A nutritionist and a panel of operators, representing a range of foodservice industry segments, discuss current food trends.
It’s no secret, local food is a trend that’s here to stay, but is it always the most viable option?
Michael Bonacini: The idea of sourcing locally is becoming more talked about and a preferred way of working with suppliers…. It’s easy to buy into the romance, but the reality is not without challenges due to pricing, consistency, and the simple fact that there are not enough local growers, purveyors and artisans to support the restaurant scene of a large cosmopolitan city. There’s only so much bottling and preserving one can do, so we will have to continue to supplement with products that come from afar.
Chris Mills: When able, I suggest sourcing locally, getting to know farmers and other suppliers in areas close to you to understand where products come from and getting to know some of the fantastic food suppliers our Canadian cities have. We work with Bellmann family farm in Armstrong to provide vegetables to our restaurants in B.C. and Alberta during the spring through fall and use similar farms for our Toronto- and Seattle-area restaurants. During the winter, we work closely with our distributor to ensure we get the best quality produce. We also use local cheese meat suppliers for our cheese and charcuterie plates.
Aside from the local-food movement, what are some popular food trends?
Bonacini: The popularity of seafood ranks highly on our menus. The demand continues to grow, I think, because most home cooks are uncomfortable cooking fish and shellfish. Red meat has been, and I think will always be, a big part of the restaurant scene…. Great barbecue is growing in popularity, as are restaurants that make ribs the old-fashioned way — long and slow. [Another] great trend, if you can call it that, is the concept of snout to tail. Using the entire animal, of course, goes back to a more traditional and sustainable way of looking at food. Charcuterie continues to grow in popularity; same for the gourmet burger scene…. Cheese boards and cheese courses remain a solid part of dining culture, with a focus on not only wine but beer pairings.
There’s a big push right now for restaurants that feature artisanal food, whether it is Berkshire pork, local duck, foraged ingredients or roasting your own coffee beans…. At O&B, many of our restaurants feature fresh pasta, and we now make much of our own bread at our own bakery, O&B Artisan. We also sell our own hand-made chocolate at our O&B Artisan shop [in Toronto].
Mills: We have seen our sushi items continue to gain popularity; our rainbow roll and sushi cones specifically. These items are made in-house and rolled to order. As these dishes are meant to start and share, we saw the demand to incorporate the sushi into a main entrée that could be enjoyed at lunch or dinner and introduced the Steak and Sushi, tataki-style steam served with our rainbow roll — it’s our version of steak and sushi.
Don Robinson: At Montana’s, we are seeing tremendous success behind our focus [on] grilled meats.
Generally speaking, what are other notable trends on the restaurant scene?
Bonacini: We are going to see more restaurants open that are smaller in size, that are chef-centric, and that are identified by a unique style or unique content, whether it’s tapas or pan-Asian cuisine. The consumer is looking for that balance of upper-end casual that is serious about food and wine, serious about customer service and style, but without attitude…. Our newest location, Bannock, serves what we’ve termed Canadian comfort food. This is really tapping into something Canadians desire.
Robinson: Some of the trends we are focused on are health and wellness, mainstream ethnic and simplicity. With the focus on health and wellness in the industry today, it is important to offer our guest healthier menu offerings such as gluten-free products, sodium-conscious offerings and lower calorie menu items. With mainstream ethnic flavours gaining popularity in the market, we are finding unique ways to incorporate ethnic flavours like Korean barbecue and Thai Szechuan sauce into some of our new menu offerings. Our culinary team is [also] creating simple dishes that focus on the basics of cooking. Simple products that incorporate simple flavours create fresh and tasty menu options.
Has your pricing changed with the economy? How are you offering better value?
Bonacini: The last thing we want to do in an economic slump is cut pricing. We look at engineering our menus so we can control costs and provide increased value…. Because of the range of restaurants in our portfolio, we can offer options for à la carte dining and private events.
Mills: Our pricing strategy hasn’t necessarily changed…. We have however looked hard at menu engineering and product sourcing. [So] if we can capture savings and pass that on to our guests, we will.
Robinson: This recession was accompanied by wild swings in the commodity market on the upside. Rising costs on both food inputs and labour have put the squeeze on margins, and we have been slower to raise prices than what we would have ideally liked. We have put a lot of effort in reducing waste, food and/or labour.
Diners are looking for less sodium, nutritional details and less sugar in their food. Which of these issues is demanding the most attention in foodservice?
Katie Jessop: We know Canadians are consuming too much salt — about 3,400 mg a day when they should be lower than 2,300 mg, and 77 per cent of this salt comes from processed and restaurant foods. Industry has an important role to play in this public health issue by reducing sodium in their offerings. Nutrition labelling also has some traction. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration published proposed regulations in April 2011, which are to be finalized in early 2012 after public consultation. The cornerstone of the proposed regs is calorie posting on menus, menu boards and drive-thru boards. Pundits in Canada immediately began wondering when we would see similar legislation. Watch for a greater focus on sugar. You may be seeing it already in the grocery aisles in reduced sugar cereals or children’s products…. Foodservice operators who are playing to consumers’ sweet tooth can offer naturally sweetened foods and beverages using 100-per-cent fruit juice, real fruit purées and high-quality chocolate.
Robinson: We are supportive of reducing sodium and have been working to reduce sodium in our recipes. We are doing this gradually. We need to have a balance for those who want to indulge and those who watch what they eat.
How are operators appealing to the customer call for healthier fare?
Jessop: Restaurants meeting customer demand for healthier fare are working with their suppliers to reformulate key ingredients and staple foods to reduce sodium; cutting fat and using healthy cooking methods; offering nutrition information at point-of-purchase … and offering options for reduced portion sizes. Many are offering only one component, be it local or low sodium.
Katie Jessop, RD, Heart & Stroke Foundation, Health Check;
Chef Michael Bonacini, partner, Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, parent company of Bannock, Luma, O&B Canteen, Biff’s Bistro, Canoe, Jump Restaurant, Auberge du Pommier, Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill and other private-dining facilities;
Chef Chris Mills, executive chef, Joey Restaurant Group;
Don Robinson, president and CEO, Cara Operations Ltd., parent company of Swiss Chalet, Milestones Grill Bar, Montana’s Cookhouse, Kelsey’s and Harvey’s