Fermentation Fervor: How Chefs Boost Flavor And Health

There’s an explosion of interest in friendly bacteria.

Beneficial microorganisms, can help us digest food, make vitamins, and protect us against harmful pathogens.

As this idea gains traction, so too does the popularity of fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi.

Though the science is tricky, researchers are learning more about how this ancient technique for preserving food may also help promote good health.

For instance, the bacteria in yogurt have been shown to aid digestion, and making cabbage into sauerkraut by fermenting it “increases glucosinolate compounds believed to fight cancer,” explains a Tufts University Health & Nutrition publication.

So, what’s next in fermentation? Chefs and do-it-yourself enthusiasts are using microorganisms to coax new, complex flavors out of foods.

“Cooks around the world have begun to discover (or, more accurately, to rediscover) the possibilities of using fermentation processes in the kitchen,” writes Arielle Johnson, a flavor chemist, in an article titled “Artisanal Food Microbiology” published in Nature Microbiology this spring.

Johnson works for MAD, a nonprofit food organization based in Copenhagen that was founded by Rene Redzepi, the chef-patron of the acclaimed restaurant Noma.

Fermentation, she explains, is loosely defined as the transformation of food by microorganisms.”When you ferment something, you create flavour,” Johnson writes.

From soy sauces to vinegars, breads, cheeses, and, of course, wines and beers, “fermentation processes are key to elaborate well-known delicacies,” Johnson says.
Food is biologically transformed by the bacteria and other microorganisms that live in or on it. “In general, a pool of larger-molecular-weight, and usually less flavor-active molecules …. are transformed into a more diverse group of tastier, smaller molecules, such as amino acids, organic acids, esters … and aromatic compounds,” Johnson explains.

As more chefs experiment with microorganisms “to transform ingredients and create new flavors,” fermentation has gone from preservation technique to culinary tool — one that’s “every bit as essential as a paring knife or frying pan,” Johnson argues.

In addition to the innovations at Noma in Copenhagen, Johnson points to kitchens around the world, such as Sean Brock’s restaurant Husk in Charleston, S.C., Momofuku in New York, and Bar Tartine in San Francisco, that are experimenting with these techniques.

During aging a number of chemical processes transform humble ingredients. For instance, black garlic picks up caramel notes during browning. Hints of dried fruit come out. Also, natural microbes on the garlic bulb can ferment, creating more distinct flavors.
“I’m a huge fan of black garlic,” chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill. “We serve it with vegetables mostly.” Barber says he’s made his own, but he also imports black garlic from Japan, where they’re marketed under the name Fruit Garlic of Japan. It’s “insanely good,” Barber says.

So, as chefs catch the bug, academics are elevating fermentation to a higher level, too. For instance, there’s now a fermentation certificate program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

And, at the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park, N.Y., there’s a new focus on the fermented product that has perhaps the widest appeal in our culture: beer. The school now offers an elective course, the art and science of brewing, taught in the newly built brewery on campus.

Students are taught the basics of brewing, with a focus on science. “I would say the most exciting development has been the ready use of wild yeast and bacteria in beer fermentation,” says Hutch Kugeman, head brewer at the CIA.

Using wild yeast and bacteria “allows a range of really interesting flavors in beers, from the tart lemon of lactobacillus to the funky barnyard aromas of brettanomyces,” Kugeman says.

So it seems from chefs to brewers, foodies are turning to microorganisms to amp up flavor.

* Abridged from an article by Allison Aubrey, NPR Food

Vegetables Take Center Stage

American diners have historically had an uneasy relationship with vegetables, as the order to “eat your [frequently overcooked] vegetables” made their consumption a punitive chore that took the fun out of nightly supper for legions of kids. Now our attitudes may be changing for the better, as the category receives a strong boost from thought leaders like The Culinary Institute of American, which sponsors seminars devoted to plant-forward menus, and from influential chains like Panera Bread, which touts the benefits of plant-based dishes. Last fall the United States Department of Agriculture reported that just three vegetables — white potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce — account for nearly 60 percent of consumption and called on consumers to broaden their vegetal horizons. Chefs in all segments are working overtime to make that happen.

The restaurant By Chloe in New York City boasts plant-based food that “fuels without compromising flavor” and innovates with vegan specialties like the Pesto Meatball Sandwich, in which portobello mushrooms stand in for the meat and cashew mozz and almond parm substitute for conventional cheese. [Editor note: NRN named the concept as a 2016 Breakout Brand.] Superiority Burger, also in New York, has created a vegetarian menu that includes the eponymous meatless burger, along with the Superiority Wrap that is made from brown rice and tofu topped with cabbage-sunflower crunch and the Sloppy Dave that combines tofu and tomato sauce topped with frizzled onions.

While not strictly a vegetarian restaurant, Beefsteak in Washington, D.C., employs the catchphrase Vegetables Unleashed to describe its celebration of produce. The Gazpacho Bowl Salad combines the classic soup ingredients atop romaine, while the Beefsteak Tomato Burger surprises by replacing the burger patty with a generously sliced beefsteak tomato topped with condiments like pickled red onions and capers.

