September 19th, 2014

The Allure of the Secret Menu

Posted in About Allison

The majority of consumers are oblivious to the phenomenon known as the “Secret Menu”. The most famous of these secret menus is the one at In-N-Out. With animal style fries and the 4×4, In-N-Out has succeeded in drawing in customers that are not satisfied with just any run-of-the-mill regular menu items and crave a “made-for-me” experience. This food trend is sweeping the nation and is a direct response from the QSR industry to compete with fast casual establishments.

So what makes secret menus so appealing to the consumer?

Customization: nothing is more appealing to the average consumer than a menu item that has been customized for them. Many secret menus originated from the desire for a consumer to mix ingredients already existing on a menu in a whole different way. This option to customize their meal serves to make the customer feel special and results in an increased likelihood of return visits.

Insider Knowledge: among Millennials, the desire to be the ‘cool’ kid translates well when it comes to secret menus. There is a badge of honor associated with being the first in a group of friends to try a new item. The sharing of the secret cements the relationship between the consumer and the establishment as well, while still providing the novelty that the customer craves. Among Millennials the use of social media serves as the major vehicle for sharing these experiences.

The secret menu also benefits the chain in several important ways:

Free Publicity: the secret menu allows the chain to add items without increasing their menu footprint, saving money on media and advertising. Social media plays a large role in this phenomenon  with loyal fans posting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Who doesn’t want free publicity of this kind? Letting your loyal followers spread the word for you lends an authenticity to your menu offerings that cannot be cultivated through internal marketing campaigns alone.

Customer Loyalty: secret menus also serve another purpose for the chain, and that is to increase customer loyalty. Among Millennials, for example, there is a strong desire to feel special and unique. By offering these secret menu items to their loyalty program customer base, the chain can gain the allegiance of their most devoted fans.

Now let’s look at some of the more interesting secret menu items on chains around the country:

In-N-Out

Considered the pioneer of the secret menu craze (their secret menu has been around since the 1970s when the term “animal-style” was first noted), the chain gives all of the credit to their fan base with this and other items on their (not-so) secret menu.

Animal-Style: burgers or fries topped with cheese, onions and a special sauce

Neapolitan: a shake layered with chocolate, strawberry and vanilla

The Flying Dutchman: a bun-less double burger with cheese

Mustard-Fried: get your burger slathered with mustard before it is grilled

McDonald’s

Mc10:35: a breakfast McMuffin that substitutes a burger patty for the breakfast protein. Alludes to the changeover between breakfast and lunch service.

McG***Bang: yes, this one is a little vulgar, but it’s McDonald’s most famous secret menu item, consisting of McChicken sandwich stuffed in the middle of a McDouble.

Burger King

Rodeo Burger: a single cheeseburger topped with onion rings and BBQ sauce.

Originally an LTO, it’s now on the secret menu due to ingredient availability.

Frings: an order of ½ French fries and ½ onion rings for those among us who want it all.

KFC

Poutine: French fries with gravy and cheese curds; if you are lucky they will have the cheese curds to make it.

Triple Down: the famous double-down with an extra breaded chicken filet with cheese and bacon.

Chipotle

Quesarito: the most famous item on Chipotle’s secret menu, it consists of burrito wrapped in a cheese quesadilla.

Nachos: order the salad with tortilla chips instead of lettuce for your own customized nachos for an upcharge.

Starbucks

With arguably the largest secret menu that has its own website, the majority of the items are created by fans of the concept. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

Butter Beer Latte: take a typical latte and add caramel, toffee nut, and cinnamon dolce syrups and you have a great fall latte.

London Fog: originally a seasonal tea latte, it’s made with Earl Grey Tea, vanilla syrup and steamed milk.

Mojito Refresher: take a cool lime refresher and add classic and peppermint syrup¸ garnish with lime slices.

Website: http://starbuckssecretmenu.net/

With a trend that is increasing in popularity, don’t you think it’s time you unlock the secrets to your own secret menu?

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August 26th, 2014

Kin and Comfort: The Best of Southern and Thai in Austin

Posted in Restaurants, Trends

Recently opened in March of this year, Kin and Comfort, in the Hana World Food Court on Parmer Lane in Austin is the new concept from Tim Ekrerk, formerly of Spin Modern Thai. Thai by birth, he is the brother in the Austin powerhouse duo behind Titaya’s. He also has collaborated with Paul Qui on several of his food trucks, so while his name may not be familiar to you, his dishes just might be.

At Kin and Comfort, the food is heavily influenced by the Southern Food movement with strong roots in his Thai heritage. Think traditional Asian ingredients and throw in a bit of Southern flair, and you might just be able to categorize Ekrerk’s cuisine.

