Non-Com Spotlight: Top takeaways from chefs across the noncommercial spectrum

In a virtual idea exchange, chefs from colleges, healthcare, K12 and more revealed the recent successes and challenges their dining programs are facing. 

When chefs from every segment of noncommercial foodservice get together, great ideas flow. Such was the case with a recent virtual meeting of chefs hosted by FoodService Director that focused on flavor trends and consumer perspectives.

Participants had the opportunity to share past successes, current challenges and future plans. Here are some of the more popular and workable ideas that rose to the top.

Meal kits are a win.

Meal kits were introduced as a pandemic necessity when off-premise service was the only game in town. But most of the event participants want to continue these programs. They’re a convenience for customers and provide an incremental revenue source for operators.

At University of Washington in Seattle, students especially enjoyed the kits when they were accompanied by a recipe demo or class, says Campus Executive Chef Tracey McRae. And meal kits provide a benefit for healthcare and office workers, who can purchase an individual dinner for themselves or a family meal for a larger group.

Trinity Health set up baking centers at three of its healthcare operations, says Ryan Senk, Trinity’s national director of culinary and retail. The centers provide cakes, pies and cookies for customers to take home, and the service “will stay put,” he adds.

A move away from processed plant foods.

Plant-based and plant-forward eating is here to stay, but the chefs would rather not rely on faux meat. “We’re trying to make plant food ‘sexy,’ says Frank Turchan, campus executive chef for Michigan Dining, who is doing more with legumes and beans. “We don’t want to do analogs,” he says. “We want something cleaner.”

Josh Martin, executive chef at the University of California at Santa Cruz, is on the same page. He’s been using tofu in different applications, but is looking to expand into more plant proteins.

Exploring different global cuisines can amp up the plant-based selection. Dawn Aubrey, executive director for Sodexo at Rensselaer Dining in Troy, N.Y., points out that East Indian, Himalayan and Nepalese cuisines are especially vegan-friendly. An ingredient that’s becoming more widely available is Himalayan black salt. Aubrey says its flavor can mimic eggs when used in a vegan dish.

Local sourcing to ease supply chain pain.

The food and packaging supply chain has been struggling to keep up with demand, as restaurants and foodservice operations opened at the same time across the country and scarcities resulted in some categories. At Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis, Executive Chef Dugan Wetzel navigates the supply chain by sourcing local as much as possible. “We also produce on the roof of the hospital,” he says.

At Michigan Dining, Chef Turchan also does a lot with local sourcing. Beef and pork come from Michigan, chickens from Ohio and some produce from the campus farm. “This works in our favor because there’s also a driver shortage,” he says.

Simplifying the menu and planning LTOs far in advance also help manage supply chain challenges, the participants agree.

A renewed effort to engage customers.

With employees and students working remotely or on different shifts during the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to re-engage with them this fall. At University of Washington, MacRae is keeping staff and students involved through a Recipes from Home program. “We ask them to submit a family recipe or something that is from their heritage so the recipes are very authentic,” she says. “I then scale up the recipes and try them out in the campus gastropub.”

Keeping an eye on trends.

While the time may not be right to incorporate over-the-top trends, operators and chefs are revisiting ideas that might have been put on the back burner over the last year. Some that emerged during the share group include food as medicine, waste reduction, a farmers market-style retail operation and a carbon neutral foodservice program.

Non-Com Spotlight: Top takeaways from chefs across the noncommercial spectrum

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