Taco Bell made a splash late last year when it became the first quick-service chain to offer menu items certified by the American Vegetarian Association. The chain, which was already selling more than 350 million vegetarian menus items each year, offers 13 AVA-certified items like the 7-Layer Burrito. Patrons can also swap out meat for beans in any of the chain’s entrées. Applebee’s Grill & Bar recently introduced new side dishes including fire-grilled veggies. Applebee’s recently underwent a system-wide revamp that introduced a wood-fired-grill cooking platform; at the same time, the chain enhanced its side-dish offerings with new fire-grilled veggies, garlicky green beans and maple-pecan mashed sweet potatoes. A few years back, LongHorn Steakhouses launched a rotating Peak Seasons menu that promises the freshest picks of the season. This summer’s feature was fire-grilled corn on the cob with Mexican crema and Parmesan cheese, and flavors of fall include smoked-Gouda green beans. Fast-casual Smashburger features signature Veggie Frites, flash-fried fresh green beans and carrot strips, as a permanent menu option.

With the USDA indicating that about one-third of all vegetables consumed by Americans are potatoes, many chains are working overtime to spiff up this side-dish workhorse. Smashburger’s signature Smashfries, for example, are tossed in olive oil, garlic and rosemary, while Mimi’s Café, based in Dallas, underscores its French heritage with hand-cut, scratch-made, double-fried Russet potatoes, seasoned with sea salt and herbs in the classic French frites style. IHOP offers red potato hash, and Memphis, Tenn.-based LYFE Kitchen amps up the flavor factor with its chipotle potato hash.

Spiralized vegetables have been having a moment, as food bloggers tout their low-starch, gluten-free superiority to conventional pastas. The simple technique takes a peeler to a range of vegetables, frequently a variety of squash, to create pasta-like strands. Restaurants are responding to the trend. The Salmon and Zoodles at TR Fire Grill in Winter Park, Fla., combines zucchini pasta with asparagus, sweet drop peppers, green apples and Feta cheese finished with pistachio-Romesco sauce. Houlihan’s dishes up Spiralized Butternut Squash & Sausage Lasagna made with butternut squash “noodles,” herbed ricotta cheese, Italian sausage, marinara and mozzarella. This featured main course goes round in circles a second time with the special pesto-zucchini “noodle” salad on the side. And on different but equally innovative note, Snap Kitchen based in Austin, Texas, provides healthful meals like Grilled Kale “Hoppin’ John,” a take-off on the venerable Southern beans-and-rice dish. This version consists of Spanish rice, black beans, lentil, pumpkin seed, kale, lemon hummus and sweet potatoes spiked with chile flakes, cumin and paprika

* Abridged from an article by Nancy Kruse, President of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta.

Ten Trends Set to Reshape the Foodservice Business

Insects and plant foods are expected to move more into the mainstream.
In the future, restaurant guests will choose a diet based on their unique microbial profile.

Proteins on restaurant menus will not necessarily mean meat, but could mean crickets or plants.

And smart phones will have sensors that will allow chefs to tell when a melon is ripe or guests to verify whether that fish on their plate is really sea bass.

That’s how William Rosenzweig, dean and executive director of the Food Business School at The Culinary Institute of America, described the food industry in the very near future. He outlined his predictions at the 20th Annual UCLA Extension Restaurant Industry Conference held in Los Angeles.

Launched last year at the CIA campus in St. Helena, CA, the school is designed to meet the needs of a growing number of students interested less in culinary careers and more in rapidly changing global food systems, as entrepreneurs or corporate innovators.

Now on the CIA’s Greystone campus, the school will soon move into the 80,000-square-foot Copia facility created by wine maker Robert Mondavi as an American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in nearby Napa. The site has been vacant for about eight years.

The Northern California facility is also at the epicenter of the increasingly integrated worlds of food, agriculture and technology, with the restaurants and wine of the Napa Valley, the farms of the Sacramento Valley and the digital startups of Silicon Valley all nearby.

Here are some of the changes Rosenzweig contends will reshape the American dining scene in the next few years:

1. Biology of food is the new digital. Scientists are just beginning to understand the world of the human microbiome, the microorganisms in the body and in our food and soil that are vital to health, said Rosenzweig.

That research will lead to a new way of thinking about food that goes beyond nutritional content.

“Food will really become medicine,” he said. “We’re going to realize that we have this other intelligence in our gut that we don’t know yet what to do with.”

Farmers will begin talking about manipulating the biome of the products they produce, said Rosenzweig.

We’ll move from nutritional recommendations for society as a whole to uniquely personalized diets that speak to individual bacterial systems, he said. And consumers will eventually have their microbiome scanned, which will produce a huge database that could play into nutrition research.

2. The quantified self. With more consumers using Fitbits and Apple Watches, devices that collect individual data will increasingly play a role in consumer food choices.

3. Precision agriculture. Farms will have robots that apply fertilizer and pesticides only where needed on the fields, creating more efficiency and a path for more sustainable practices.

Rosenzweig contends indoor agriculture will become the next boom for farmers and the movement will transform cities as growers move into facilities across the country to produce truly local fruits and vegetables.

4. Meal delivery is here to stay. The logistics of moving food from point A to point B will improve rapidly, and consumers will increasingly embrace the home delivery of all manner of meals.

Already delivery has created a new meal occasion, said Rosenzweig. “It’s the ‘I don’t have time to cook, but I don’t want to go out’ meal occasion.”

5. Alternative proteins. Meat will no longer be the center of the plate, but crickets and plants will become the new protein.

“This is the biggest sea change that will come fast,” said Rosenzweig. “How long it will last and for whom remains to be seen. But we’re going to need a whole new vocabulary for these foods.”

6. Robotics. Momentum Machines later this year is scheduled to open a restaurant in San Francisco where robots cook burgers without any human intervention.

