships they have with clients like Mad Greens, Snappy Salads, Papa Gino’s, and DeAngelo, and the way those relationships evolved during the pandemic. In many ways the pandemic brought new challenges for Blount and the operators that it serves, but in other ways, helping ensure restaurants have what they need to be successful is such a part of Blount’s DNA that the challenges of the past year never changed its service approach.

“Throughout the pandemic, we never took our eye off the ball when it came to innovation,” Wirtz says. “We know eventually there’s going to be an end to this pandemic, and we want to have items that are always on trend and meet our clients’ needs from a packaging and preparation standpoint. Nothing changes. It’s always been: How can we deliver what operators need as effectively as we possibly can in order to make their lives easier and their restaurants successful?”

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