A-ha!

Thirty great foodservice ideas you don't want to miss.

By
Abbie Westra, Editor-in-Chief, Convenience Store Products

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Large or small, an “a-ha” moment can change your business, your momen­tum and your morale. Inspired by the ideation stage of the innovation process, CSP has pulled together a list of great ideas from all corners of the foodservice and retail industries.

This collection is meant to inspire action for your next great idea. QR codes for food traceability, high-speed ovens at hotel check-ins, and a 75-bottle hot-sauce Wall of Flame are just a few examples we’ve unearthed to help get the juices flowing. Whenever you’re feeling creatively stumped, just pull this issue off the shelf and start ideating.

Interestingly, many of the ideas have overlapping elements. We’ve indicated the crossovers, and challenge you to find the common themes throughout.

A special thanks goes to our team of innovators who helped us create this list: Joseph Bona of CBX in New York; Melissa Abbott and her fellow consumer-trends gurus at The Hartman Group in Bellevue, Wash.; Ken Toong of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Chris Koetke at Kendall College in Chicago; Dan Chiado and the rest of the team at Olson Communications in Chicago; and Aaron Noveshen and Judy Hsu at The Culinary Edge, San Francisco Menu Monitors

Research consultancies are con­stantly monitoring instances of ingre­dients on menus—and so should you. Among some top menu buzzwords: The appearance of peanuts on menus more than doubled (101.5%) from 2006 to 2011, according to Technomic (pic­tured above, a peanut, apple and Brussels sprouts sub from No. 7 Restaurant, New York). In the pizza segment, the firm finds growing instances of sweet, hot, smoky, spicy and even fruity flavors top­ping pies.

Fellow Chicago firm Datassential found in its MenuTrends 2012 report that the increasingly popular Thai con­diment sriracha is found 40 times more often at food trucks than at QSRs (see No. 15).

The top-growing sandwich protein at QSRs? Egg whites, followed by pulled and shredded pork (slow-and-low is in vogue).

2. CreativeVending

Forget the usual candy bar and soda. A crop of new ideas is stocking vending machines with very different products. In Brooklyn, the Swap-O-Matic consists of items donated by cus­tomers. When you donate, you receive credits that can be used toward “purchas­ing” other items in the machine.

At Lil Mart in Odenville, Ala., the Smart Butcher meat vending machine sells a wide variety of meat (New York strip, rib-eye, sausages) for $6 or less per piece. Kroger recently opened a 10-by-13-foot robotic c-store at Ohio Northern University in Ada that dis­penses as many as 200 items, includ­ing refrigerated foods. Meanwhile, in Europe, automats such as Febo are quite popular, particularly among youth. There have even been rumors of this format showing up stateside.

3. Brown-Bagging It

How do you encourage customers to purchase a combo meal? Bag it up for them. C-store chain Thorntons Inc., Louisville, Ky., displays a 44-ounce fountain drink cup and a bag of chips packaged in a Thorntons Quick Café-branded bag. The guest need only grab the bag, pick a sandwich and fill the cup, and they’re on their way with a $5 combo.

4. A Room Key and a Toastie

It’s happened to us all: Checking into a hotel late—and starving. A couple of Hyatt Place hotels in the Chicago area have installed high-speed Merrychef ovens and, upon check-in, front-desk associates ask guests if they’d like a freshly toasted sandwich to take to their room. The perk accommodates busy and late-night travel­ers and keeps their money in the hotel.

5. The New Cupcake

Here we have a curious collision of trends: the ongoing cupcake craze paired with a desire for creature comforts. Put them together, and you’ve got meatloaf cupcakes. Luckily the two have little in common beyond presentation, which is also quite portable. Cook meatloaf in lined muffin trays, or cut to fit after cooking. Place in a fresh liner, top with piped mashed potatoes and any addi­tional garnishes.

Supermarkets are using them to draw attention to the deli, and Chicago food truck/restaurant The Meatloaf Bakery peddles options such as El Loafo Del Fuego: ground pork, chorizo, green olives, hot peppers and almonds, baked and topped with garlic potatoes.

6. Grilled Cheese Gourmet

From upstate New York c-store chain Nice N Easy to No. 2 coffee chain Caribou, grilled cheese is popping up on menus across the spectrum as a canvas for count­less flavor combinations (No. 27).