We started with the Son-In-Law-Eggs. A classic Thai street food, they consist of a breaded and deep-fried egg white filled with creamy egg yolk seasoned with black pepper and pickles. The dish was finished with shaved fennel and a tart yet sweet tamarind sauce.

Our next foray into Thai-inspired Southern cuisine was a coconut and lime infused Tom Kah shrimp and grits. The shrimp were cooked perfectly and were complemented by salty Virginia ham and enoki mushrooms. By far one of my favorite dishes, it showcased a perfect harmony of East meets West and was finished with a flourish of green onions and cilantro.

Then we tried the coconut cabbage slaw. I was honestly expecting a coleslaw but this was different. The subtly sweet coconut base was mixed with cabbage, house-pickled beets, and deep-fried Brussels sprouts. The contrast in flavors and cooking methods was a nice surprise to the palate.

After that, it was the home fried chicken. The chicken was marinated in a soy sauce base prior to being breaded and deep-fried. The chicken was much more flavorful than typical fried chicken. Accompanied by fried green tomatoes and a spicy papaya salad, it was a whole new take on fried chicken.

Out of all of the dishes, the Southern fried rice balls were the most unique. Black rice was breaded and deep-fried, then covered with sausage gravy. Finished with smoky shaved bonito and green onion, it was definitely a dish that had varied reactions. I found the bonito only smoky and not overly fishy. While it wasn’t my favorite dish, it had a unique quality that I would consider a signature for the chef.

The last dish to come out was the potato and taro hushpuppies. It was good timing too, since they were a little on the sweet side with the addition of umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum) sauce and crushed peanuts. Sweet and slightly fruity, they were the perfect way to end the meal.

Overall, I really liked the variations in the menu. I was also impressed with the presentation of the food as many food court restaurants like to serve their dishes in plastic or Styrofoam food containers. Here the focus is on sitting down and enjoying a good Southern……I mean Thai…..meal.

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August 4th, 2014

Destination: Peru

Posted in About Allison

Cuisine of Peru: The food of Peru is a symphony of the many cultures found in the country and is considered by some to be a shining example of fusion cuisine. Let’s explore Nikkei, Criollo, and Chifa cuisines, considered the most popular fusion cuisines in Peru.

With the 2nd largest population of Japanese immigrants in South America, Nikkei Cuisine is becoming increasingly popular. Featuring Japanese ingredients and culinary techniques that are used to enhance the foods of Peru, this is a true fusion cuisine. While highly influenced by Japanese sensibility, the cuisine is distinctly unique to Peru.  Chefs that are known for this cuisine include Virgilio Martinez of Centrale and Hajime Kasuga of Ache. Tiradito is one of the best known dishes in this cuisine and consists of fish sliced thin and bathed in a spicy sauce. The onions common to ceviche are noticeably absent in this presentation.

The most popular fusion cuisine in Peru is Criollo (Creole) due to the immense influence of the African population that was originally brought here as slaves. Plantains, sweet potatoes, anticuchos (skewered grilled meats), and tacu tacu (a dish made with mayocoba beans and cooked rice) are among the ingredients/dishes common to this cuisine. Gaston Acurio of Astrid Y Gaston (Chef Gaston is considered the ambassador for the food of Peru) is known for Creole-Mediterranean cuisine.

Chinese immigrants of Cantonese descent have also highly influenced Peruvian cuisine. The fusion cuisine termed Chifa is derived from a Cantonese word that means “to eat rice and have a meal”. The dish arroz chaufa (Peruvian-Cantonese fried rice) and lomo saltado, a stir fry of beef, are two common Peruvian-Chinese dishes. Chifas are very common in Peru and are considered the “everyman’s” restaurant since they appeal to all walks of life. Again, here the distinction is the use of predominantly Peruvian ingredients.

Agricultural Products

The Andean highlands are the birthplace of potatoes. With over 5,000 documented species, Peru and the surrounding countries are a literal smorgasbord of these delicious tubers. Most varieties are only found locally (approximately 100 varieties are sold commercially in the United States for comparison).

Aji Amarillo, also indigenous to Peru, is known for its unique spicy flavor and is showing up on menus across the country, as well as grocery stores as a paste or whole canned peppers.

From the Western coastal desert and high Andeans to the Amazonian river basin, Peru offers a wide range of climates, and thus a wide range of agricultural products. Major export goods include coffee, cuisine asparagus¸ artichokes, and avocadoes, and yet, these ingredients only scratch the surface of the agricultural products grown in Peru. Let’s look at a few that you may not have heard of:

Granadilla: a relative of the passion-fruit, it has a hard orange external skin that surrounds a pithy white middle skin. The inside is comprised of a delicious pulp with numerous black seeds.

