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US Foods: From Trend to Table

ar to the ground, with an eye on innovation—this is what has kept US Foods at the top of the foodservice game. When it comes to consumer food trends, and where that first spark truly is, you can be sure that a little industry called ‘foodservice’ might have had something to do with it.

Demographics are changing, palates are shifting, and consumer requirements for their food histories are consistently keeping food innovators on their toes. As constant as the trends change, so does US Foods and its creative offerings. Not only does the company include food artistry in its portfolio, but US Foods is always attentive to growing flavors and food combinations while also addressing the needs of its clientele. Art and science is something that we talk about frequently when it comes to food innovation, and US Foods is an ideal example of that.

So, how does US Foods do it, and what new trends are driving the latest foodservice products? As we look to the rest of the summer months, I spoke with Stacie Sopinka, Vice President of Product Development and Innovation at US Foods, about dining trends, some of the company’s most recently debuted Scoop products, and how restaurants across the country can bring these dishes to their tables.

While inspiration may be everywhere, there are many chefs who just don't have the time to scour and search for the next big flavor trend.

“No one can go to market like we do. When we strategize and begin to build new recipes and items for our foodservice clients, it’s important to us that we recognize how precious time is to those chefs and how we can take simple steps to speed up efficiency and preparation at the restaurant and dining level,” Stacie tells me. “While inspiration may be everywhere, there are many chefs who just don’t have the time to scour and search for the next big flavor trend.”

Stacie smiles from where she sits on the front lines of budding food trends and tells me that, in part, it is her spidey-senses that have made her such a huge asset to the US Foods team. But we know it’s much more than that. Stacie originally came to US Foods in 2011 from Loblaw, where she worked for 14 years across several food platforms. Before that, there was Kraft. Having studied both economics and the culinary arts before her early beginnings in the food industry, Stacie also brings a left-brain/right-brain combination to the US Foods team as well.

With the summer underway, Stacie and the team behind US Foods are looking for new ways to evolve the consumer’s eating experience, while bolstering fresh produce options at dining establishments and accelerating the latest flavor trends. And, lucky for us, US Foods has declared 2016 the Year of the Veggie! We have watched this movement in recent years, as fresh produce makes its way closer to the center of the plate, and in 2016, vegetables are no longer just a side dish. About five years ago, US Foods created The Scoop magazine for customers and potential customers which brings new, innovative menu items, and on-trend products created by US Foods, to chefs about three times a year.

US Food's Scoop Magazine

“The goal of The Scoop is to inspire their menus, attract more diners, and optimize their operations throughout the year,” Stacie adds. “Running a restaurant is not easy, and we plan these items with that idea already in mind, in order to maximize efficiency, increase productivity and profits. And it is not just on the food innovation level.”

The Scoop also introduces US Foods customers to its new partnership with leading provider of restaurant management software, Avero, to help with some of the logistics. Avero acts like a fitness tracker for restaurants and collects data automatically from a restaurant’s POS system. This system allows restaurant owners to quickly and easily analyze their data to help them grow sales, reduce costs, and save time.

Cross Valley Farms® Riced Cauliflower Crust Pizza

Stacie notes that 82 percent of operators are looking for products with clean ingredients, and this year US Foods is excited to introduce approximately 20 items that are bold in flavor and simple in ingredients so they can create buzz-worthy dishes that turn diners into repeat customers.

So what are some of these on-trend products? Stacie breaks down a few of them for me, and starts with something I can’t wait to get my hands on: riced cauliflower.

“Riced cauliflower, which has become a favorite alternative for those trying to avoid high-carb, starchy foods, is starting to trend as the ‘new kale,’” she says. “Since time to a chef is a precious commodity, we know that they don’t have an hour to break down six heads of cauliflower. We also try and make it easy and intuitive for chefs when they are portioning our product. For example, each unit for our Cross Valley Farms® Riced Cauliflower is equivalent to one medium-sized head, so the chefs know what they are dealing with in terms of volume and size.”

Cross Valley Farms® Riced Cauliflower

The Cross Valley Farms® Riced Cauliflower is freshly pre-minced cauliflower, loaded with vitamins and minerals, and can be used in everything from pizza crust, to no-rice pilaf, fritters, and mashed cauliflower-the new mashed potatoes. Even if you are just sprinkling the riced cauliflower on a salad, you’ve saved yourself five minutes to prepare for your next course.

In addition to the riced cauliflower is the new Rykoff Sexton® Slow-Roasted Tomatoes, which offer the sweetness of a fresh tomato and the tartness of a tomato that is sun-dried. This product is created with the utmost love and care. Vine-ripened tomatoes are roasted for 12 hours with oil, garlic, herbs, and spices to create a moist and meaty texture.

“Sometimes we know we want to launch a product, but we also want the right iteration of that item. For the slow-roasted tomatoes, we searched long and hard to find a tomato that could pair with the right marinade and that also presented a tougher skin,” Stacie says. “We’re glad we took our time with this one because it just recently paid off when we won a coveted award from the National Retail Association for the slow-roasted gem this year.”