But these aren’t the sandwiches of your youth. Operators are filling them with every ingredient imaginable, from a grilled-cheese Reuben at Nice N Easy to The Brasserie at Milwaukee’s Melthouse Bistro: Brie, braised short ribs and pickled red onions on country French bread.

To jump on the grilled-cheese train, follow these tips from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board: Grated or shredded cheese melts better than slices, and cheese is best grated when cold and melted at room temperature.

7. More Cluck for Your Buck

Kettle Cuisine tipped us off to a clever use for leftover rotisserie chickens. The company noticed supermarket clients shredding the meat and adding it to their hot-soup offerings. Other retailers shred the meat and sell it in the cold case as a con­venient component for a weeknight recipe.

8. What’sYour McRib?

The Hartman Group finds that con­sumers are increasingly prizing scarcity over ubiquity, novelty over sameness. Just look at the buzz generated over McDon­ald’s McRib, or the cult-like Twitter hunt for food trucks. Social media is perfect for exclusivity buzz. Heinz made its limited-edition balsamic ketchup available only on Facebook for the first month. The promo brought tens of thousands of new “Likes” to its page.

9. Veggie Might

A number of trends are meeting at the intersection of produce ubiquity. C-stores are growing sales of fresh-cut fruit cups, and many schools (including Baltimore Public Schools) have adopted meat-free Mondays. Walgreens is fighting food deserts by bringing fresh produce into 1,000 stores in the next five years.

On the high-end side, gourmet food hall Eataly in New York has a full-time “vegetable butcher” who will wash and cut your produce and offer cooking tips. Spice company McCormick & Co. included “veggies in vogue” among its six flavor trends for 2012, pointing to fresh, seasonal vegetables paired with inventive flavors such as eggplant with honey and harissa, a spicy North African chili sauce (No. 15).

10. More Maple

Maple is one of those great flavors that’s right under our noses, making it novel yet familiar. It was the 2008 SIAL Show in Montreal where we first noticed maple as a trend, appearing on the show floor as a sweet/savory sauce, butter, jelly and even maple flakes for topping beverages and sweets.

Four years later, it’s hit everyday food occasions while still maintaining popularity in high-end restaurants and gourmet shops. In December, 7-Eleven rolled out a maple pancake sausage item for the roller grill, McDonald’s puts the fla­vor front and center in its oatmeal offering, and cof­fee company Boyd paired it with a smoky element in its seasonal maple bacon cappuccino flavor.

11. Pickled Punch

Food trucks and “fine casual” restaurants have helped bring the spicy, pungent Korean condiment kimchee into the American food lexicon. There are hundreds of varieties of kimchee, but most consist of fermented napa cabbage, radish or cucumber. Shops slinging sandwiches and tacos are using kimchee to add a punch to more traditional offerings.

If kimchee is too far out of your cus­tomers’ wheelhouse, experiment with the more familiar giardiniera. In the Midwest, the pickled vegetable mixture (typically peppers, carrots and celery) is used copi­ously on the Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich. Burger joint Kuma’s Corner in Chicago even mixes diced giardiniera into its ketchup for a spicy, acidic twist.

12. Selling Wellness

Drug chain Walgreens and its sister brand Duane Reade in New York have found a way to make healthy aspi­rational. Newly opened flagship stores in Chicago and New York feature what the company calls the “Well Experience” with airport-type kiosks for prescription refills, on-hand beauty assistants for advice and manicures, and pharmacists who are encouraged to mill around and interact with guests.

On the food side is a wide range of better-for-you products with more social cachet than health food of fads past. Sushi made on site, salads, Greek yogurt, bottled smoothies, alternative chips such as Pop­chips and sea-salt-seasoned everything make being healthy a pleasurable lifestyle.

13. Burning Wall of Fire

What’s your signature? Califor­nia Tortilla, a 35-store fast-casual bur­rito chain (in airports under the Burrito Elito banner), placed its signature on the wall—the “Wall of Flame,” with nearly 75 hot sauces. Sauces are complimentary for in-store use, and bottles of each are available for purchase.

14. Let It Flash

With competition in mind, many operators don’t allow photography in their stores. But the tools today’s shoppers have at their disposal—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Foodspotting—can actually generate positive attention. Remember, customers love buzz (No. 8). By letting them snap pics, you’re bringing buzz in the most valuable way: peer-to-peer.

15. Condiment Craze

Condiments are the ultimate low-risk risk. They allow operators and consum­ers to experiment with menu ideas without completely leaving their comfort zone. It’s also an easy way to allow for customiza­tion—a major desire of millennials.

