The power of sides
June 29th, 2015
Make no mistake: Side items have star power on today’s menus. As consumers continue to move away from three-squares-per-day dining, items such as sides, appetizers and small plates—often treated as an afterthought by operators—are becoming a critical point of focus. In fact, 33 percent of consumers said they prefer to create their own meals from sides and small plates rather than order an entree, according to a recent report from Chicago-based research firm Technomic.
This shift in dining style can be attributed in part to consumers’ quest for flavor. “Millennials and Gen Zs are looking for newness—flavors that are about them and not about their parents,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic. He notes that side dishes are a great vehicle for flavor experimentation, since students—and operators—can try new flavors without committing to a full entree.
Thus, offering unique, flavor-forward side dishes can be a point of differentiation for foodservice directors, and it can be a way to monitor portions and give students more control over their meals—a trend that’s continuing to grow.
Authenticity on the run
To appeal to today’s college students, foodservice has to cater to eating on-the-go. “Our students are tech savvy; they’re eating with one hand while the other is using their phones,” says Scott Anderson, interim director and chef at Shepherd University Dining Services in Shepherdstown, W.Va. “I’ve had to create smaller, unique serving sizes for them; they want to graze.”
And the food better be natural and real, Anderson adds. “Mexican better taste like Mexican; homemade potato salad better be authentic,” he says. “If I’m serving pulled pork BBQ, there must be coleslaw.”
For that reason, Anderson relies on Reser’s Foodservice for potato salads and coleslaws. “Reser’s is right in the middle—not super tangy or rich, not bland or too chopped up,” he says. “It goes with everything.”
Making it personal
Customization and flavor options also matter to today’s college students. “These students are used to dining out as a normal course of daily life,” says Nancy Monteer, associate director of campus dining at the University of Missouri. “They expect more when they come to college; they’re more adventurous and sophisticated in their tastes.” Offering customizable dining options can be a way for operators to generate excitement and compete with build-your-own fast-casual concepts.
To that end, Anderson offers customizable options that enable diners to turn a side dish into a main meal. “Sides are very important,” he explains. “They can become the center of the plate.” A student might take potato salad, add cheese, bacon or BBQ sauce as well as some pickles, relish or coleslaw, says Anderson. “It becomes a unique little dish that they make their way.”
Keep it healthy, but offer indulgence
The students at University of Missouri enjoy roasted vegetables as a side dish, says Monteer. Roasting rather than steaming brings out the flavors, and vegetable consumption has increased as a result, she says. For example, her staff menus a mix of red onion, cauliflower, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, ginger and caraway, all roasted with olive oil. “It’s very popular,” she says.
Additionally, the school’s self-serve salad bar is stocked with vegetables and assorted mix-ins, including Reser’s oil-and-vinegar coleslaw and German potato salad. The sides add substance to the available options and offer flexible portion sizes, says Monteer.
However, although health and wellness continues to affect college & university dining, students also want the comforts of natural, home-style foods. Offering tasty side dishes allows students to indulge without overdoing it, explains Monteer.
University of Missouri students “love their mac and cheese,” says Monteer. “We have one facility that has it on the menu every day,” she says. Students can also add in a flavor boost with add-ins such as chipotle or bacon.
Making sides work for you
Tristano suggests testing new side dishes that offer a broad range of flavors, including sweet, spicy and tangy. “These are flavor profiles that really appeal to the younger generation,” he says.
For more tips and insights on the power that side items can add to your menu, visit Reser’s Foodservice here.