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At the 'Ideation Fresh' Foodservice Forum Of The New York Produce Show And Conference:
As 400-store Taco John’s Heads East With Its First Restaurant On Long Island, Chef Bob Karisny Talks Bluntly About The Challenges And Opportunities For Produce In High Volume Foodservice

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 13, 2014

Bob Karisny has a reputation as a top chef, but he innovated greatly at Boston Market, and, now, working for Taco John’s, he remains in a position to directly influence the way many people eat and to set an example that others in the mass market foodservice arena will pay attention. So we were thrilled when he agreed to join us at the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference.

He will be participating in a panel discussion focused on how the creative use of produce can add to the operator’s bottom line, and he will also do a demo to provide an example of the kind of cuisine that is interesting, profitable and rich in fruits and vegetables.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get a broader sense of the man and to help us gain insight into what he will talk about in New York:

Chef Bob Karisny
Vice President for Menu Strategy and Innovation
Taco John’s
Cheyenne, Wyoming

Q: With more than 400 locations spread throughout Wyoming and 24 other states, Taco John’s reaches a huge customer base. As Vice President for Menu Strategy and Innovation at Taco John’s, could you start by describing the scope of your job?

A: What it really entails is the menu item development portion, but more importantly it is about identifying who the target guests are; what are some of the competitive issues that we have to take into account; the restaurant environment considerations; consumer behaviors — all those things that added together create a clearer target for the direction of the menu.  

And these days we’re seeing the need to do that at a faster and faster speed because the consumer has so much variety and distractions. You have to be a lot more aware and a lot more current to keep connected, especially to the younger millennium-type consumers. And even with the lifestyle changes, because with baby boomers, those behaviors are very significant.  Then, we’re looking at a 45-year-old company. How do we take the leadership position that we’ve always had and move it into today and create value as well as we did 45 years ago?  

Q: Sounds challenging. What role does produce play in your strategy?

A: It certainly is challenging. Mexican cuisine is a very produce-intensive cuisine, between salsas and the various produce ingredients used in menu items. You think about the hot and cold aspect of Mexican foods, where fresh produce is more of a cooler, refreshing aspect complementing the hot tortilla or meat. As far as cuisines that are out there, it’s really one that’s strong in produce, whether cooked, raw or manufactured into things.

Often we eat the cuisines of an area that are not cuisines of the very wealthy, but of the common people, and proteins are expensive to anybody, not just common people. So there are a lot of different ways of building foods, incorporating produce items and ingredients, like beans, much more extensively than in those expensive cuisines.

Q: If your intriguing consumer video tutorial on the wonderful world of chile peppers is any indication, you’re capitalizing on the numerous varieties of heat and flavor profiles…

A: As we go forward and look from a strategy standpoint, we do know that the new consumer who is coming is much more connected with produce being a representation of fresh, healthy food. Produce also is much more in line with the lifestyles that many consumers now pursue.

Q: How do you develop menu items? Could you describe the research and development process?

A: Process is pretty extensive. We really start with the overall promotional calendar strategy, and that really is done well ahead of time. Any sort of strategy and product innovation is done well ahead of the curve, so we’ll be two years out just for the promotional calendar. We look at each promotional window and identify a variety of different strategic needs that have to be met or given consideration in order to build the menu items for that window.

Q: Doesn’t that require much foresight and some risk taking as well…

A: Yes. We’re looking at a particular window, a point of time on a calendar, and assessing consumer behaviors. What is their discretionary spending at that time of year, what personal needs do they have, what family needs do they have? Is it in the fall, so it’s back to school time, people are very busy, on the road, but also have greater expenditure getting everyone geared up and ready for school? Does that mean they have less discretionary income?

What is the competition doing? We always have to take our restaurant environment into consideration. Is it the time of the year where we’re changing staff, are we light on staff, what’s the process flow?