More automation is coming, said Rosenzweig, and integrating such technologies will be fraught with tough decisions for restaurant operators.

“That’s why we need the Food Business School, to better address those challenging issues,” he said.

7. The internet of food. Both residential and commercial kitchens will increasingly be connected by a network of intelligent data systems.

Already, major appliance makers are putting in sensors that will help restaurant operators manage their inventory with more precision, a trend that will significantly reduce food waste, said Rosenzweig.

9. Sensing and sensors. As soon as 2017, smart phones will be built with sensors with which people can scan food to get information. A chef could tell when a melon is ripe, for example, or a diner could identify the type of fish in their sushi. Wine makers could pinpoint the sugar content in their grapes, he said.

10. Data and personalization. Chefs will soon be able to turn to the internet to easily manipulate recipes to fit specific dietary needs. If they need a recipe for beef bourguignon, for example, that’s low in fat and uses no salt, a growing number of sources will provide that information quickly.

*Abridged from an article by Lisa Jennings: [email protected]

 

Menus Adapt to Appeal to Nation of Snackers

America is truly a nation of snackers: Adults in this country snacked on ready-to-eat foods more than 200 billion times in 2015, according to consumer research firm The NPD Group.

We snack so much that there are now three snacking dayparts in restaurants — mid-morning, late afternoon and late night — that together make up 18 percent of all restaurant dining occasions, according to NPD. That makes it one percentage point larger than breakfast in terms of number of visits. And that doesn’t count the many times when traditional meals are transformed from a sandwich at lunch or an appetizer and entrée at dinner to a flexible, sharable snack fest, or a lighter meal for the budget- or calorie-conscious.

The latter is happening at Genji Izakaya, a new restaurant serving Japanese snacks that opened on March 1 inside the Whole Foods Market at New York City’s Time Warner Center. The restaurant replaces a bar that served a meal-oriented menu of burgers, fries and the like.

Genji also operates sushi and ramen restaurants at Whole Foods Markets across the country. This is its first izakaya — a Japanese word that translates loosely as “tavern.”

The new menu includes sliders served on steamed buns for $4 apiece, filled with chashu pork, shrimp tempura, spicy chicken or tofu. It also offers quick bites for $3 to $7, including edamame, dumplings, a seared salmon “carpaccio” in ponzu, and a “taco trio” of spicy tuna, salmon and shrimp tempura served in shells of thin soy paper or nori seaweed.

Also available — and quite popular — are mini bowls of ramen for $9, which are about two-thirds the size of $11 full servings at the nearby Genji ramen and sushi restaurants.

Greg Neal, regional operations manager for parent company Genji LLC, said the Izakaya is seeing strong lunch and post-work dinner rushes.

“At lunch they usually order ramen and one other thing,” Neal said. “At dinner they’ll get a snack and a beer, and then maybe order something a little bigger as they linger, as you would at a typical izakaya [in Japan].”

Snacking revenue is on the rise at many restaurants, according to a study conducted in February by Penton Food and Restaurant Group, which includes Nation’s Restaurant News, and sponsored by Mondelez. The study found that 43 percent of restaurant operators saw an increase in revenue from snacks in the past two years, while 53 percent said snack sales were flat. Only 4 percent said snack sales “decreased somewhat,” and none said they “decreased significantly.”

Many operators have responded to the increase in snack food business.

“We take our bar food just as seriously as we do full-on menu items,” said Brian Landry, chef at Borgne, a New Orleans restaurant that is part of the Besh Restaurant Group. “We have lots of outlets where having great bar food becomes very relevant,” he said.

Bar snacks need to be quick, easy and approachable, Landry said, which at his restaurant includes catfish sliders served with a tartar sauce made with both dill pickles and bread-and-butter pickles. The sliders are topped with a green tomato chow chow, a Southern-style slaw that Landry makes by pouring a hot mixture of vinegar, pickling spices and turmeric over diced green tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and red bell peppers, and letting it chill.

He also does a take on turkey necks, a not uncommon addition to local crawfish bowls. He braises the necks in a traditional French mixture of mirepoix and red wine, chills them in the liquid, and rolls them in crab-boil spices and rice flour before flash-frying them.

“They get incredibly crispy and spicy on the outside, but they’re falling-off-the-bone tender,” Landry said.

The necks are finished with a glaze of housemade pepper jelly.

Landry also taps his bar menu, which he rotates based on what’s available, to use up trim from the dining room menu. For example, he’ll buy whole yellowfin tuna and use the loins for the restaurant.

“But there’s all this other meat on a tuna that we might not necessarily put center of the plate,” he said.

Instead, he cooks it with olive oil, garlic and bay leaves, smokes it over pecan wood, flakes the meat, and mixes it with cream cheese and capers for a spread that he serves with spiced potato chips, crackers or bruschetta.

“It’s a fun way for us to utilize the entire fish, but also to make a delicious snack that people can dig on when they’re having wine or delicious beer,” Landry said.

Dylan Fultineer agreed that snacks should be straightforward. Fultineer is the chef of Rapp Session in Richmond, Va., and its sister farm-to-table restaurant next door, Rappahannock. Both are owned by the Rappahannock Oyster Company, which farms oysters in Chesapeake Bay. The company opened Rapp Session in February to handle the overflow from its high-end neighbor, and to make that restaurant a bit more sedate.