Manufacturers are enabling the condi­ment craze with unique spins on familiar flavors, such as Heinz’s ketchup made with balsamic instead of the usual white vinegar (No. 8). Frank’s RedHot has expanded beyond its Buffalo-wing staple with barbecue, chile-lime and sweet chili varieties. Mean­while, unique gourmet varieties (such as Skillet Bacon Jam) and lesser-known ethnic condiments are hitting the mainstream, including sriracha, hoisin, harissa and Korean chili paste gochujuag (Nos. 1, 9, 11).

16. Soup Chill

Are you not selling refrigerated soups? Not yet. Panera recently introduced refrigerated soups in Target stores with grocery sections, while Whole Foods, Safe­way and others are offering high-quality store brands.

For the consumer, it’s a fresh alternative for a wholesome heat-and-eat meal. For retailers, it’s an easy item in the open-air cooler for customers to take back to their home, office or dorm.

17. Format as Cuisine

Chipotle’s success can in part be attributed to its sourcing of quality ingredients. It can also be attributed to the format: a handful of components, ready to be built to order, in countless combina­tions. The company realized the format isn’t exclusive to Mexican cuisine and has translated it to Southeast Asian food at ShopHouse, Washington, D.C.

Customers choose between a sandwich or rice bowl, and then pick a protein, veg­etable, sauce and garnish from options such as pork and chicken meatballs, wok-fried Chinese broccoli, red curry and green papaya slaw. And the concept is ready for scale: All sauces and marinades already come from a commissary in Chipotle’s home state of Colorado.

18. Safe, Streamlined Sourcing

Since 2009, the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative has been working to drive the adoption of GS1 Standards for bar codes within the foodservice supply chain. The idea is for everyone to have the same data-sharing platform and pull the same, standardized information about products.

Why the big deal? It would streamline ordering and enable traceability in the event of recalls or food-safety issues. If an operator is trying to plan more healthful or allergen-free menus, they’ll be able to research information all in one place. GS1 hopes to get 75% of manufacturers, dis­tributors and operators using the system by 2015. Recent members include Ara­mark, Brinker and Dr Pepper Snapple.

19. Onions Worth Crying Over

Caramelized onions are an easy way to add a surge of sweet and savory to a menu item. What’s more, a recent study found that caramelized onions can actually add value to a menu item. In the survey, con­ducted by Datassential, items that included caramelized onions averaged $1.80 more per item than onions menued without a noted preparation method. For operations with limited prep, processed caramelized onions are available flash-frozen and ready to use. Even the term “caramelized” alone is growing in instances on menus. Penetra­ tion of the term on fast-casual menus is 23%, while 9% of QSRs use the term on their menus (No. 28).

20. Support a Cause, Sell Food

What better way to show you’re in the foodservice game than by aligning with a food-related cause? Nonprofits such as Share Our Strength offer turnkey partici­pation programs for campaigns such as Dine Out for No Kid Hungry. The 180- store chain Pita Pit launched a monthlong promo last September, donating 50 cents for every salad sold. Customers could also donate $1 or more directly to Share Our Strength and receive a coupon for $1 off their next pita. Sixty-two locations brought in $20,000. One takeaway for Lisa Aitken, director of marketing, came from the company’s many college locations: Students often don’t have extra cash, but they are eager to donate time and raise awareness. Both organizations are brain­storming ways to better engage that group.

21. Cheese Theater

At Chuck & Augie’s at the Uni­versity of Connecticut in Storrs, chefs make mozzarella daily. Not only does it yield a higher price tag, but the chee­semaking itself also draws attention. Imagine someone in chef whites, pulling cheese in your store during a busy day-part. You could sell the mozzarella by the pound, and feature it in panini, salads or a portable Caprese cup.

22. Breakfast Border Run

The Taco Bell brand may be well known for many things, but breakfast is not one of them. So when developing its First Meal breakfast menu, the company wisely partnered with brands that are synonymous with the morning day-part. Johnsonville, Cinnabon, Tropicana and Seattle’s Best Coffee are all marquee names on the new menu, launched in 750 stores in January. Johnsonville helped cre­ate the signature item, a sausage and egg tortilla wrap with melted cheese. Another good idea: It started the breakfast rollout out West, where people are accustomed to starting the day with a breakfast burrito.

