Content sponsored by: Structural Concepts

Grab-and-go displays can help foodservice operators increase revenue and reduce operating costs.

Anyway you choose to add it up health is top of mind for today's consumers.

Twenty-five percent of consumers list healthcare costs as a primary concern, 18 percent cite overall health as a primary concern and 17 percent say healthcare premium costs are troublesome, according to a January 2014 consumer survey by Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm.

As a result, consumers are becoming more aware of their foods' nutritional content. Instead of the low-calorie, low-fat foods of the past, consumers now associate healthy and nutritious with food that is fresh and natural with no preservatives. "Consumers are being proactive about their health, seeking natural foods that taste good," says David Henkes, vice president of Technomic.

FreshisnewhealthyphotoBy making food more visible, foodservice operators can grow grab-and-go sales. Self-service display cases also reduce labor costs and can help increase speed of service during peak periods.

In response to consumers' growing emphasis on health and desire to eat what they perceive as better-for-you foods, fresh and nutritious ingredients continue to play a more prominent role on menus spanning all segments of the foodservice industry. This includes sourcing more sustainably produced and organic ingredients. Proof of this trend's long-term viability is the fact that 82 percent of chain restaurant operators surveyed by Technomic now focus on food the customer perceives as being fresh.

"There are descriptive clues, such as 'fresh, never frozen' and 'skinny' as well as the caloric content now required on restaurant menus," Henkes says. "The labeling is focusing on healthful and wholesome."

Emblematic of the use of fresh or better-for-you ingredients is the farm to table movement. Generally speaking, this references a menu made from locally sourced ingredients that often rotates on a seasonal basis. The National Restaurant Association's 2012 National Household Survey reported that 71 percent of adults were more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally sourced food items. This is a common theme in full-service operations, with the survey also reporting that 78 percent of fine dining operators and 64 percent of casual dining operators said their customers were more interested in locally sourced menu items in 2012 than they were two years ago.

In addition to fresh and locally sourced ingredients, sales growth of grab-and-go menu items continues to gain momentum, outpacing sales growth for the foodservice industry as a whole, according to Technomic. Grab-and-go is expected to experience a compound annual growth rate of 5.2 percent between 2013 and 2016, according to Technomic. In contrast, the foodservice industry as a whole is expected to experience a compound annual growth rate of 4.5 percent from 2013 to 2016.

The prepackaged nature of the products represents the biggest challenge with grab-and-go. Unlike made-to-order dishes, operators cannot customize these premade food items. "These items definitely score well with consumers in terms of convenience, but the challenge is to make these offerings also resonate as healthy and nutritious," Henkes says. "This relates not only to the ingredients, but also to how the products are positioned." According to Technomic's research, customers want to see the date grab-and-go items were created as well as the expiration date clearly on the packaging to determine how fresh it is.

This focus on freshness and convenience has impacted a growing number of operators' menu development efforts as well as equipment requirements. For example, with more fresh product comes the need for additional refrigeration. As a result, the need for refrigerated displays that emphasize the freshness and attractiveness of the food while providing consistent and safe temperatures is on the rise.

Because presentation impacts the customer's perception as to how fresh certain foods are, displays that showcase food preparation continue to rise in popularity. "Clear glass display cases provide operators with the option to put grab-and-go food on display in its full splendor," Henkes says. "This equipment is integral to the overall experience and what consumers are looking for. More options can take it to another level."

Operators can grow grab-and-go sales by more than 50 percent when food is more visible and accessible, which encourages impulse purchases. Self-service display cases also reduce labor costs and can help increase speed of service during peak periods.

The focus on fresh is not just a fad. Healthy is becoming a lifestyle for a growing number of consumers, especially Millennials. This is because consumers relate healthier lifestyles to more nutritious foods that are made fresh, contain natural ingredients and are locally sourced.

At the same time, the need for convenience remains paramount for many consumers, fueling the importance of grab-and-go programs that promote freshness. This is a home run for both operators and their customers. "Grab-and-go is now grab-and-grow, with refrigerated prepared food sections appearing in areas that weren't seen even five years ago," Henkes says. "This segment is experiencing historic growth and is one of the fastest-growing areas within foodservice due to convenience."