Fultineer creates local, approachable food that people can relate to, like his smoked bluefish dip. He brines the inexpensive fish overnight with salt, sugar, dill, garlic and other aromatics, then hot-smokes it until cooked through. He flakes it and mixes it with crème fraîche, red onion, cucumber, dill and lemon juice, and serves it with saltines. The dip is one of his most popular items, he said.
Most of the bar food is priced between $2 and $8, but Fultineer offers a more substantial $15 oyster roll, which is his take on a lobster roll. He poaches oysters in butter and serves them on a brioche bun that he tops with his own chow chow, which he describes as “sort of a sweet sauerkraut,” and a housemade, fermented, green jalapeño hot sauce.

“Shareable, snacky items” will also be the focus of Columbus Tap, a restaurant slated to open in April at the Fairmont Chicago hotel, chef Atticus Garant said.

The lineup includes trendy “toasts,” including one with crushed avocado, lemon and olive oil vinaigrette, shaved radishes, hot pepper and hydroponic watercress.

Another will be spread with smoked ranch — made by cold-smoking sour cream and folding it with herbs such as tarragon, oregano, parsley and chives into ranch dressing. The toast will be topped with pieces of rotisserie chicken, Nueske’s bacon, lettuce, cured tomatoes, lemon vinaigrette and herbs.

Garant said he is using sourdough and multigrain bread from local Publican Quality Bread for the toasts.

Other snackable items include artichokes that he treats like fried chicken — soaking them in buttermilk and then dredging them in spiced flour before frying them. He also plans to make “animal crackers,” a bowl of fried pork cracklings tossed in spice dust that reflects the flavors of Buffalo wings.

According to the Penton-Mondelez study, taste is far and away the most important quality customers are looking for in a snack: 52 percent of respondents said it was the most important characteristic, and 31 percent put it in second place.

By comparison, nutrition was only ranked the top choice by 2 percent of respondents, and 17 percent put it in second place. Most put convenience and price between taste and nutrition.

Nonetheless, Garant said variety is important, and he plans more healthful items to contrast the chicken-fried artichokes and pork cracklings.

They include a braised sunchoke salad with carrot, celery root and an olive oil vinaigrette, as well as charred broccoli with an “umami bomb” vinaigrette made of sundried tomatoes, capers, tomato powder, olive oil and lemon.

He is also planning a dish of roasted romanesco broccoli, for which he rubs the heads in compound butter, roasts them whole, slices them in half and serves three halves with preserved lemon, herbed relish and Parmesan cheese.

STK, a 13-unit steakhouse based in New York City, is taking a more indulgent route with its recently launched “Classic Hour,” which features classic cocktails and, at its downtown Manhattan location, not-so-classic sliders on weekdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Bradley Day, chef of the downtown location, said the slider fillings include crispy char siu chicken with spicy Asian slaw, barbecue pork belly with a cipollini onion applesauce, tempura sweet-and-sour shrimp, and a vegetarian slider made with grilled shiitake mushroom and garlic herb aïoli, as well as a classic with white Cheddar and special sauce.

“Here I think it’s a little bit about variety and speed,” Day said. “It’s very approachable — not too far out in left field.”

Day said the restaurant originally required customers to buy two of the same type of slider for $10, but now it lets them mix and match and add extra sliders for $5 each, although they still require a two-slider minimum.

It’s not uncommon for people to buy slider tastings, Day said, which is one of each, and share them with a group.

*Abridged from an article by Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Is Fermented Food a Recipe for Good Digestive Health?

Fermenting food is an ancient tradition which involves food being stored in airtight bottles in a salty mixture for many months. Fermentation as a way of preserving food dates back thousands of years, but it is now being held up as a potentially important source of friendly, health-giving bacteria. So should we all be eating sauerkraut and kimchi?

Allowing bacteria to form in a sealed jar of vegetables over a few months might not seem like the most appealing way to create an appetising dish, but fermentation has a lot going for it. Just ask the Koreans and Japanese, who have been fermenting vegetables, fish and beans for generations. When the Korean cabbage dish kimchi is made using traditional methods, cabbage is soaked in salt water to kill off any harmful bacteria. In the next stage, the remaining bacteria, called Lactobacillus, convert sugars and carbohydrate into lactic acid, which preserves the vegetables and gives them a tangy flavour that many people love. This type of bacteria is not the enemy – it is actually good for our digestion and for our health. We need it in our guts to fight off the harmful bacteria, restore the balance of our immune system and help the body to work at its best.

These “good bacteria” are called probiotics, which literally means “for life”, because of the job they do.
But are there enough of them in fermented food to make a difference?
Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and author of The Diet Myth – The Real Science Behind What We Eat, says it is a complicated picture.
“There are many fermented foods out there and not many have had formal testing so it’s difficult to know what they do,” he says. “But there’s nothing harmful about them if they are produced naturally, rather than using vinegar.” Yoghurt and cheese are the products of bacterial fermentation, while beer and wine are products of yeast fermentation Fermented food comes in many forms, for example, yoghurt, sour cream, sour dough bread, vegetables, chutneys and pickles. Often probiotics are added, in the form of live bacteria or yeast, if the foods are not made using lactic acid bacteria as in kimchi. Even wine and beer can be included on the fermented list, but they are not all beneficial to the same degree – and so they cannot all be classed as healthy. The most important consideration is whether the good bacteria can survive all the way through the gut to the bowel and the colon where they have a chance to be of benefit.

Studies suggest this is not guaranteed and that probiotics would have to be eaten regularly and in quite large numbers to survive the journey. If and when they manage to breed in the gut, scientists have a theory about the role they perform.