Restaurants are a processing facility taking raw materials and turning them into finished material. We have a variety of tools and equipment that help us do that. There will be times when a piece of equipment, like a fryer, is being used more extensively than another time, and we may not want to create a menu item that relies on that piece of equipment because it’s getting worked hard already.

Q: That fryer will always be in play for the chain’s signature Potato Olés, a customer favorite, yet not one of your healthier, low calorie produce items... Tell us more about how produce fits into the menu…

A: You think of fresh salsas like pico de gallo, then more finished salsas, using tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers… There’s always produce being used in different ways, both fresh and prepared. Obviously there’s a lot of lettuce in the menu items. There’s a fresher, crunchy aspect to a lot of Mexican food items.

It’s hard to give an example focused on fresh produce, because produce is an extension of the whole Mexican food concept. Every time we’re looking at something new, we incorporate produce. Will we be putting in fresh tomatoes or pico de gallo, adding fresh limes, or jalapeños, raw and pickled? Do we look beyond lettuce to cabbage to give us that crunch and fresh flavor? At Taco John’s, there is fresh produce involved, but a lot of it is in salsas and prepared items like that.

Q: Do you face limitations on the kinds of fresh produce items you can use based on the chain’s size and infrastructure? Do you have to maintain a consistent menu across the chain, or can it be customized based on the location?

A: We’re very consistent in what our menu execution is. Right now, we’re pretty focused in the upper Midwest with restaurants, so we don’t really have a lot of regional needs, but as we move forward, we have an aggressive growth strategy ahead of us. As we move into different parts of the country, we realize we may need to nuance some regional tastes and wants.

Q: What overall trends are you seeing?

A: There is so much variety out there. I was just at a webinar discussing young people, 18 to 24-year-old millennials. Their decision-making process at the moment is, what am I in the mood for today, am I feeling healthy, indulgent… the trend is really toward freshness, and produce is a big part of it. We’re doing some work on street tacos now, and when fresh lettuce, fresh pico de gallo and a fresh wedge of lime are on the menu item, there’s a lot of credit toward healthy, toward fresh, and toward quality.

Fresh produce is an indicator to consumers, both young and old, of those three aspects. Produce is a trend that has been going on for a long time. For how it spells out health, that perception changes with the customer base — is it about protein, about calories, or nutrients… It really depends on the time and the consumer, and sometimes what are the most popular health trends out there. I think it’s more driven by word-of-mouth than by media. That’s really the truth in many consumers’ minds.

Q: How does menu development for a chain like Taco John’s compare to developing a menu for a smaller restaurant?

A: It’s about supply and consistency of supply. It’s also about having 400 units versus 4.  Probably with 4 units, I could do a lot more preparation in the unit, because I could be more selective on who is working in that restaurant. With 400 units, I certainly have a much greater diversity in the level of talent that is in the restaurants. I have to look at items that are more prepared coming through the back door.

We talk a lot about what we can do here at the support center, corporate and R&D. The more we can help the restaurants at the back door with things coming in that are consistent, that may be already prepared and take less of their time, allow us to consistently create quality goods. The more we can help them at the back door, that’s even more time we can give them at the front door.  

Q: Can you talk more about the supply side, and the logistical operation?

A: We really work with the distributors. We let our vendor teammates take care of the farm end of what we do, and we’re focusing on specifying how they process and deliver the ingredients to us.

Q: Could you give produce industry executives on the supply side some advice on things that would help you in doing your job?

A: The key thing about produce is it’s perishable. From the supply side, it’s all about speed. How quickly can it come from the processor to my restaurant that gives me the optimal shelf life that I can handle?

The reality often is, and it may not seem fair from the produce supply end, that we’re all looking to manage costs in any way we can. So our deliveries from our distribution centers may only be once a week, which is really challenging when you’re having produce that is anywhere from 10 to 14 days of shelf life. A once-a-week delivery requires at least 10 days-worth of shelf life. That’s a very tight window. 