Tumbo – also called the banana passion fruit, it has clustered black seeds and pulp in a firm yellow skin, and it is best eaten cooked, as the pulp is very acidic when raw.

Pichuberry: also called aquaymanto, it is a relative of the husk cherry, and like the husk cherry, it has a papery outer husk.

Tamarillo: known as the tree tomato, while related to tomatoes, is not a tomato. Its flavor is said to be a cross between a tomato and a passion fruit.

Capulin: also called rum cherry, it is a dark purple, oblong fruit related to the cherry and is intensely sweet.

Airampu: the seed of a cactus, it imparts an intense red color to food. It is found in drinks and used similarly to hibiscus.

Tarwi: the seed of a species of lupine, it a similar to a bean, and in the same family. Light yellow with a brown dot, it is a beautiful flower that produces a bean, which is 40% protein.

Cocona – related to tomatoes, but resembling the persimmon, it has a taste that is a cross between a tomato and a lemon.

Llulluchas – a spherical colonial cyanobacteria (scientific name Nostoc) that grows in the mountains of Peru during the rainy season.

Lucuma – this fruit is not usually eaten raw and has a flavor that is reminiscent of maple syrup and sweet potatoes. It is an ingredient in ice cream in Peru.

As you sit and ponder just how you can ever sample all the unique flavors that Peru has to offer, consider attending Mistura, the largest food festival in South America, which takes place every September.  Since most of these products are not yet available commercially, the Mistura is the perfect place to taste to your heart’s content.  You never know, you might just knock them off your bucket list.

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July 21st, 2014

Innovation in Packaging and Food Technology

Posted in New Foods and Flavors, Trends

Part of what gives fast food its allure is creative packaging. Last year, when McDonald’s came out with the pull-tab container for its McWrap, it was noted as one of the most innovative packaging ideas in a long time, due to the convenience factor.

Packaging that makes portable food easier to eat will always translate to more food sales and customer interest.

Here are some of the more innovative packaging concepts:

The To-Go Burger carrier is a great idea that carries your drink, sandwich, and fries in one neatly styled handheld carrier.

http://www.seulbikim.com/118866/1163564/projects/togo-burger

This next product is an easy-open packaging option, targeted towards people who have difficulty opening conventional packaging. Consumers with dexterity issues, or those constantly on the go, will appreciate the Squeeze Open.

http://eu.asg-amaray.com/squeezeopen

What is cooler than a re-closable beverage can? Made with an integrated flat tab that provides the perfect seal, the product can be opened and closed multiple times without degradation to the seal. Simply slide the tab to close it, then to re-open it.

http://www.ball-europe.com/BRE_and_BREplus.htm

In addition to creative packaging, several companies are working on interesting food technologies that translate to cost savings and minimized packaging.

Monosol, the company behind Tide Pods, has developed an edible film for foodservice that dissolves in cold or hot liquids. Starting with hot chocolate, oatmeal, and instant soups, the pouches break down completely and are said to have minimal flavor impact:


www.vivosfilm.com

The Flavorseal company features Seasoning Transfer Technology among its more interesting seasoning sheets for individual protein portioning, seasoned transfer casings to apply spices to larger cuts of meat, and roasting bags that are coated with flavors and starches that mix with the juices from roasts, chickens and other roasted items to make gravy.

http://www.flavorseal.com/cms/food_processing_seasoning_transfer_technology/index.html

For snacking on the go, portion control is a key component to convenience. These berry snacks are pre-washed and pre-portioned for a quick and healthy on-the-go snack.

http://www.naturipefarms.com/berry-quick-snacks/

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June 30th, 2014

The Noble Sandwich Company

Posted in About Allison, New Foods and Flavors, Restaurants, Trends

The Noble Pig Sandwich Company opened its new location here in Central Austin in March of this year to much anticipation. The North Austin location was tucked into a plaza and was limited in seating and parking. They first made a splash on the culinary scene in the summer of 2012 with back-to-back stints on “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” for the Duck Pastrami sandwich and “Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America” for the seared beef tongue sandwich.

Chefs John Bates and Brandon Martinez take pride in their sandwiches. They first met while attending culinary school in Corpus Christi, TX.  With a focus on made from scratch products, such as the house-cured meats, homemade pickles, fresh potato chips, and freshly baked bread, they have built their reputation as a purveyor of quality products with unique flavor combinations.

The interior of the new location is upscale BBQ décor with clean lines and soft lighting, complete with pictures of little pigs and blue and white checkered tablecloths.

What better way to eat your favorite sandwich but in this calming interior?