23. QR Codes for Quality

QR codes have largely been used as a way for brands to market to consum­ers, but they’re also implemented to help traceability from field to store. In Idaho, onions farmers are placing QR codes on bags of onions and including crucial infor­mation such as the field where and day and time when the onions were harvested.

24. Cheesecake as Canvas

Cheesecake is a perennial favor­ite, and even c-stores and truckstops, including TravelCenters of America, are seeing increased sales of prepackaged slices placed in open-air coolers. It’s also an ideal canvas for unique flavor com­binations and customizations (No. 15).

Offer a toppings bar for customers to top their own slices, or follow these sugges­tions from The Cheesecake Factory Bak­ery: diced strawberries and mangos, mint leaves, sugar and fresh-ground pepper; light brown sugar, cinnamon and candied almonds; blueberries, lemon juice and sugar, topped with fresh basil; chocolate toffee chunks, raspberries and fresh mint; apple-pecan bourbon sauce with candied apples and pecans; or chocolate, cayenne and an anise and cinnamon cream.

25. Simplicity Sells

We talk a lot about the veto vote: How do you please every person in the family or group of friends to ensure they choose your establishment over another? There’s certainly logic behind a broad menu, but are you creating a destination? That’s what some brands are doing by focusing on a singular food and doing it really, really well. The granddaddy of simple concepts may be In-N-Out Burger, where the menu is five items long and the cult follow­ing immeasurable (though the “Secret Menu” adds extra exclusivity; No. 8). Five Guys is following suit, as are many local, chef-driven concepts. If you can do one thing exceptionally well, then the veto vote is staying home.

26. Smart Produce Packaging

Gas-flushed, breathable packaging has been used in the supermarket industry for years as a way to optimize ripeness and shelf life. It’s finally come to the food­service/convenience side with Chiquita’s To Go bananas. The packaging allows for up to seven extra days of shelf life com­pared with unpackaged bananas. It offers retail and restaurants the opportunity to build sales on whole produce and get in the better-for-you game without as much food waste. And when you think about the potential for this product in the country’s underserved food deserts— where opportunities certainly exist, but demand is still small—the technology is even more compelling (No. 9).

27. Grilled Cheese Fix

Considering it’s on the cover of the magazine and all, we thought it appro­priate to have two grilled-cheese entries (No. 6). This time, the idea combines the universal love of grilled cheese with the desire to customize. At Melted at Northern Michigan University, students can build their own grilled cheese from nine types of cheese, five types of bread and toppings from ham, bacon and mustard to sauer­kraut and giardiniera (No. 11). Grilled Cheese 100 gets you a basic cheese-and-bread sandwich; Grilled Cheese 200 allows one topping; 300 gets you two, and the 400 level are “graduate creations” such as The Flying Dutchman with smoked Gouda, ham and roasted apples.

28. Adventures in Eating

Want to experiment with ethnic twists on classic foods? Your best bet, according to Olson Communications, is a Nuevo Latino Burger: char-grilled, coarse-ground skirt steak with caramelized onions (No. 19), pineapple and roasted red pep­per mojo (No. 9) served on a cornmeal-sourdough bun. The riff was the most popular burger in a survey of 200 consumers who tested and judged 15 menu concepts that used Asian, Latin and Mediterranean inspiration. The top-ranked salad had a Mediterranean theme with romaine, cucumber, mint and green onion tossed with faro, feta and a cumin and lemon yogurt dressing. Interestingly, participants favored ice-cream concepts with Asian and Latin flavors more than their favorite American flavors.

29. Restaurant-Retail Hybrids

As channel lines blur, a new segment of restaurant-retail hybrids is making shopping and eating more convenient— even fun. Grocers such as Whole Foods and Byerly’s have created food halls in their stores with counter-service concepts based on ethnic foods and menu themes. The Whole Foods flagship in Chicago has a bar within the seafood department for a quick chowder and Chardonnay. High-end Eataly New York is an Italian-food emporium with 50,000 square feet of restaurants interspersed among the groceries. And many cities are creating destinations out of their markets, including Milwaukee’s Public Market; Columbus, Ohio’s North Market; and the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis.

30. Stealth Health

Health-related laws and mandates aren’t slowing, and it may be in your best interest to get out in front of nutrition trends. During a survey at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst, more than 73% of students said they want more healthy choices. The school is already making its food more healthful behind the scenes—less sodium, more produce and whole grains—without being promoted as such.

“Our student customers are demanding healthy food now, and they will become the customers of the restaurants tomor­row,” says Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises. “What are we as operators waiting for?”

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