CHICAGO — Produce appears in a new light on restaurant menus with operators playing up healthy additions.

Restaurant trends favor avocados, cruciferousRestaurant fare is being defined by functionality, as in “how this food benefits me,” said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta. Kruse spoke at a May 19 session, “Menus 2014: Turning Trends into Money Makers” at the 95th annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show. The event drew more than 60,000 attendees to Chicago’s McCormick Place May 17-20.

Kruse noted that avocados have become ubiquitous on menus, particularly among appetizers and condiments. Her avocado observations played out on the exhibit floor. Among more than 2,000 booths, about 25 produce companies exhibited with several promoting and/or launching new avocado-based items, including Calavo Growers Inc.’s specialty division, which showed its new mayonnaise, Aveyo, made with avocados and olive oil. It also launched an avocado syrup to add to soft-serve ice cream bases. Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. Inc., Coral Gables, Fla., entered the foodservice guacamole space with the launch of two new ultra-high pressure guacamole products.

There’s also an undeniable cruciferous craze happening at restaurants, Kruse said, as she showed menu photos of trendy items with kale, broccoli, cauliflower and the new restaurant darling, Brussels sprouts.

Exhibitors were also on top of that trend with new products, including Kale Great Greens, one of the six new Fresh Express salads Chiquita Brands International, Charlotte, N.C., launched at the show. San Miguel Produce Inc., Oxnard, Calif., also showed a new kale item, while Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, introduced smaller foodservice packaging for Brussels sprouts.

Restaurant trends favor avocados, cruciferous“Watch as vegetables move across dayparts and land in breakfast,” Kruse said, highlighting such examples as Au Bon Pain’s hummus breakfast sandwich with fresh spinach and Corner Bakery’s Avocado & Spinach Power Panini Thin made with fresh avocado and spinach, scrambled eggs and two cheeses.

“We will see more innovation around neglected categories, like produce,” she said. “There’s a coming demand for real and better foods, and foodservice will take the leading role.”

Already, 71% of adults are trying to eat healthier than they were two years ago, according to research by the NRA.

“Great flavor will cause consumers to actually order the items,” said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission, Irvine. She spoke at the workshop session “Create a Healthier Plate for your Menu,” on May 18.

It has taken awhile for restaurants to place much emphasis on healthier fare because of an anti-health stigma that has pervaded for years following the unsuccessful launch of a few healthful items that lacked flavor by major fast-food chains in the 1980s and 1990s, she said.

The perception among foodservice operators that fresh produce costs more than the alternatives has been another barrier for produce. However, DeLyser referenced a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that shows the average price per serving of a fruit or vegetable snack is 34 cents compared to 67 cents for unhealthy snacks.

“Consumers want fresh fruits and vegetables because they taste better,” she said.

According to the association, the show and the co-located International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event, saw the third year of consecutive registration growth, at 63,876, at 10.5% growth since 2011.