While I had eaten at the North Austin location when I lived in North Austin, the distance to that location was not as economically feasible once I moved to way South Austin.  So you can imagine my excitement last year, when it was announced that the newest location would be in Central Austin, putting it 20 minutes closer to my house (which translates to in my belly 20 minutes earlier).

My favorite sandwich hands-down at the Noble Pig is the duck pastrami sandwich, but I wasn’t here for that. I was here for one of the new sandwich combinations that had been added recently.

I started with the Oyster Mushroom Reuben made with house made sauerkraut, sautéed mushrooms and Russian dressing on homemade rye bread.  While this was a good sandwich, it could have benefited from a kick in the heat department.

Next up was the fried bologna sandwich made with house Mortadella, whole-grain mustard, griddled onions, olive oil pickles, garlic mayo and Cheddar cheese.  This sandwich is the grownup version of my bologna and cheese sandwich from childhood, but with Mortadella, fatty and delicious.

The beef cheeks sandwich was a special on the menu. It was very tender and was finished with roasted red peppers and cilantro. The flavor was spot-on with a mild red chili flavor and just the right amount of salty tang in the meat.

And yes, I went and saved the best for last! The pecan wood smoked brisket sandwich with kimchi was my absolute favorite sandwich. By far the spiciest sandwich of the bunch, this one was spread with sambal mayonnaise and finished with white onion.  Overall, it was a powerhouse in the flavor department and will be my go to sandwich the next time I visit. It is the perfect fusion of Texas and Korea.

So what are you waiting for? Head on over to the Noble Sandwich Company for some really flavorful food and friendly faces too.

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June 11th, 2014

Regional BBQ Sauce Flavors Across the Country

Posted in New Foods and Flavors, Trends

As Americans, it is safe to say that we are obsessed with barbecue. Although it is believed to have found its origins in Haiti, and named barbacoa by the Spanish who landed there, barbecue is clearly an American institution and synonymous with any/all summer holiday celebrations. Typically, the term barbecue is not understood to be the sauce (at least not among BBQ diehards), but rather refers to the method of cooking: indirect, slow cooking of meat over wood for long periods of time.

From there, it gets a little murkier: depending on what part of the country, the barbecue of the region takes on a distinctive flair and flavor profile that is subject to intense debate among the purists of each BBQ house. Tempers flare and voices are raised all for the sake of pride in the name of BBQ; owing largely to the local traditions ingrained in each region. For the purposes of this blog, we are going to focus primarily on the type of sauce used and the protein typical to each type of BBQ.

So let’s jump in and learn a little about the major BBQ styles:

South Carolina: This state has 3 types of BBQ sauce that it is known for. On the coast “Pee Dee” BBQ uses whole hogs with a sauce that is thin but spicy with components of vinegar and peppers. In the central region, the “Carolina Gold” BBQ sauce is a mustard-based sauce, and the dominant player, pairing well with pulled or chopped pork. The least known sauce in South Carolina is the “light tomato sauce” which is common in the western art of the state.

North Carolina: Eastern North Carolina is known for whole hog roasts with a thin sauce made from vinegar and tomato. Lexington BBQ (Western North Carolina) is ketchup-based and slightly sweeter than the sauce found in the East, due to the addition of brown sugar.

Memphis: Memphis-Style BBQ consists of ribs that are either “wet” or “dry”. The sauce for these ribs is slightly sweet but thinner with more spices, heat, sugar and vinegar than Carolina style BBQ sauces.

Kansas City: An off-shoot of Memphian BBQ, it includes beef in addition to the traditional pork BBQ. In this style, the sauce is the center of attention, and French Fries are a typical accompaniment. Molasses as a component of the sauce results in a richer, darker sauce made most popular by K.C. Masterpiece.

Texas: Arguably the home of BBQ, there are 4 predominant styles of BBQ, including East Texas BBQ (chopped meat, predominantly hickory smoke in a sweet tomato BBQ); Central Texas BBQ or ‘meat market style’(the meat is dry rubbed and cooked over pecan or oak, sauce is thinner and served on the side, served sliced on a tray with sides and condiments); West Texas BBQ (“Cowboy Style” with mesquite wood an direct fire); and South Texas BBQ: (BBQ sauces made with molasses and barbacoa and cabrito for proteins). Texas is among the states where BBQ sauce is optional and usually is served on the side.

Kentucky: In the far western corner of Kentucky, a small pocket of counties specialize in mutton smoked over hickory coals. The sauce, which is Worcestershire-based with black pepper and allspice, is strong enough on its own to cut the gamey flavor of the mutton.

