Houlihan's kitchen manager Myers Johnson prepares one of the restaurant's small-plate menu items.
Eateries dish up latest trends
Locally sourced, farm-branded ingredients are making their way into local restaurant menus that range from fast food to fine dining.
The trend was noted in January on the National Restaurant Association’s 2010 watch list, along with a projected 2.5 percent increase in annual restaurant sales. The industry appears to be on track, said Annika Stensson, the restaurant association’s director of media relations, adding that total restaurant sales are expected to reach $580 billion this year.
A look at local restaurant tables indicates the national association’s prediction of its top menu trends also is coming to fruition.
Know the source The biggest movement in local dining is a focus on locally produced ingredients, said Abby Ehlers, hospitality and restaurant administration instructor at Missouri State University.
“You’re seeing the demand on so many fronts, both from restaurants and from the general populace,” she said, pointing to the grassroots Well-Fed Neighbor Alliance and its movement to start 1,000 gardens in the Ozarks.
Colleen Smith, owner of Tea Bar & Bites Bakery and Café said that more restaurants may be jumping on the bandwagon, but the use of local products isn’t new to Springfield. Locally grown foods have been part of her restaurant’s concept since it opened seven years ago.
Among the local items she uses are berries from Glen Echo Farm in Bois D’Arc and mushrooms from Persimmon Hill Farm in Lampe.
“People are really interested in where their food is coming from,” she said. “We have so many farmers markets now – there used to be just the one – and that makes it easy for people to shop local.”
Farmers markets also familiarize customers with nearby farms, Smith said, noting that she tells her customers both the name and location of the farms where she buys items for Tea Bar & Bites.
Ehlers said larger corporate-owned restaurants are following suit.
“One of the challenges is that in order for larger restaurants to be able to offer foods like that, they have to be able to source them through purveyors,” she said, adding that large distributors are beginning to seek out local growers to meet that demand.
For Carrie’s, MSU’s student-run restaurant, Houston, Texas-based Sysco Corp. sourced butternut squash from a nearby Amish farm, she said.
However, larger restaurant chains don’t always have the flexibility to source locally, noted Myers Johnson, kitchen manager at Houlihan’s of Springfield at 2110 E. Republic Road. “Even though we’re a franchise, we’re tied in with some corporate specifications,” Johnson said. “They preach consistency.”
Large-scale restaurants may not be able to source local ingredients as easily, Ehlers said, but they are seeking out organic produce and hormone-free meats, noting Denver, Colo.-based Chipotle Mexican Grill markets its choice of quality ingredients as a key part of the business.
Just beginning to take root locally is the concept of a restaurant growing its own food, Ehlers said, noting that she’s seen pots of herbs outside of restaurants around town. Tea Bar & Bites has its own herb garden behind the restaurant, Smith said, noting all the basil used in the pesto comes from the garden.
For two years, Springfield Brewing Co. has maintained a rooftop garden, said Director of Operations Kevin Mackey. The restaurant uses organically grown peppers in a pepper-infused vodka, and harvested herbs, artichoke hearts and onions that all landed on the menu this year, he said.
Small potatoes Another top menu trend noted by the NRA is a movement toward smaller portions. That’s something the local restaurant scene and its diners are beginning to warm up to.
The south-side Houlihan’s is one of the chain’s first franchisees to offer small plates, which Johnson said is part of a corporate rollout he expects will be quickly adopted by other stores. The small-plate items are some of the most popular on the menu, he said.
“It’s a tapas style of eating,” said Houlihan’s manager Casey Anderson. “You order one or two at a time, then a couple more when those come out.”
Other restaurants following the small-plate concept include Ophelia’s Tapas and Wine Bar, which reopened in a smaller location, 216 E. Walnut, after a two-year hiatus. And small plates are also on the menu at Flo Restaurant & Wine Bar, which opened Nov. 5 at 2925 E. Battlefield Road, Ste. 105.
Not all food trends are for all restaurants, however, and adhering to a proven formula is important, said Mackey.
“For our concept – we’re a brew pub – our clients are expecting larger portion sizes,” Mackey said.[[In-content Ad]]