It’s easier to say, just take two deliveries per week, but financially that’s a big hit for us. We’re going to be charged more because it costs more for the distributor to put that truck on the road. And everything associated with that. What could be done best, not only get us great fresh produce in a very effective manner so quality and shelf life and all the characteristics meet our specs, but also look at movement.

Produce has always been a just-in-time business. And that’s tough because suppliers are not waiting by their machinery for me to call them and say we want 1,000 pounds of lettuce now; they’re doing projections.

Working as a team, we’re trying to figure out how to create the optimum situation.

Q: Have you come up with any new ideas?

A: We currently are working with a more national point of distribution for produce, and we’re looking to go to a more regional type setup, so we can be closer to the source, and get product to restaurants faster to optimize shelf life.

Q: Does that present other challenges?

A:  If we increase distributors and have multiple trucks coming to the back door, we have more interruptions at the restaurant. And we essentially have more costs with more trucks on the road. You have another hand in there that can create a lag in the process. So it’s really working out the logistical challenges.

Q: What about the product selection itself? Do you face challenges on the varieties of produce you can introduce to your menu because of the logistics and your high volume demands and uniformity standards?

A: I know these produce guys are extremely flexible in what they do with pack sizes and blends, but even then there are times when it becomes difficult for us to purchase things in the pack sizes offered, or we may want different blends. Even at 400 restaurants, we may not have enough volume to make it valuable for us to run it through the processor.

We don’t want to go through the long development time line only to find out we have to buy quantities we can’t justify from a shelf life standpoint. It takes us out of new opportunities, and we tend to go back to what we know can create value.

For example, we use shredded lettuce on tacos. If I wanted cabbage on fish tacos, it is too difficult to do right now for the season. We would have to buy in pack sizes that may not accommodate enough shelf life or in a case size too big for the restaurant to use. So, I’ll avoid those things even though I’d love to be doing something like that.  We have to work in practical terms.

Q: Who do you see as your competition in the market? How do you strive to differentiate yourself?

A: Other quick service Mexican restaurants have similarities to us, so are more direct competitors. But especially with younger consumers, they have so much variety available to them, and it’s an eating occasion for them. It’s not a Mexican eating occasion; it’s not a burger eating occasion or an Italian one, so we see everyone as our competition.

From a competition standpoint, we’re a differentiator in a couple of ways. First, we talk about what the consumer tells us: we’re real. In terms of the food, fresh produce is a big part of being real, but also our service, with our restaurant franchisees being members of their communities.

We also are identified by doing work with the consumer, a condition of being unapologetically original. Again we’re 45-years-old. We were delivering fast, convenient, affordable full flavored food in Wyoming — in places you wouldn’t expect to see Mexican food and especially Mexican fast food. We went into those markets to where Mexican food wasn’t as familiar. We became the agitators in that sense.

We also do things a little differently. We have boneless chicken wings. Our Number One identifying menu item is Potato Olé, which is a shredded potato round with a really great seasoning on it that consumers just crave. Potato Olé is not particularly associated with Mexican food. But it is a major part of our Mexican food. That’s where the unapologetic reputation comes in. We’re not going to say sorry we have potatoes in our Mexican food.

People will talk about the flavor, the seasoning level of our taco meat. We still prepare all our tortilla shells and chips in our restaurants.

Q: Is that homemade aspect of preparing the tortillas fresh in the restaurant one of the appeals in the quick serve world? In some ways, this is counter to your efforts to bring in as much pre-cut, ready-to-go produce items through the back door…

A: Consumers might not describe things in those terms; they’ll just say it’s better. I talk to them about produce, and they don’t care if the fresh produce is cut in our restaurants or back door ready-prepared. They want to see the fresh produce on the finished items and have confidence that the care and quality went into it. They know we’re a quick service restaurant and they’re good with that.

Q: For attendees at The New York Produce Show and Conference who want to get a taste of Taco John’s, how far do they have to travel? With your expansion plans, where are you headed?