Another on-trend menu item being launched in 2016 is the Cross Valley Farms® Fingerling Sweet Potatoes. This item was born out of a desire for a healthier and more versatile option in the potato category. These miniature spuds can be fried, grilled, or baked, and offer a big, hearty flavor that can be used in salads, soups, or as a side dish.

“Fingerling sweet potatoes have been in the market for a while, but in a small way,” Stacie mentions. “We wanted to take some of the hassle that comes from preparation out of the equation, so that chefs would be more willing to use them as a healthier substitute for other starches. The nice thing about this product is that it can be used in a range of items from double-stuffed sweet potatoes or fries, to a side dish at a white tablecloth establishment. They really have that versatility you can’t underestimate.”

If you are saying to yourself, “If I have to eat another bowl of Mescaline, or another spring mix…” then the new Baby Savoy Spinach Blend is your product. This option includes Russian kale, garlic kale, frisee, and red chard, among other leafy produce items, and gives dishes good height; something that chefs are always looking for, and a unique flavor combination as well.

"It is more about shifting your perspective, pairing different ingredients to redefine a flavor..."

A new dining trend in itself is the changing behaviors of foodies everywhere. As more and more diners are looking to appetizers as an inclusion in their dinner orders in lieu of entrees, US Foods has debuted items to appease those looking to explore and try new tastes, flavors, and cultures without ‘committing’ to a larger, pricier meal. 

A few of those items include Molly’s Kitchen® Beer Cheese Dip, Chef’s Line® Bavarian Soft Pretzel, and Glenview Farms® Spreadable Brie.

According to US Foods, the demand for beer cheese is on the rise as the item has grown 145 percent on menus in the past four years. Molly’s Kitchen Beer Cheese Dip combines craft beer, sharp cheddar, and Romano cheese to create a velvety eating experience that makes a great dip, sauce, or cheesy topping.

Pretzels always signify both comfort and tradition to me, and these soft pretzels are created from a 200-year-old Bavarian recipe and crafted into a hand-twisted shape to add to the presentation.

The spreadable brie is something I know I will be looking for on menus as well, as it offers a rich, buttery brie that is the perfect choice to spread on anything from carrots and slices of apple, to crackers and baguettes.

Rykoff Sexton® Bloody Mary MixAnd for those who are thirsty, US Foods has launched its spicy Rykoff Sexton® Bloody Mary Mix, and a gourmet Watermelon Limeade made with Persian limes. 2016 has experts predicting that more customers will be seeking “spirited” cocktails, from Bloody Marys to ice-pop cocktails.

“It is all about a dish’s ability to be photographed. As more and more people are ordering drinks that will look good in videos and on social media outlets, we are looking to tap into that growing trend and provide a flavorful base for beverage presentations,” Stacie adds.

So what does it take to be at the forefront of trendsetting and supporting US Foods clients? I asked Stacie where she gets her inspiration and what helps to drive her decisions. She reiterates that there is both an art and a science to it all.

“My team is always looking at consumer insights to understand what the up-and-coming flavor trends are. We always want to be three feet ahead of our customers, but we don’t want to be six feet ahead of them,” Stacie tells me. “Our goal is to bring products to the table that can reach proliferation, and even items that are on the cusp of becoming a trend. That means creating items that can be utilized at a casual dining operation, or fine dining.”

Rykoff Sexton® Bloody Mary MixUS Foods has also built a great team over the past five years, that brings different generations, demographics, and ethnicities together. This team is constantly traveling the country to bring back different experiences of what they taste and what they see. US Foods suppliers also play a huge role in product development as new capabilities, products, and ideas come the table.

“This kind of dialogue with our suppliers and partners has led the company to some of its most popular products to date,” Stacie says.

When it comes down to becoming a US Foods supplier, Stacie notes that it is a combination of elements from strongly established food safety fundamentals to having a line of sight into their distribution models to ensure they can supply their clients nationally–something that is not always easy.

“Beyond that, it’s about creating a partnership that is based around product innovation and bringing more than one product to the table,” Stacie adds. “It always makes the partnership that much more beneficial and advantageous when they have enough overhead and resources to help us innovate as much as we help them.”

When it comes to food innovation for Stacie, her antenna is always up. Whether she is at the San Diego Zoo in California with her family, or checking out the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago, the ever-observant Stacie is always looking for the next new culinary experience.

Stacie Sopinka, VP, Product Development and Innovation, US Foods“Every trip, whether I am crossing the city or visiting somewhere new, provides me with a new opportunity to spot food trends, or even different uses and preparation methods,” Stacie says. “We’ve discovered that great places to find budding trends are in areas that are on the verge of gentrification, and offer more diversity and a globalization of eating behaviors. Even looking into different industries for ideas and trends can add to that dialogue, like how food and technology are creating a bridge for different experiences. I call it ‘unrelated exposure.’”

So what does Stacie see trending as we move through 2016? Hispanic cuisine, and new ways of elevating the ingredients and preparation possibilities.

“Trends don’t have to be a creation that no one has thought of before,” Stacie tells me. “It is more about shifting your perspective, pairing different ingredients to redefine a flavor, or going to a taco truck to see what people are doing to play with food possibilities.”

And that may be what defines the US Foods team… their sense for possibilities, for generating scale.

For being there; when the trend sparks, or to spark it.