As we approach the Christmas period, ‘seasonal’ food is a hot topic. However, it’s not just festive food that’s big on the consumer radar for restaurants. According to Eat Out Magazine, a recent study of UK restaurant owners revealed that 93 per cent are influenced by what produce is in season when creating their menus. This is promising, as the magazine reports that an OpenTable investigation found that over a third of British diners claim seasonal menus are important to them when eating out.
The argument against eating and serving out-of-season produce is a strong one: crops transported long distances must be harvested early and refrigerated, and when they reach their destination they are often heated in a hot house to artificially ripen the produce. These processes greatly reduce quality in flavour, texture and nutritional value of produce. Seasonal produce, however, can be grown locally, and served in restaurants much sooner after harvesting.
But seasonal eating is not just beneficial for consumers. As Graham Long, executive chef at The Chancery in London, tells Big Hospitality, “Seasonality is also an advantage for businesses because when a product is at its best and is plentiful, the price comes down.” But how are big players in the food industry implementing seasonality into their businesses? These five top trends will allow proprietors to maximise consumer interest in seasonal food to its full potential.
1. Home-grown produce
According to Eat Out Magazine, an OpenTable study has found that half of consumers are more inclined to visit a restaurant that grows its own produce. Entrepreneur claims that this trend has been booming for some time, and is only set to grow in 2017: “The love for local food means rising customer interest in “everything from house-purified water to regional seafood to locally manufactured products like beers and liquors.”
This trend is perhaps unsurprising considering the current ecological crisis, but it affects diners as well as the environment. Eat the Seasons explain that, even if produce is in season, local foods are likely to be a lot fresher than their supermarket equivalent. For maximum effect, restaurants should aim to grow their own produce wherever possible. This holds huge appeal for diners, many of whom like to know exactly where their food is coming from and how it has been grown.
In dishes requiring ingredients grown further afield, Eat the Seasons recommend, “it's better to eat oranges, peaches and kiwi fruit flown over from Spain or Italy rather than those that have travelled much further from Africa, America or Australia” as this makes for fewer air miles and thus less of an environmental impact – plus the produce is likely to be fresher.
2. Seasonal sides
As we reported in a recent article on the rise of snacks, starters and small plates: accompanying side dishes are currently all the rage with diners. Consumers value unique side dishes when eating out, and often opt for sides influenced by particular locations. But it’s not just location that can be harnessed to create appealing sides – so can seasonality.
As Technomic argues, seasonal ingredients incorporated into limited-time offerings “often wind up as consumer favourites”. They also found that 55 per cent of consumers polled preferred to try an unfamiliar side dish that they hadn’t sampled before. This means that sides are the perfect place to promote seasonal options, as consumers may be more likely to experiment outside of the core element of the meal. Sides are also much easier to update regularly as the seasons change.
3. Fast-changing specials
As Sam Scott, owner of The Swan in Kibworth, told Eat Out, the variable climate in the UK can make sustaining a seasonal menu complicated. She says: “You could change menus with the seasons but each lasts three months and that’s a long time to keep a menu in place”. Instead, she comments, “We change our menus every six weeks and regularly do seasonal specials that allow us more flexibility.”
To strike a balance between creating dynamic, flexible menus and maintaining customers’ core favourites, restaurants should develop seasonal specials that can change every few weeks to keep up with the constantly-changing seasonal produce grown locally.
4. Veg-based dishes
Graham Long points out that, although there are certain ingredients that can never be grown organically in the UK, “the most important products are the ones you build your dishes around.” He continues to explain that if chefs create dishes based on seasonal ingredients such as local asparagus, “whatever you do is going to be delicious. It almost writes your menu for you and takes the pressure off.”
As fruit and vegetables are the ingredients that go in and out of season at the highest rate, these are the elements that seasonal dishes should be based around. Whichever items local growers are offering ought to be considered the centrepiece of a dish, around which meats, grains and carbohydrates – or entire flavour palates and concepts – can be built.
5. Educating Consumers
Tools like seasonality tables are becoming increasingly commonplace on the internet, and websites such as Eat Seasonably are readily available to instruct consumers on ‘what to eat now’. Such tools allow consumers to learn about the value of seasonal eating for their own health and for that of the planet, which in turn influences their choices when eating out.
It may seem that consumers’ increasing awareness of seasonality will limit the options for restaurant owners, but as Graham Long indicates, this can actually be beneficial. He says: “You can serve someone a beautifully cooked carrot and what he or she appreciates is where you sourced it and where it was grown.” He says that today, “People are so much more concerned about where there [sic] food came from and how it is produced”. This is something that industry players should – and indeed must – embrace.