The new year is traditionally quiet in trading terms for restaurants, pubs and cafés, and operators hoping to drum up some much-needed business by appealing to customers looking for a healthier start to 2017 won’t have welcomed recent headlines.
Slightly tongue-in-cheek news stories about a courgette shortage quickly morphed into more serious headlines as the extent of the problems facing producers in Europe became apparent.
Spain’s Murcia region, which supplies about 80% of Europe’s fresh produce during the winter months, has recently had its heaviest rainfall in 30 years.
This has caused flood damage to crops, with the potential to impact product availability for several months. Since then freezing temperatures, high winds and snow have prevented harvesting and planting, as well as closing the roads used to transport produce.
With other parts of Europe having seen similar weather affect their own crops, demand for whatever Spanish produce is still available has increased, pushing up prices sharply.
Product affected include:
- Courgettes: although grown under cover, the freezing temperatures prevent crop development;
- Babyleaf and lettuce: following the Spanish flooding which destroyed many plantings, crop growth is now restricted due to low temperatures and frost, while new plantings are being delayed by the hard ground;
- Brassica crops: it is very difficult to harvest broccoli and cauliflowers in freezing conditions and the weather is delaying transportation;
- Hard salads: tomatoes, peppers and aubergines are not colouring or growing due to the low temperatures;
- Herbs: coriander is unable to survive at extreme temperatures and stocks are depleted.
This all comes at a time when consumers are more interested in the healthier menu options that fresh produce plays a key part in. Some of the latest research shows that not only do many consumers now expect to be offered healthier options on the menu all year round, but also that the expectation is higher among younger consumers, so the trend is here to stay.
A survey carried out by PWC found that, when eating out, 47% of all consumers consider it important that they are offered healthy options. In age terms, 47% of 18-34-year-olds say they are eating more healthily than a year ago, dropping to 35% of 35-54-year-olds and 23% of those over 55.
Looking forward, 53% of 18-34-year-olds expect to change their eating habits to embrace more healthy choices in the year ahead, falling to 36% of 35-54-year-olds and 19% of the 55-plus age group.
Consumers are more likely to have healthy meals out during the week, seeing these as ‘everyday’ eating out occasions, and will be looking to treat themselves when dining out with friends and family at weekends.
The healthier trend is also shown by menu analysis carried out across the eating-out sector by analyst Horizons. Its regular Menu Trends survey shows that the number of main course salads had increased by 54% year-on-year in the second half of 2016, ranking at number four in the top 20 most frequently listed main course dishes. The use of pulses and fruit also saw one of the largest year-on-year increases, while the term ‘superfood’ was being used on menus 75% more often than a year earlier.
Horizons also found that vegetarian dishes now have twice the share of menu options they had in 2010, while 21% of eating out brands now offer a vegan option.
For operators are paying more for salad and vegetables, bringing them from the side to the centre of the plate can also help persuade customers that they are still getting value for money:
- Vegetarian dishes: Vegetarians often complain is that the dishes they are offered when eating out are predictable. At Christmas, a contest by the Vegetarian Society to find the most interesting restaurant alternative to a turkey dinner picked a ‘trio of beetroot tart tatin with fennel caramel, served with a rocket, fennel and ruby grapefruit salad’ as the winner, so be prepared to pump up then flavours in meat-free meals.
- Salad days: With salads increasing in popularity as menu choices, move them to the mainstream by varying the ingredients. Lettuce and tomato are salad staples, but adding veg such as roasted peppers, courgettes, spring onions, radishes, grated carrot and green beans will add variety, while starchy foods such as rice, pasta and couscous will make a salad feel more substantial.
- Sauces: Where dishes usually come with rich sauces made with cream or cheese, offer healthier choices such as home made tomato and vegetable sauces as an alternative.
- Sandwiches: Lunchtime is still growing its share of eating out occasions, according to Horizons, and is often seen by consumers as a functional rather than indulgent meal. Offer plenty of salad with choices such as lean meat, tuna, and cheese. .
Whatever you do to cater to customers looking for healthier choices, make sure you tell them. Menus, chalkboards, websites and social media can all be used to promote interesting menu options.
It looks likely that issues with availability, quality and price for salads will continue for some time. As always, Lynx Purchasing will be working with our suppliers to monitor the latest situation and keep our customers in the picture.