“We think they can allow production of chemicals called short-chain fatty acids, which improve the immune system, by keeping it balanced and stopping it over-reacting,” says Prof Spector.
A great deal of research is being carried out to find out if taking probiotics can improve the health of people with specific disorders. So far it has been suggested there could be benefits for those with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory diseases of the intestines. They may also improve allergies in babies and the health of people with weak immune systems. Lactobacillus bacteria produce lactic acid through the fermentation of carbohydrates; they are hostile to disease-causing bacteria. The very sick, the very young and the very old are mostly likely to benefit from probiotics if their guts are weakened, but as yet there is little evidence they do much for a healthy person. Instead, the key may be to focus on prebiotics, which feed the beneficial bacteria in our guts, nurturing them and helping them to grow. This is an area Dr Gemma Walton, a gut microbiologist from Reading University, has been investigating and she has found encouraging evidence that a prebiotic diet can increase the numbers of good bacteria in the gut.
Bananas are another prebiotic, but Dr Walton says: “You would need to eat 10 bananas a day to get enough of the compound.”Onions, asparagus, chicory and garlic act as prebiotics too. Sauerkraut (cabbage), yoghurt, kimchi and miso soup are just some of the fermented food products which contain the live microbes needed to keep the good bacteria alive for longer. However, Dr Walton says it is difficult to know which fermented foods will hit the spot. “All foods have a different mix of bacteria which means some will be more beneficial than others,” she says, before adding that bacterial ingredients in food products were often unclear.

Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made from fermented cabbage and other vegetables
There are trillions of bacteria living in our guts and on our bodies – more than 10 times the number of body cells in one individual.”If we can help to get more fibres down there in the gut then it’s a good thing,” she adds. The answer to all this may be found in British Gut Project, which is analysing the gut bacteria of 2,000 people. The aim is to find out which species of bacteria exist in the gut and which groups in the population have the most species in their bodies. Ultimately, researchers will be able to answer the question of whether there is such a thing as a perfectly healthy gut – and what feeds it.
Healthiest nations

The plan is then to compare national gut bacteria to find out which country has the healthiest diet.
Asian diets, which have a tradition of fermented foods, appear to lead to better gut health in countries such as China, Japan and Korea, where bowel diseases are less common.
So it would be no surprise if Western diets, which are dominated by sugar and processed food, are in need of more probiotics to top up the gut’s bacterial swamp.
In the meantime, Prof Spector suggests eating a variety of things you like.
“A bit of fruit and natural yoghurt for breakfast perhaps, try kefir, sauerkraut, miso soup, kimchi…” he says.

*Abridged from an article by Philippa Roxby, Health reporter, BBC News

Trending Tables for Spring

Consider The Bellwether, a Los Angeles gastropub with food that defies categorization. On the menu, there’s tempura cauliflower with mostly Thai flavors (chile, basil, fish sauce), Italian meatballs, and Octopus from the Eastern Mediterranean (with tabbouleh and preserved lemon). The Progress in San Francisco takes a similar global approach with its duck fried rice, rabbit with prune romesco, and a sunchoke roti with ranch dressing.

Many trendy restaurants this spring reflect chefs’ and their customers’ growing comfort with food from different parts of the world. Even restaurants that appear to have a specific cuisine in mind take advantage of the increasingly global American palate to blur lines: You would expect Tredici Enoteca in Philadelphia to be straight-up Italian, but the wine bar has a Mediterranean tasting board with hummus and falafel.

Atlanta seems to be on an Asian kick this spring, with chef Ford Fry dressing his tuna crudo with Thai herbs and fried shallots and Jed Hidinger using fermented shrimp broth with her rabbit — not to mention Guy Wong’s “Vietnamese brasserie,” Le Fat.

Then there are thematic mashups that might seem surprising at first but reflect the colonial past of the cuisines they represent. Indonesia was a colony of The Netherlands for centuries, and so the Dutch-Indonesian fusion at De Quay in Chicago makes sense. The small Indian state of Goa was long occupied by Portugal, and so you have the eclectic-seeming food of Oporto Fooding House & Wine in Houston.

Of course there’s plenty of regional American fare at trendy restaurants this spring, particularly southern food, and particularly fried chicken or riffs on it, such as the fried chicken coq au vin at Little Bird Bistro in Portland, Ore., or that same restaurant’s chicken-fried trout.

Also in Portland, there’s fried chicken with steamed clams (why not?) at Taylor Railworks. Soco in Orlando, Fla., has chicken-fried New York strip. Taylor Railworks, although southern in spirit, mixes things up considerably: Its chicken and dumplings comes with lobster dumplings, edamame and soy butter.

*abridged from an article by Bret Thorn at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Five Marketing Ideas to Keep Your Restaurant Top of Mind

With more than one million food service locations across the United States, restaurateurs don’t have to be reminded that they are vying for business in a fiercely competitive marketplace.

While industry pundits routinely state that food quality, service, and value must all remain top of mind in the daily struggle for share, they also maintain that an operation must have a strong and comprehensive marketing plan that will keep it high on the short list of today’s hungry consumer.

But with so many choices out there, how do you cut through the multitude of competing messages to ensure that your restaurant will stand out ?

This article explores key trends.

1. Mobile — why phones mean business:

Today’s consumers are on the go. It’s no surprise that the main resource for restaurant decision making is their phone. How can you make sure they choose your restaurant? Search is essential.

Consider this:

Google searches for “near me” have increased 34 times since 2011 and nearly doubled since last year, 80 percent of them come from mobile.
Half of all diners search for a restaurant within an hour of going.
(Source: Think with Google)

How can you make search engine optimization (SEO) work harder for you?