A: We just opened our first restaurant in Long Island! We don’t have anything else in the northeast.

Q: How did the Long Island location come about?

A: Our new president and CEO worked for Arby’s for a long time. The gentleman who opened the Taco John’s unit in Long island is sharing a dual building with Arby’s, but the operations are separate. It’s only been up and running for three or four weeks. I’m going there on that Friday after the New York Produce Show and "Ideation Fresh" Foodservice Forum.

Q: It will be interesting to see how things unfold in a completely new and untapped market…

A: It will be. There isn’t a familiarity with our brand. Our Number One identifying menu concept Potato Olé had no meaning to consumers. We believe if consumers taste them they’ll really like them. However, till that happens, the product is not a particular attraction. So how do we attract those guests as we expand into other parts of the country?    

Q: When you go home at night, what do you like to cook for yourself?

A: I’m a chef by training. I’m a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America. Food is my passion, much more than just my job. Food is what I play with at home, and my friends are food people. It’s always interesting for me to study and watch what other people are doing, and sometimes frustrating because the one thing that no one has figured out is the consumer. 

I can take my passion for food and create something that also fits a consumer’s lifestyle and personality. Food is becoming connected to a lot of people’s personalities, and the restaurants and foods they associate themselves with become part of their identity. The foods you eat become how people look at you from a personal standpoint.

Q: That’s fascinating to think of food in that way. Do your food preferences help define you?

A: I belong to a foodie kind of group, so we do different creations. When I’m on my own at home, I experiment.  On Halloween, I made pumpkin and mushroom enchiladas with roasted chile cream sauce, and I also made a chile rojo.

To be honest, lately I’ve been eating leftovers; the chile rojo, maybe prepare it a little different, heat it up, maybe crack an egg on top one day, then try something a little bit different, roast some chips. My days are long, so usually I’ll prepare something quick. Maybe on a Sunday I’ll cook a side of salmon, have a nice hot piece that day and use it in different ways later in the week, something that I can put together quick but is fresh. I’ll make some great salads. I go to the farmer’s market, grab a bunch of things and create from there.

Q: And then you translate that inspiration back to your menu development at Taco John’s?

A: Exactly. Everything is a learning experience. I can sit in one of the greatest restaurants there is and see something that has potential, and seek ways to translate an aspect of that. It could be a flavor or a look to bring to quick service. It’s really putting those things together. Ethnic food has an authenticity that has kind of blended with an anxious creativeness.  That’s where you get things like Kogi, taking the authenticity of Korean cuisine blended with the Hispanic market place. You have this cool creative clash. 

That’s what my demo at the "Ideation Fresh" Foodservice Forum is going to be. I’m planning on using a Philippine pork belly item but preparing it in a tostada, doing it in a different manner. Of course, in line with the whole food concept, you can count on there being lots of produce. We have that in certain cuisine platforms. Mexican food is an open platform so it lends itself to blending and endless opportunity to be creative. 

******

Chef Karisny is a pro. So many chefs do interesting and fun things with one white table cloth restaurant where money is no object and the staff is hand-chosen, but Chef Karisny gives us insight into real-world issues for the commercial produce industry to confront. Some examples:

Process is pretty extensive. We start with the overall promotional calendar strategy, and that really is done well ahead of time. Any sort of strategy and product innovation is done well ahead of the curve, so we’ll be two years out just for the promotional calendar. 

Right out of the gate, a problem surfaces in trying to boost usage in foodservice and consumption by restaurant patrons: How many produce companies have even one employee focused on doing things that might pay off in two or three years? Yet that is what it takes. No wonder the joint initiative of PMA/NRA/IFDA to double produce usage in foodservice, which we discussed here, here, hereand here. Also articles from our sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS: Plating Produce Front And Center and Five New Priorities For Increased Foodservice Sales.

