No matter where this turbulent year will take us, we know that we will need nourishment in order to get through it. From comfort food to poke bowls to plant-based options and meal kits, foodservice operators have adapted and pivoted like nobody’s business over the last few months.
Menus have become streamlined with the best items amplified. Customization has fallen by the wayside and chef-composed items are taking the lead. When we look ahead to menus in the wake of the many changes in dining, the creativity of chefs will underscore the nimble attitude needed to survive.
“The grab-and-go options have been created to fulfill a need for the circumstances and operations, but in return, it has opened up future ideas of more grab-and-go style dining, due to the successes and positive feedback,” says Kari Magee, concessions sous chef at Michigan State University (MSU), where portable salads, sandwiches, Cubano wraps, Tex-Mex burritos and grain bowls of all kinds have led to the creation of “take, heat and eat” kits.
Some culinary teams are using this unusual present tense to refine concepts they’ve been meaning to work on. Others are drilling down into menus that are low-touch, high-flavor and appealing to everyone. And still more are getting back to their roots with a renewed focus on partnerships with local farmers and ranchers. As we forge ahead into a very different time, food continues to be a source of comfort and sustenance.
A time to develop new ideas
MSU’s foodservice crew’s initial tests of “take, heat and eat” meal kits, such as a fajita kit, have been very well received. “I found that customers enjoy the freedom to build their meals at their leisure,” says Kaline Jennings, sous chef, MSU culinary services retail. “There was positive reception to that concept, and I might credit that to the notion of IKEA furniture. You may not have made the chair, but it feels like you did with the fun adventure of putting it together.”
In the future, “we are looking into packaging meal kits with an improved look and something better than a simple sealed bag,” Jennings says. “It has given us inspiration to investigate what it would take to put together a meal with portions for more people, for families.”
Finding good packaging is another piece of the puzzle at MSU. “Following some trial and error, we found excellent packaging that holds and offers a great display for our dishes,” Jennings says.
Meals that are looking great—after traveling—include a coconut-curried cauliflower dish with naan bread; a halal chicken grain bowl and snacky Mediterranean skewers with kalamata olives, marinated artichoke hearts, fresh mozzarella, grape tomatoes and fresh basil with pesto and Parmesan cheese.
“After that obstacle was passed,” Jennings says, “we simply did what we strive to do best: create well-rounded, delicious food for our customers that looks and tastes great, while ensuring we offer a diverse selection to suit a variety of needs.”
A time to put all the summer flavor into one bowl
Poke bowls have risen to the top of menu items in terms of higher-ed accounts and essential manufacturing plants where American Dining Creations (ADC) makes the food. “I think poke bowls rose to the top easily because it can offer so much variety in one bowl,” says Nick Salvagni, national marketing director for ADC.
Next in line in terms of popularity has been composed sandwiches and salads as “low-touch/no-touch options,” Salvagni says. Many of those salads feature healthy components like grilled salmon, grains and greens.
Salvagni adds that as we move into summer, there’s no reason comfort food has to mean hot and heavy dishes like meatloaf (although full heat-and-eat meals are also going strong).
“Comfort foods to some, like a simple pasta salad or potato salad, seem to be desired. People want something familiar and nostalgic during these uncertain times. Whether it reminds them of an outdoor picnic or barbecue or something that brings them back to simpler times…these things are popular now.”
A time to lean into a new concept
While they’ve got an extremely varied and sophisticated selection of food on campus, good old burgers are the answer of the moment at Elon University, where the emergency college closing has given the Harvest Table Culinary dining team time to pause, re-evaluate and plan for a fall semester where food-hall style campus “restaurants” will specialize in one item/one complete meal, and do that exactingly well.
“We have started thinking, ‘What will fall look like?’ It’s not going to be a normal dining hall setup, so we’re looking at each station having a restaurant-style menu,” says Executive Chef Jay Vetter. “We had been testing a burger joint, and we kept calling it ‘the burger joint,’ so that’s its name now.”
Vetter envisions the Burger Joint as a place where customization isn’t dead, just different.
“You could get a turkey burger with goat cheese and fig preserves; but if you’re not that adventurous, you can get a plain burger,” he says. “It’s almost a reverse of trying to be everything to everybody. It’s chef-driven, but it’s open and adaptable as people come in.”
Always being thoughtful with gluten-free and vegan options is part of the plan, too. “We’ll write the menu first and then we challenge each other: Do we have a made-without-gluten option? And then we say, let’s make this more amazing,” Vetter says, adding that a dim sum pop-up has also been in the works recently.
It’s all about the bowls, sandwiches and salads
Restaurant Associates’ branded programs, like Jack & Olive and 181 Café, have been well-suited to handle grab-and-go demand at corporate accounts across the country. Here are a few standout, on-trend items they’ve been serving.
1. Za’atar, the zippy, lemony fresh Middle Eastern spice blend, seasons grilled chicken over herbed quinoa and tabbouleh in this za’atar chicken salad by Restaurant Associates.
2. This tofu burrito bowl features fried tofu with cilantro white rice, black beans, kidney beans, housemade pico de gallo and shredded cheese.
3. Grilled chicken is served with the same ingredients as the tofu burrito bowl.
4. Tuna salad gets an upgrade and become Tuscan tuna sliders.
5. And even plain tuna salad looks super fresh in this bowl.
6. Restaurant Associates takes full advantage of the taste of summer with this tomato-mozzarella bowl.
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