First, make sure you have the right terms on your website. Menu items are key. You’ll want to list them so that if someone searches for a type of food in the area, your restaurant comes up. You’ll also want to make it easy for your customers to find you. That’s why it’s vital to have location information listed on all of the most important publisher sites. There are a variety of services that accomplish this — making it easy to put all the information local consumers are searching for on top local listing sites, search engines, review sites, and mobile apps.

What else does this mobile trend mean?

Staying top of mind also means staying on top of email. According to recent survey results, 51 percent of emails are opened on mobile devices. Over 80 percent of consumers say it’s “extremely important” to be able to read emails on a smartphone. So if your email marketing isn’t mobile-friendly, you are missing out on business. Even if your emails aren’t being opened, the subject lines and presence in your target’s email can serve as an effective reminder when it’s time to eat.

Email marketing services, like Constant Contact, make it easy to use attractive, mobile-friendly templates that can bring your restaurant brand to life. They also enable flexibility so your other locations can edit them for local flavor.

2. Local events — more than just music:

Events are a strong draw for restaurants. From live music nights to birthday parties to one-of-a-kind neighborhood experiences, they are a useful way to bring in new and familiar customers. They are also a great way to add a local feel to a restaurant chain. Events will give your customers a good reason to try you, remember you, and keep coming back.

Your online marketing platform is an efficient way to promote events. There are services that can not only promote your event, but also turn events into a powerful business tool:

Event emails give you a reason to be in your customers’ inboxes and help you gain awareness.
Event landing pages help you track responses — capturing who’s registered and who hasn’t for targeted follow up.
Search and social help you gain visibility — social sharing of the event is a wonderful way to spread the news and increase exposure.
Event data can show you what locations or events are pulling in the best numbers. You can use that insight as an incentive or guide for other locations.
3. Relevant content:

Keeping your customers engaged requires a conversation. This is where content can help create an ongoing dialogue. There are many resources to help you develop content. From third-party sources and agencies to online marketing companies, there are a variety of ways to create content that can reach your customers and keep them interested in your restaurant.

Engage diners with new menu items, specials, promotions, and news through email, social media, and more.

Content is essential to creating a consistent brand — helping customers get to know your voice and reinforcing what to expect during their dining experience. Content is another effective method for adding local influence to your brand. Restaurants should provide a certain amount of content that can be customized for local outreach. Custom-branded templates are an easy way to create a cohesive brand look while also allowing flexibility for local adjustment.

4. Social media promotions — spreading the word:

Photographs of amazing food. A comment about a great meal. Clicking yes to attending a restaurant event. Shouting out a great deal. Restaurant experiences have naturally become an everyday presence in social media. How can you help spread the word?

Leverage your existing content that is being sent through email and post it on your social platforms: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more.
Choose a platform like Hootsuite that allows you to preschedule your content. Remember, you want to have a continuous conversation with your customers and keep them interested, so having a plan for content is critical.
Have a great offer? Gate your offer so prospects need to connect with you to take advantage.
Content can get buried on social media. Only a small number of your followers may see your organic posts, so paid advertising on Facebook is an ideal combination to get maximum exposure. And now, thanks to services that can pull your email content and contact lists into Facebook, accomplishing this is easier than ever.
5. Loyalty programs — devotion is good for your bottom line:

According to a CX Pulse Study, the frequency of brand interaction builds loyalty and advocacy: 87 percent daily, 64 percent weekly, 49 percent monthly and 33 percent a few times a year. This is why loyalty programs are a crucial way to talk to your favorite customers and deepen the relationship so they keep coming back to your establishment. Some key ways to make loyalty programs work for you:

Make it personal. Your customers want to feel special. So make sure you communicate with them on their special days such as birthdays and anniversaries. This is a great way to build engagement and remind them where they should go to celebrate.
Loyalty saves. Coupons and discounts still remain an effective way to reward your most frequent customers and encourage repeat business. Tracking redemption will show you the offers that are working the best. Use the data to follow the success or improve future efforts
Loyal can be casual. Now that it’s easy to track who your top diners are, you don’t need to have formal loyalty programs. It can be as simple as tracking their purchase history and tagging frequent customers within your email platform so you know who’s eligible for loyalty deals. With a system like Constant Contact, you can add as many tags as you’d like to send customers more targeted campaigns.

* Abridged from an article by  – Constant Ron Cates and is one of the country’s top email and social media marketing experts. 

Commodity Costs Start Helping Restaurants

Food costs have been on something of a roller coaster in the post-recessionary environment. Unfortunately for restaurants, so have sales. And the coasters have largely coincided. So if sales were up, so were costs. When costs fell, sales fell too.

That has changed this year. Costs have started coming down at the same time that sales improved for the first time since 2006.

Consider the third quarter of this year. According to the latest benchmarking report from the consulting firm BDO, prime restaurant costs fell 0.4 percent in the quarter, to 59.1 percent of sales from 59.5 percent. Restaurant same-store sales in the period averaged 3.4 percent and increased for every sector.

Food costs have started to ease, and beef costs in particular have started to decline after years of skyrocketing prices. Beef costs fell 5 percent on average in the third quarter, according to the benchmarking report. They rose nearly 24 percent in 2014.

Labor costs, the big fear at the moment in the industry, have yet to appear as a major problem on chains’ profit and loss statements.