Alabama: In Alabama’s far north chicken reigns supreme in the BBQ scene. The true star of North Alabama BBQ is not the chicken though. Rather, it is a surprisingly unique white sauce. Comprised of mayonnaise, horseradish, vinegar, salt, pepper and sugar (and sometimes apple or lemon juice), the sauce is what truly sets Alabama BBQ apart from the rest of the pack.

Whichever school of BBQ thought you find yourself in, one thing is for sure: BBQ is bigger and better than ever. So go on, get your BBQ on – just make sure to bring some friends, because there is always enough to share.

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May 5th, 2014

Upscale Comfort Food

Posted in Locally Grown, New Foods and Flavors, Restaurants, Trends

According to Forbes Magazine, one of the top trends for 2014 is upscale comfort food.

We all wistfully dream of those uncomplicated childhood days, filled with gooey grilled cheese, stick-to-the-roof-of your-mouth peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and Oreos dunked in milk (do you eat the whole thing? Or do you like the crème better than the cookie? These are serious questions!). These simple foods transport us back to the summers of our youth, where our only concern was being home before the streetlights went dark. The neighborhood was your family and looked out for you; you drank straight from the garden hose; and ran with careless abandon until you fell over in exhaustion, only to wake, dazed, with grass in your hair.

This food trend encompasses the feelings and memories of our childhood, while appealing to our need for more sophisticated food. All over the country simple dishes are being reimagined to appeal to the more refined palette of today’s adults.

At Bubby’s in New York it’s all about the ingredients. Considered one of the best comfort food joints in the city, they even have 3 outposts in Japan. Their motto: “Defending the American table (Also, we steal recipes from grandmas)” speaks to their belief in good old-fashioned comfort food.

They manage to interweave this trend with the locally sourced food trend beautifully, calling out their vendor sources very clearly on their website: Wild Hive Farm (Flour) and Heritage Meat Shop (heirloom pig, turkey, and other meats) to name a few. They buy only whole steers from local farms and grind the burger meat in-house. Add house-made sodas with cane sugar and a culture started in 1890 by a local family, and you have the perfect recipe for upscale quality and authentic fare. These examples are just a few of the partnerships that Bubby’s has formed in the local community.

Items on the menu you can’t miss? The house-made bacon, key lime and Michigan sour cherry pies, buttermilk mashed potatoes, and cherry wood smoked BBQ ribs, brisket and pulled pork.

At Marco’s of Brooklyn, NY, the focus is on traditional Italian dishes, synonymous with the term comfort food. Recently opened late last year, and helmed by Daniel Amend, the brunch menu includes several upscale sandwiches and breakfast dishes that are sure to make your head spin:

The spiedino alla Romana reimagines everything you know about grilled cheese. Thick pillowy white bread first gets soaked in a Parmesan-laced egg and milk batter, then beautifully crisped up in butter. Fillings include creamy rich buffalo mozzarella and minced anchovy, with a salad of parsley, lemon and capers.

And don’t forget to try the Italian version of breakfast eggs: brown butter eggs with Piave cheese and wood-grilled bread. What can I say? You had me at brown butter.

One chain that focuses on comfort food, Noodles and Company, showcases comfort food from around the world, centering on pasta dishes (of course!). They recently added bacon mac n’ cheese as a permanent offering to their menu. It’s a riff on the comfort classic: the bacon cheeseburger. With bacon, tomatoes, onions, and crumbled meatballs, it’s the best of both worlds.

They also feature such premium ingredients as MontAmore® cheese, and naturally raised braised pork on their menu.

Burger 21’s menu centers on its 21-burger menu. Upscale burgers are one of the hottest trends in fast casual right now, with Burger 21 touting itself as a “beyond-the-better-burger” concept. Certified Angus beef, chicken, turkey, shrimp and veggie burgers give customers a variety of proteins from which to choose. The chicken Marsala burger is hand-formed and Panko-crusted. After it’s fried, it is served with Marsala wine and mushroom sauce.

As part of my voyage into the comfort food craze, I decided to take a trip to Haymaker, a local Austin restaurant that focuses on “regionally-inspired comfort”. They opened last fall on Austin’s East side and showcase craft beer in addition to their comfort food menu.

We started with the poutine, that marvel of Canadian culinary innovation. Haymaker puts a southern twist on this specialty with white pepper gravy. The cheese curds were squeaky fresh, and overall the dish was everything you want in comfort food, although a few more cheese curds wouldn’t hurt.


In the “A La Plancha” category, we choose the Nutty Grilled Cheese. Think sweet pecans, Grand Cru Gruyere, sliced apples and mixed greens. I really liked this sandwich, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it is a true grilled cheese. It appeared that the bread was toasted rather than grilled. I think the greens would have held up to grilling since they were predominantly arugula and radicchio.