Restaurants are a processing facility taking raw materials and turning them into finished material. We have a variety of tools and equipment that help us do that. There will be times when a piece of equipment, like a fryer, is being used more extensively than another time, and we may not want to create a menu item that relies on that piece of equipment because it’s getting worked hard already.

Once again, how many produce companies are capable of analyzing things like this and specifically developing products around equipment availability and utilization?

We’re doing some work on street tacos now, and when fresh lettuce, fresh pico de gallo and a fresh wedge of lime are on the menu item, there’s a lot of credit toward healthy, toward fresh, and toward quality.

Fresh produce is an indicator to consumers, both young and old, of those three aspects. Produce is a trend that has been going on for a long time. For how it spells out health, that perception changes with the customer base — is it about protein, about calories, or nutrients? It really depends on the time and the consumer, and sometimes what are the most popular health trends out there.  I think it’s more driven by word-of-mouth than by media. That’s really the truth in many consumers’ minds.

This seems like a very big positive for fresh produce, that beyond its utility as an ingredient it serves a unique functioning as a signaling mechanism, an “indicator” that the food is healthy and fresh – precisely because it is rich in fruits and vegetables.

But we wonder if adding a caveat is not wise. Rich in quality, tasty… produce in good condition can signal good things. Poor quality produce may send another signal entirely.

The reality often is, and it may not seem fair from the produce supply end, that we’re all looking to manage costs in any way we can. So our deliveries from our distribution centers may only be once a week, which is really challenging when you’re having produce that is anywhere from 10 to 14 days of shelf life. A once-a-week delivery requires at least 10 days-worth of shelf life. That’s a very tight window. 

It’s easier to say, just take two deliveries per week, but financially that’s a big hit for us. We’re going to be charged more because it costs more for the distributor to put that truck on the road. And everything associated with that. What could be done best, not only get us great fresh produce in a very effective manner so quality and shelf life and all the characteristics meet our specs, but also look at movement.

This is a good reminder that simply having good produce is not enough. Even offering it at a good price is not enough. There has to be a mechanism for getting where it needs to be, when it needs to be there and all at an acceptable price.

In this area, fresh produce really presents challenges. It is easy to say that produce is cheaper than protein, but if the issue is fresh produce against, say, dry pasta, the costs of distribution one –non-refrigerated, non-perishable -- against fresh produce puts a twist on what seemed like a no-brainer.

We don’t want to go through the long development time line only to find out we have to buy quantities we can’t justify from a shelf life standpoint. It takes us out of new opportunities, and we tend to go back to what we know can create value.

For example, we use shredded lettuce on tacos. If I wanted cabbage on fish tacos, it is too difficult to do right now for the season. We would have to buy in pack sizes that may not accommodate enough shelf life or in a case size too big for the restaurant to use. So, I’ll avoid those things even though I’d love to be doing something like that.  We have to work in practical terms.

Which means the produce industry has to work in practical terms, too. What procedures, what innovations, will let a chain such as Taco John’s offer more diverse produce that might actually drive consumption?

The panel Chef Karisny is on in New York also includes such industry luminaries as:

Bob Okura, vice president culinary development/corporate executive chef at the Cheesecake Factory

David Groll, director of culinary development/corporate executive chef of McAlister’s Deli

Tony Reynolds, managing director of Reynolds Catering in the United Kingdom

Rich Dachman, vice president of produce for Sysco Corporation

And the panel is moderated by Caroline Perkins, president of Foodservice Insights.  We are going to put the substantial brainpower represented by this group and apply it to the problem so that we can find ways of boosting usage in foodservice and consumption by foodservice patrons.

Come and be part of the discussion.

Register for an all access pass to The New York Produce Show and Conference, and that includes access to the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum.

You can book hotels at our headquarters hotel where the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum takes place right here.

Bring your spouse along and sign up for the Spouse/Companion Program by letting us know your interest here.

And remember, the whole event kicks off with the Global Trade Symposium and the Opening Cocktail Reception. Get more information here.

Come and let us make progress together at building produce consumption in foodservice. 

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