“We’ve been waiting for commodities to come down,” said Dustin Minton, a partner with BDO. “And beef was huge.”

To be sure, traffic remains a problem in the industry. Plenty of chains saw their sales grow, but traffic decline, suggesting that perhaps consumers are turned off by higher prices.

“The consumer is only going to take so much,” Minton said. “At some point, do you just shift where you spend your money?”

But for the most part, restaurants managed to see improving sales at a time when costs are down.

The benchmarking report compiles operating results from publicly traded restaurant chains, and uses the averages to give companies an indication of sales as well as labor and other costs.

Cost of sales averaged 29.3 percent of revenues for chains, down 0.5 percent on average from 29.8 percent in the third quarter last year, according to BDO. Cost of sales ranged from 25.9 percent for pizza chains to 31.2 percent for quick-service concepts.

All sectors saw decreases in cost of sales except for fast casual, where costs increased 0.2 percent.

At the same time, labor costs aren’t going up, at least not yet. Labor costs were largely flat, increasing only slightly to 29.9 percent of revenues from 29.8 percent. Much of that increase can be attributed to Domino’s Pizza Inc., which handed out performance bonuses this year.

Companies have effectively managed labor costs. “Different companies are doing a nice job of keeping it stable,” Minton said. “They’ve had very effective labor management.”

While traffic remains hit or miss, sales were still good, on average. Same-store sales increased 3.4 percent in the third quarter. Pizza (up 6.7 percent) and fast casual (up 5.6 percent) were the top performers. Casual dining (up 2.4 percent) and upscale (up 2.2 percent) were at the bottom. Sales improved for every sector.

* Abridged from an article by Jonathan Maze, On the Margin blog

Fast Casual Taps Sales Opportunity With Self-Service Beer

Zpizza International Inc. may have cracked the code on boosting alcohol sales in the fast-casual segment by putting bartending in the hands of customers.

The Irvine, Calif.-based chain is one of a growing number of fast-casual concepts experimenting with self-service beer technology. Other concepts on the West Coast include gourmet hot dog purveyors Dog Haus and Brätworks, as well as Blast 825 Pizza.

The model is based on relatively new technology that some contend could be a game changer in attracting craft-beer-loving Millennials.

Many fast-casual chains carry craft beer and wine in bottles and cans, but the limited-service model can inherently hinder alcohol sales beyond one drink. Customers are less likely to get back in line for a second drink, and workers are often too young to handle alcohol, or are not trained to upsell. As a result, few concepts within the segment have put much effort into alcohol sales.

Zpizza, however, has transformed three units into Zpizza “tap rooms,” which feature a beer wall with 10 to 20 taps. Each restaurant offers a unique collection of local craft brews on draft, said Chris Bright, president of Zpizza.

After their IDs are scanned, customers can open a digital tab and pour their own draft, paying by the fluid ounce. That allows them to taste an ounce or two of different options before they settle on a “long pour.” If they want a second drink, they can get it themselves without having to wait for a server or table runner.

Some traditional Zpizza units offer beer and wine in cans and bottles, as is relatively common in fast casual. But those units typically see only about 2 percent of sales from alcohol, Bright said.

“It’s very difficult to generate liquor sales in a fast-casual environment because consumers are reluctant get in line again to order a second glass of wine or beer,” Bright said.

The self-service format eliminates that obstacle, he said.

At tap room locations with the beer wall, alcohol sales have reached as high as 20 percent, Bright said. “It’s a big winner in that sense.”

And where traditional Zpizza locations do about 75 percent of sales in takeout and delivery, tap room units see 75 percent to 80 percent of sales from dine-in business, he added.

The 95-unit Zpizza has three tap room locations and six more in development. “It’s our growth platform,” Bright said. “Going forward, our focus will be on building tap rooms only.”

The tap room concept has given the brand a jolt of growth at a time when build-your-own pizza concepts with flash-baking ovens are stealing the fast-casual limelight, Bright said.

Zpizza has long offered healthful pizzas, pastas, salads and sandwiches with all-natural and preservative-free meats, organic tomato sauce and mozzarella made with milk from grass-fed cows. Customers order at the counter, but the chain uses deck ovens that cook pizzas in about eight minutes, slower than the new build-your-own-pizza upstarts.

But now the extra time is beneficial, as it gives Zpizza customers a chance to explore the beer wall. In some locations, wine on tap will also be an option.

Zpizza uses the iPourIt system, but there are a growing number of self-service beer options for restaurant operators.

At a recent National Restaurant Association conference on technology, Josh Halpern, vice president of national retail sales, on-premise and military, for Anheuser-Busch in the U.S. said his company is going after the fast-casual segment in a “big way” with self-service equipment.

Anheuser-Busch partner DraftServ is working with sports arenas and cruise ship companies around the country to install self-serve taps.

Full-service restaurants are adopting the technology as well, but the trend is particularly ideal for fast casual, where concepts have limited square footage, and consumers embrace the opportunity to control their dining experience, said Joseph McCarthy, co-founder of iPourIt.

How it Works ?

Self-service beer offers a revenue boost without the need for more labor, McCarthy said.

With iPourIt, once a customer gets their ID checked, they can open a tab tied to a credit card. Typically, users must preload a certain amount to get started, and they can add to their tab as they go. Customers then receive a wristband or card that uses radio frequency to recognize them at the tap and measure their pour. They can try as many beers as they like, and they only pay for what they pour.

Since the iPourIt system is digital, McCarthy said there is a huge opportunity for collecting data about customers, their age and purchase habits. There is also an opportunity to link with loyalty programs to let users know what’s on tap at their local unit.

