John Matchuk

Anne Hildebrandt

When chefs plan new menus, they draw their inspiration from a large pool of resources. Print media, the Internet, travel experiences, and visits to other restaurants are but a few of the tools they use when deciding what to serve their customers. A food product developer faces similar challenges, albeit for a different venue. In addition to processing, stability, and cost concerns, food manufacturers also need to stay on top of current trends to succeed. Product developers would benefit from taking a closer look at the “chef ’s perspective” of menu planning by taking advantage of the many resources available to them.

Traditionally, the chain of influence in food trends was simple. Before the Internet and the Food Network, chefs (or food and beverage directors) from New York City went to Paris to see what was new. In turn, chefs from Chicago went to New York, and chefs from Des Moines went to Chicago. They all were interested in “knocking off ” what they saw and making it the new signature dish for their market. Today, the concept is the same, but the flow of ideas has changed.

The Paris–New York–Chicago–Des Moines sequence has lost its steam as a result of the vast variety of avenues that everyone can now access to learn about food trends and ideas. The number of food retailers in the market continues to grow, as do the choices of products offered inside the stores. Online resources present yet another forum in which to research recipes and new food trends. In addition to a myriad of food trade publications, there are both professional and entertainment-focused cooking and foodservice publications available. Magazines like Good Housekeeping and the food sections of major newspapers can often also provide ideas that are new or “on trend.” In addition, because they have already been published to potentially large blocks of your target market, there is a built in familiarity which you can use to leverage your own marketing.

The trickle-down theory applies to the food industry in that many of the trends that start out in upscale restaurants may eventually find their way to the grocery store shelves. To stay on top of what’s hot, product developers should not be afraid to go directly to the source. What cuisines are being introduced or explored by high-end restaurants? Are there ingredients/flavors from those cuisines that could potentially be inserted into or adapted to other dishes? These are but a few questions that permeate all food business cultures and can aid one’s quest for the “next big thing.”

Sometimes food magazines may seem more like travel publications, but it’s important to remember that cuisine isn’t created in a vacuum. Learning more about a food’s cultural and regional influences helps chefs and product developers alike present that food in a more authentic fashion. The ability to travel to Burma, or San Francisco, or Indiana by way of a magazine feature or television program provides you with more of the clues that can enable you to unlock a region’s cuisine. Execution, accurate portrayal of the region’s flavors, and concern for the nuance and subtleties of the food are what speak to food product development successes. This concern for culinary accuracy will help your internal ideas and solutions have a culinary product development perspective.

Whether your field is specialty foods, upscale casual foodservice, or food manufacturing, the trick is to exceed expectations and make the customer say, “Wow!” This can be accomplished via any of the following: service, packaging, innovation, freshness, unique ingredients. Those may be givens for any business, but what that ultimately leaves you with is “Efficient vs Effective.” Efficient is doing things right the first time; effective is doing the right things! In this case, effective would be making early decisions on which product or products to support for development.

Remember when “Information Overload” was a new and meaningful phrase? It meant that there was too much data and not enough time to process it all. Now it is a given that there is too much data available and there is not enough time for significant ongoing literature review. However, the alternative is far worse, as there is rarely enough applicable marketing data to solve your “Go/No-Go” product launch decision. So, get hip to the Food Network, page through the latest issue of Good Housekeeping, and try to use as many food resources as you can to provide both an overview and a safety net for new food product development.

Corporate Chef
Research Chef
T. Hasegawa USA
Chicago Culinary Center
Northbrook, Ill.