We chose the Haymaker from the “Big and Burly” category. This is the namesake of the restaurant and a gigantic open -aced sandwich fit to feed a king (and ½ of his court). Served on Texas toast, it has rare roast beef, French fries, Gruyere sauce, coleslaw, fresh tomato and a fried egg. I really liked the flavor combination, and it was just as good cold the next day for breakfast as it was served hot.

And we really couldn’t leave without trying the dessert sandwich, the Fluffernutty Cristo. The Fluffernutter was invented in Massachusetts somewhere around World War I but did not get its namesake until 1960, as part of a marketing campaign by Durkee-Mower. Stuffed with peanut butter and marshmallow crème, the sandwich is battered and fried until crispy. It is served with chocolate sauce. I have to admit by the time the dessert rolled around I was too full to enjoy the dessert except for a bite.

Overall, if you are looking for comfort food, Haymaker delivers. So bring an empty belly and a couple of your best friends, because you’re going to need both.

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March 31st, 2014

The Future of Take N’ Bake

Posted in New Foods and Flavors, Pizza, Restaurants, Trends

Papa Murphy’s, the grand daddy of the take and bake concept, has been the trailblazer in this sector of the pizza industry since they invented the idea in 1981. Their recent addition of a pan pizza that they call “fresh pan pizza” debuted in February of this year to all markets. It has received good reviews so far, and this addition has served to round out the menu at Papa Murphy’s.

With the success of such a well-known chain, several other chains are capitalizing on the improved margins from the take and bake model.

Godfather’s Pizza just announced that they are opening a take-and-bake concept this spring called Big Vinny’s Take & Bake Pizza. Set to open in Lincoln, NE, the concept will showcase fresh dough and premium ingredients to create customized pizzas for their customers.

ZPizza, a chain that is one of the first to use organic flour and organic tomato sauce, just recently launched a take and bake option in gluten-free and wheat crusts. The bonus? The gluten-free crust is just as tasty as the wheat crust.

Figaro’s, an Oregon-based chain, claims to be the first chain to have offered gluten-free take and bake pizzas to its customers back in 2011. They also offer take and bake lasagna and calzones with baked or take and bake options.

Noble Roman’s has 22 locations that offer take and bake pizzas (traditional, SuperThin, and deep-dish Sicilian), breadsticks, chicken wings, cookies and cinnamon rounds. At the end of 2013, 56 franchise agreements had been signed for new locations. They feature fresh-made sauce from crushed tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and spices. To grab a larger share of lunchtime pizza revenue, they are also testing the “You Bake or We Bake” concept in a 3 store test.

Mama Mimi’s is an award-winning small pizza chain based in Cincinnati, OH. They have won “Pizza of the Year” at the National Pizza Festival in Las Vegas as well as the “Best Gourmet Pizza in North America” at the prestigious World Pizza Championship in Italy. With 6 locations in operation, and award-winning pizzas like Mama’s Marmaletta Amore (apricot glaze, mozzarella, chicken, caramelized onion, basil, red pepper flake and gorgonzola), they definitely define gourmet take and bake pizza.

Several companies have taken a different approach to the desire for take and bake. By offering nationwide shipping on their pizzas and other products, the following chains seek to further widen their customer base into new territory:

Donato’s Pizza recently came out with a line of gluten-free pizzas and flatbreads to complement their regular take and bake options. These are offered in-store but also in Kroger’s and on Amazon’s online store to be shipped right to your door. This allows them to extend their customer reach while still providing the quality pizzas that their customers expect.

Lou Malnati’s is the king of the deep-dish pie in Chicago. And they will ship you a pie anywhere in the country via the website www.tasteofchicago.com . They also offer a Pizza of the Month Club for those who cannot get enough Lou Malnati’s.

Whichever delivery method a chain chooses, great quality take and bake is the pizza of the future. It should not be underestimated by operators as the trend in ‘gourmet at home’ becomes more and more popular.

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March 19th, 2014

2014 – The Year of the 3D Printer?

Posted in About Allison, New Foods and Flavors, Trends

A question posed in a survey that I took for the UT Austin Foodlab really got me thinking: What will your lunch look like in 2050? . One of the answers was: “ 50% 3D printed”, and from there my brain shot off into the stratosphere, like fireworks on New Year’s Eve. I just couldn’t compute this as even a remotely possible reality. It seems so space age yet could it be possible?

To answer this question I turned to my friend GOOGLE to help me out. A search for “can we print 3D food?” listed many articles with buzz words like Oreos, SXSW, pizza, astronauts, Hershey, spinach and sugar diamonds.