Fundamentally, the trend is being driven by the explosion in craft beer, which represented close to $20 billion in beer sales in 2014, McCarthy said.

“There are now over 4,000 craft brewers in the U.S., the highest point ever, and there has been a huge explosion in the products and styles of beer available,” he said.

At Dog Haus, the wide craft beer selection was a perfect match for its gourmet hot dogs, said Quasim Riaz, a partner in the Pasadena, Calif.-based chain.

“Beer goes so well with our food. It’s great that we can take our beer as seriously,” Riaz said.

Two units within the 11-unit chain have the iPourIt system, and franchisees are watching to see how it goes.

The first location with the system opened in Santa Ana, Calif., about six months ago. The second, in Fullerton, Calif., opened in early November, so it’s relatively new, he said.

Traditional locations offer beer and wines in cans or bottles. Some pour draft beer in the back of the house, he said.

But the self-service model offers the potential for improved throughput, with customers pouring their own beer as they would a soda.

The model also has a built-in opportunity for upselling, Riaz said.

As customers try three or four options, those tastes offer incremental sales opportunities that inevitably lead to the selection of a higher-priced product. Customers are more likely to buy a more expensive beer that they know they like rather than taking a risk on an unknown, he said.

“Having a happy customer is something we all strive for in this industry, and if the consumer is able to sample a beer and decide if they want it, they’re happier,” he said.

One consideration: In addition to the investment in the system, which for iPourIt is about $1,200 per tap, operators are required to pay a fee of 1 cent per ounce to iPourIt, which amounts to about 16 cents per 16-ounce beer, cutting into margins.

No Tipping

Tobi Miller, co-founder of the Brätworks build-your-own hot dog chain, said customers like the fact that they don’t have to tip at self-service beer concepts.

Brätworks is opening a unit in Redlands, Calif., with a 12-tap craft beer wall this winter. The original Brätworks opened in San Bernardino, Calif., with beer in bottles and cans, and two more units are in development in Southern California, Miller said.

Miller, who is also a franchise operator of Yogurtland, the self-serve frozen yogurt concept, said he loved the fact that self-service beer allows him to get just the amount he wants, even if it’s just a taste.

The Redlands location will be the brand’s first standalone unit, and a bit larger, at 2,500 square feet. The company is in the process of launching a franchising program, so self-serve beer could become a component that could attract potential operators, Miller said.

For Blast 825, a fast-casual pizza concept operated by Fresno, Calif.-based Milano Restaurants International Corp., self-service beer is also in test.

The company is scheduled to open a new Blast 825 Tap Room prototype in the coming weeks in San Luis Obispo, Calif., with about 20 taps of craft beer, along with four or five wines on tap.

“We have to evaluate it,” said John Ferdinandi, CEO of Milano Restaurants International. “But we think it will enhance the overall experience for the customer.”

Ferdinandi said the key will be whether the model will work in a setting with faster service, where table turns are vital to unit economics.

“We have to balance the idea of sitting and enjoying a few beers, maybe while watching a game, with patrons who are in to get a quick pizza,” he said.

One benefit Ferdinandi sees is that the onus of a bad pour is on the customer.

“If you have a server that isn’t pouring correctly or wastes beer, that’s on the owner’s side to absorb,” he said. “But if the customer doesn’t pour it correctly, it’s on them.”

Bright of Zpizza said they give customers who pour incorrectly, with too much foam, an opportunity to top off.

Zpizza’s first tap room location opened in Sacramento, Calif., about a year ago. So far, customers love the interactive nature of the beer wall, he said.

“It’s a very communal environment, where people come together and talk about what they’re tasting,” he said. “That really keeps them coming back to the beer wall, as opposed to the somewhat mundane act of going up to the counter.”

Will self-service beer and wine become as ubiquitous as self-serve soda fountains?

Bright said it depends on the concept.

“I don’t know that fast casual will go to that format in droves. There has to be a culture around craft beer that fits with the concept. It can’t be an afterthought,” he said. “You have to be committed.”

*Abridged from an article by Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Stanford Gets REAL With Sustainable Dining

Colleges and universities play a major role in forming the dining habits students will follow for the rest of their lives.

The push for campuswide sustainability and a fresh commitment to student health drive institutions to rethink their dining strategies. This might mean buying more food from local farmers and better educating students about their dietary habits.

Along those lines, Stanford University is the first higher ed institution in the nation to earn the United States Healthful Food Council’s REAL certification—an acronym for Responsible (nutrition), Epicurean (preparation), Agricultural (sourcing) and Leadership.

The council modeled its program after the LEED designation for facilities to denote excellence and innovation in the culinary field, says CEO Lawrence Williams, who founded the nonprofit in 2011. Other REAL recipients include Nashville’s Music City Center, Bareburger restaurants, Hint Water, and Root & Stem Catering and Events.
But REAL isn’t simply about going organic. “There is little transparency in the food service space, as opposed to prepared food, which plainly lists ingredients and calories on the label,” he says. “The program looks at responsible food sourcing, composting, refills and portioning, as well as sustainability.”

Colleges and universities play a major role in forming the dining habits students will follow for the rest of their lives, Williams adds.

“For most kids, this is their first time dining away from home and having complete autonomy over their food,” he says. “We encourage universities to offer food awareness courses in the same manner they offer alcohol and sex education to students.”

* Abridged from an article by Stefanie Botelho, University Business Magazine – universitybusiness.com