Restaurateurs Making the Most of Nutritious Options
Not all that long ago, when the National Restaurant Association (NRA) conducted its annual culinary survey, ice cold “gelato” was amongst its hottest trends. Perhaps a direct reflection of increasing sensitivity to nutrition, the sugar-loaded frozen dessert slid all the way to No. 169 on the NRA’s recent “What’s Hot in 2014” culinary forecast. In fairness to the delicious Italian-inspired treat, its drearier forecast wasn’t so frigid as ol’ favorite fried chicken, which weighed in near the bottom at No. 204 (for those who are curious, Gazpacho finished dead last at 209).
In contrast, the NRA reports that healthful kids’ meals, children’s nutrition as a culinary theme, gluten-free cuisine, whole grain items in kid’s meals, fish/vegetable children’s side items were top of mind with the 1,283 chefs surveyed in 2014’s ten hottest trend projections. “General health and nutrition” shimmied in at No. 13 on this year’s survey, with “smaller portions” finishing in at a sensible No. 20. Hyper-local sourcing (e.g.: restaurant roof gardens that bring new meaning to farm-to-table) as well as locally sourced meats, seafood and produce, all arguably nutrition-friendly practices, were also near bull’s eyes on the chefs’ radar.
The results don’t mark a sudden shift in thinking. In fact, a review of prior surveys, reveals that nutrition has been a priority for many in the industry for quite some time. But momentum appears to be building. “Today’s consumers are more interested than ever in what they eat and where their food comes from, and that is reflected in our menu trends research,” according to a statement on NRA’s website from Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association’s research and knowledge group.
As 2014 gets underway, with a public seemingly more determined than ever to meet its New Year’s resolutions, everyone from family doctors and their patients to restaurateurs and their incredibly creative chefs are focused on making the most of the myriad of healthier options that are now available in the foodservices world.
“Nutrition is no longer a passing fad, although many of the diets will continue to be fads,” observes Jim Hedlund, president, Bugatti’s Inc., which operates four restaurants in the Portland area. “There will be a segment of our population that is not concerned about nutrition and will continue to ignore eating the healthy options now provided by many restaurants. This grouping will decrease as family trends will begin to change due to health issues and the training that our children are receiving outside of the home.
“People are realizing that they physically feel better, have more stamina, reduced stress, and they feel better about themselves. They can now order a nutritious meal in a restaurant and it is also delicious.”
The environment has never been more sustainable for serving healthier food, even in a region that has long embraced healthy living. “We think Oregonians are unlikely to ever change their love of eating locally and healthfully,” observes Ann Kischner, who co-owns Astoria-based Bridgewater Bistro with husband Tony. “Of course, that is easier here than in some parts of the country. Here at the corner of Pacific Ocean and Columbia River, we're blessed with the freshest possible (‘and that means most nutritious,’ she underscores) seafoods and access to beautiful locally grown produce.”
Mark Watkins, longtime Newport resident and local Subway restaurant owner, notes that catering to patrons special needs is more than a good deed. It can affect a restaurant’s bottom line. “There are a lot of illnesses and a lot of diseases due to nutrition and diet that are creeping up on people,” says Watkins, who serves up gluten intolerance as an example. “It’s a big deal. What I'm finding is if one member of the family has to eliminate gluten from their diet, it syphoning down to the whole family. So it really needs to be a strategic part of any restaurant's plan if they're going to capture and retain market share because they'll just start going to where their dietary options are on the menu.”
Customers aren’t shy about sharing their feelings regarding nutrition with restaurateurs. “The gluten free crowd has the biggest lobby right now,” notes Alex Amarotico, co-owner of Standing Stone Brewing Company in Ashland. “I’d say about 10 percent of those requesting gluten free items actually have celiac disease.” Yet they are seeking a healthier way of eating.
“At Standing Stone Brewing Company, we only have ingredients in our menu items that we and our families wouldn’t question eating on a day-in day-out basis ourselves, and I believe this gives our patrons a win-win. They can eat healthy choices, and the menu item can still be a comfort food that tastes great!” That even includes a fried favorite. “French fries are thought to be an unhealthy, decadent menu item, but ours are from organic local potatoes and fried in organic rice oil, which has been shown to improve blood cholesterol,” points out Amarotico.
Clever restaurateurs are working with fresh ingredients to provide patrons with more nutritious options. “Just because it’s comfort food, doesn’t mean that it has to be unhealthy,” points out Jamie Collins co-owner of Back Porch Bar & Grill in Jacksonville with husband Blu. “We’ve really become popular for our burgers, and we grind our meat here in house. It’s super lean and it’s grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef that we get locally. It ends up not being nearly as bad for you as what you are going to get when you get some kind of processed foods.” continue →