A little further digging and I find that the 3D printer is the brainchild of Chuck Hull, the Co-Founder of 3D Systems. The first 3D printer was large and clumsy and could set you back a couple hundred thousand dollars. Early innovation with the technology was centered on the automotive industry. Today’s 3D printer is more affordable and more approachable across all sectors of the industry. The year 2014 promises access to the technology by chefs and home cooks alike.

Most recently, 3D printing technology was showcased at SXSW, where Mondelez was producing 3D printed Oreos in 12 flavors and colors. And right down the road from them, 3D Systems were using their ChefJet to print 3D candies for SXSWers.

A high price tag is not stopping big names such as NASA from getting on the 3D printing bandwagon. They awarded a 125,000 grant to Systems and Materials Research Corporation to develop a 3D printer that can print pizza in space. Remind you of any fancy device on the Enterprise? Anjan Contractor of Systems and Materials envisions a 3D printer in every household and an end to the world’s food shortages. What is neat about their technology is that the pre-filled food cartridges are shelf stable and can be used up to 30 years later.

And then there is Hershey, who recently signed a multi-year contract with 3D Systems to print 3D chocolate and sugar-based confections. A pretty big deal considering Hershey is the largest chocolate manufacturer in the country. While development will take several years, this agreement puts Hershey’s well ahead of its competitors. They could be the first large-scale manufacturer to print in 3D.

Barilla Pasta is bringing 3D pasta printers to a restaurant near you. They have been working with TNO (a Netherlands based Applied Research Facility) to develop a pasta printer that can print customized pasta per a customer’s request. Think about how cool it would be to order your custom pasta and have it served to you only minutes after ordering? They hope to accomplish this by using dough cartridges that are sent to the restaurant pre-filled.

The idea of 3D printing goes a step further at Modern Meadow. Here, they develop meat and leather products from tissue cultures grown in the lab. This approach takes the raising, slaughtering and processing of animals entirely out of the equation. While the product is still facing challenges with texture and taste, that problem will eventually be solved.

The 3D printing of meat is endorsed by PETA who has offered a million dollars to the 1st person to create a viable in vitro chicken alternative by March 4th, 2014. While this deadline has passed, great strides were made by several organizations to meet this goal. Dr. Mark Post developed a 3D printed hamburger from beef muscle that was cultured in a lab. The cost? $325,000. Sergey Brin, founder of Google funded the project. And Bill Gates of Microsoft is a major investor in Beyond Meat, a company that produces vegan chicken strips. According to his blog, Mr. Gates was unable to distinguish the difference between real chicken and this meat-alternative.

So when will this technology be available to you? 3D Systems will release 2 models of its version of the 3D printer this year. The ChefJet (up to $5000) and the ChefJetPro ($5000-10000) are the two of the first 3D printers on the market. These are designed for pastry chefs who are looking to craft intricate confections from sugar and chocolate.

Natural Machines, out of Barcelona, Spain, will soon start selling the Foodini. This gadget is geared towards the home cook, and makes preparation faster, without compromising quality. This printer holds 5 cartridges and since it uses an “open capsule model”, the Foodini can print a range of products in the savory and sweet categories. This system allows the consumer to prepare the cartridges themselves. They also plan to sell pre-made cartridges for convenience. Current estimate for availability is the 2nd half of 2014.

As we dive deeper into 2014, keep your eyes peeled for further innovation in this category, it’s only going to get more exciting as time goes on. One thing is for sure: 3D Systems will be leading the way.

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February 28th, 2014

Regional Asian Food: The Future of the QSR?

Posted in New Foods and Flavors, Restaurants, Trends

Asian food, and specifically Chinese food, has been popular in the US for decades now. Most times the menu is an amalgamation of Asian and American cuisines and is far from authentic. The trend towards Westernized Chinese food, for example, saw its rise in the 1800s when Chinese immigrants came to the US for work. From there, an adaptation to the palate of the typical American resulted in a cuisine that was a departure from the cuisine seen on mainland China.

Technomic 2014 trends allude to a shift in this longstanding tradition of takeout boxes filled with lo Mein or sweet and sour pork. Think more authentic, more regional and more importantly: more flavor.

The challenge in this segment is severe underrepresentation. In NRN’s 2013 Top 100, Panda Express and PF Chang’s are the only Asian chains to make a showing. With the explosion in popularity of Thai and Korean cuisine, and the diversity of regional Chinese food, we are sure to see more and more Asian concepts pop-up in the quick service and fast casual segments.

