Until now, Boston-based Au Bon Pain bakery and cafe has featured California strawberries on its menu sporadically, said Stefano Cordova, executive chef and senior vice president for food and beverage innovation.
But early this year, the chain of more than 300 company- and franchisee-operated stores in numerous countries is testing several items featuring strawberries to add to its regular menu.
“We’re trying to institute a full-time strawberry program,” Cordova said.
As of early March, the chain featured two such items, but depending on the results of the trials, there soon could be four or five offerings, such as salads, yogurt-granola or main dishes.
Cordova said he loves the flavor and aroma of strawberries and the fact that they’re easy to work with — just rinse them, twist off the green stems and you’re ready to go.
He uses them whole for dipping in chocolate or sliced for salads or other offerings.
Au Bon Pain buys directly from a couple of high-end strawberry producers that source berries primarily from California but occasionally from Florida or Mexico. All areas maintain the same quality and safety protocols to maintain consistency.
Since the company uses so many strawberries, even smaller locations order 2- or 4-pound clamshell containers.
“We buy them by the case,” Cordova said.
He prefers clamshell packages because “the strawberry is fully protected” and does not come in contact with the environment. He said he appreciates how workers place the berries directly into the container as they pack them in the field.
Nutrition matters at Au Bon Pain, which offers a variety of breads that are baked in-store, hot and cold sandwiches and grab-and-go salads as well as salads that customers can build themselves.
“We are in large educational institutions, including Yale and Harvard, and medical centers,” he said, “so nutrition is important to them.”
The chain operates on a “healthy-casual concept,” he said, and is “in tune with nutritional value as well as flavor.”
Availability opens up
Consumers used to view strawberries as a summer item, he said, and summer offers more opportunities to serve the berries in drinks and warm-weather offerings.
But now, thanks to increased availability and constant exposure in supermarkets, “People recognize that it’s all-year product,” he said.
One of Cordova’s favorite summertime strawberry items is his California mesclun salad. It’s a mix of California baby mixed lettuces, fresh feta cheese, all-natural grilled chicken, sliced boiled eggs, sliced almonds, balsamic vinaigrette and, of course, strawberries.
The salad reflects a balance of flavors and textures — sweetness from the strawberries and balsamic vinegar, protein from eggs and chicken, crunchiness from the nuts and a bit of saltiness from the feta cheese, he said.
Cordova also enjoys croissants with strawberries and cream and, for breakfast, Greek yogurt and fresh strawberries with a touch of honey.
Speaking of breakfast, Cordova said the trend is turning away from traditional strawberry marmalade to perhaps a yogurt-based strawberry spread for muffins or bagels.
It’s not overly sweet,” he said.
For a nice pick-me-up, he blends flax seeds, mila seeds, nuts, Greek yogurt, coconut water and strawberries or blueberries.
“It’s not a regular smoothie,” he said.
Cordova said he expects strawberries to keep showing up in a variety of applications from salad toppings to breakfast items.