Keeping the push towards authenticity and flavor, here are some of the more interesting chains in the Asian Segment:

Mixed Menus:

ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen: a concept from the folks at Chipotle that opened in 2011. So far, there are only 2 stores, one in Bethesda, MD, and one in Los Angeles, CA. It follows the model for its big sister. You can choose your starch, protein, veggies, sauces, and garnishes as you walk down the line.

Wow Bao: showcasing authentic buns and pot stickers, as well as pad Thai and Thai curry, this small chain in Chicago (6 locations) started out as a brick and mortar. They recently added a food truck that Mobile Cuisine dubbed “one of the most influential food trucks of 2013”.

www.wowbao.com

Mama Fu’s: an Austin-based chain that recently signed an expansion agreement to have up to 25 location across the country. Franchising agreements have been signed for a total of 68 stores. A fast casual restaurant during the day, the restaurant changes to a sit-down format at night. A secret menu intended for members of the loyalty program resurfaced last year. Menus items range from crab rangoons, and lettuce wraps, to Bangkok green curry, and Pho rice noodle soup.

www.mamafus.com

Korean:

Tous Les Jours: a French-Asian bakery chain that originated in Korea with 26 locations in the US. Authentic bakery products include pink milk bread (strawberry infused), sweet rice donuts, and milk pan bread.

http://tljus.com/

Sorabol Korean BBQ & Asian Noodles: the first Korean chain restaurant in the US, run by the Sorabol family. The food is authentic Korean: think Kal-bi, Bul Gogi, Dak Gui, vegetable pancakes, and Chap Chae. They own 13 locations in California.

http://www.sorabolrestaurants.com/

Chinese:

Cantonese:

Ping Pong Dim Sum: with bursting soup dumplings, soft shell crab tempura, crispy prawn balls, and sesame donuts, the menu varies slightly between the Washington D.C. location and the Dubai and Mumbai locations. With 12 locations total, including 8 in London, this is a unique chain to watch.

www.pingpongdimsum.us

Shaanxi:

Xi’an Famous Foods: this small chain of 7 restaurants in New York features the cuisine of the Shaanxi province in Northwest China. The predominant protein here is lamb. Noodles are hand-pulled on site. Cold-Skin noodles is another common dish that doesn’t contain any meat. The noodles are prepared by washing wet wheat dough in cold water until it is gray and cloudy. The starch is allowed to settle then cut into strips and steamed for several minutes.

http://xianfoods.com/

Japanese:

How Do You Roll?: one of the first fast casual sushi franchises in the US, they just recently inked 11 deals to develop 286 stores in the US over the next 10 years. Expect 40 more units throughout the Middle East as part of an international deal with development starting in Bahrain and the UAE this year.

http://howdoyouroll.com/

Filipino:

Jollibee: with 29 units in the United States, and 750 worldwide, Jollibee is a chain that offers Filipino favorites such as spaghetti with ham, sausage, beef and tomato sauce; Spam platters, burgers, fried chicken, and Halo Halo for dessert.

http://www.jollibeeusa.com

Max’s of Manila: an authentic Filipino restaurant with 9 stateside locations, expect specialties such as lumpia eggrolls, milkfish, sinangang (tamarind soup), adobo, and pancit noodles.

www.maxschicken.com

Red Ribbon Bakery: started in Timog, Quezon City, Philippines in 1979, the company is now owned by Jolibee Foods Corporation (acquired in 2005) and has a total of 38 US locations, as well as 200 stores in the Philippines. A wide variety of sweet treats, including ube (purple sweet potato) cake, pan de sel, ensaimada (cheese pastry), are complemented by such savory items as siopao (pork bun) and dinuguan (savory pork stew).

http://www.redribbonbakeshop.us/

Thai:

Osha Thai: a moderately priced concept with 5 locations in San Francisco, they offer tasty dishes such as larb lettuce wraps, Panang curry, papaya salad, and clay pot dishes.

http://www.oshathai.com/

Spice Thai: at 10-unit chain in New York, enjoy a tasting of curry puffs, vegetarian mock dock, Thai spare ribs, and tamarind whole fish. A very extensive menu with a reasonable price.

http://www.spicethainyc.com/spice/home/index.html

Indian:

Hot Breads: we are all familiar with the curries of India. But Hot Breads moves beyond the typical Indian restaurant by showcasing cuisines from several different regions in India. Expect dosa (a thin crepe-like pancake) and vada pav (spicy potato cake sandwich) from the Southern region of Andhra; khorma from Uttar Pradesh in the North; or try a badam shake (a yogurt shake made with ground almonds and cardamom powder). Also known for their specialty cakes and pastries (including egg-less varieties), they are the only QSR Indian chain in the US. We are lucky to have one of these in Austin, and it’s one of my favorite “fast food” places to eat!

http://www.hotbreadsusa.com/home.html

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