Americans are busy. Today more people eat on the run more often than ever. As evidence, takeout sales have grown at an annual pace of nearly 10 percent in the last three years, according to the research firm Technomic Information Services. It’s proof that the foodservice industry, specifically the takeout category, is important to pork. 

According to a USDA Economic Research Service report, “the foodservice industry is nearly equal in size to food retailing and is a large and growing market.” Of the $1-trillion annual U.S. food bill, foodservice entities supplied almost half, or $496 billion.

Commercial foodservice establishments, including restaurants and fast-food outlets, are an increasingly important market for pork. In 2000, 70 percent of pork was consumed in the home, with 30 percent eaten away from home. “Now, those figures are closer to 65 percent in-home and 35 percent through the foodservice channel,” says Karen Buchholz, National Pork Board’s foodservice marketing director.

Is pork getting its share in the growing foodservice industry? “The opportunity for pork is in creating value items for the consumer and the restaurant operator,” says Joy Johnson, NPB’s vice president of demand enhancement. “Since takeout represents a small part of a restaurant’s overall sales, our focus remains on creating pork items for a restaurant’s general menu that the consumer will prefer, and that restaurants will profit from as well.” 

NPB officials understand the demanding business of marketing to restaurants. “Restaurant operators develop menus by selecting offerings that are sustainable and profitable for them,” Johnson explains.

Getting new pork items on menus is a constant challenge. Three NPB foodservice managers call directly on commercial foodservice accounts and work with research-and-development chefs to create new menu items featuring pork.  “All of our foodservice managers share trend information with their accounts to show that it’s profitable to add more pork items to their menus,” Buchholz points out.

There’s also the one-on-one approach. The “Immersion” process focuses on one particular commercial restaurant or hotel chain at a time to identify and develop a pork menu item unique to that outlet. “We go into the restaurant’s test kitchens and use the equipment that they use to produce prototype pork dishes,” explains Stephen Gerike, NPB national foodservice marketing manager. “The operators then select the items that they think best fit their operations and price point.”

NPB also holds workshops at the Culinary Institute of America in NapaValley with 16 commercial, non-commercial and distributor foodservice accounts. “It is a very cost effective way to promote pork to key decision makers,” Gerike adds.

Getting on the menu

Once a new menu item is identified, the trial and introduction process begins. A new item is usually tested in a specific geographic location or region. If successful, the foodservice entity offers it as a special feature item. If the success continues, it’s then expanded nationwide. This process may take three to five years.

Buchholz says pork’s biggest growth potential is in breakfast and lunch items. Opportunities also lie within quick-serve restaurants and dinner items in casual dining restaurants.

She points to items such as the ham omelet sandwich introduced this year at Burger King. The sandwich has enjoyed great success since its introduction.  But while reports are good, NPB can’t offer a sales assessment on the product.

There is tremendous growth in the breakfast area, as even less traditional venues like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts have broadened their offerings to include savory options. “Convenience stores have increased their breakfast sandwich offerings, so that is another growth potential for pork,” Buchholz adds.

In the casual-dining arena a recent success has surfaced with Hard Rock Café’s Rock Chop. It evolved from a partnership between NPB and the restaurant management team to find a menu item that would work for the chain and be a value-added product for consumers. The Rock Chop was introduced this past spring in 43 Hard Rock Café locations.

In the non-commercial foodservice area, NPB also is seeing growth. This category includes business and industry foodservice outlets, such as hospitals and schools, as well as cafeterias in business headquarters that provide menu service to a “captured” customer base. These non-commercial foodservice outlets account for about 15 percent of all away-from-home food sales, according to USDA reports.

Looking ahead 

NPB is conducting risk-analysis studies to evaluate the prospect of lowering the end-point cooking temperature for fresh pork cuts. Fighting cooks’ and consumers’ tendency to cook pork excessively, the objective is to preserve pork’s juiciness and tenderness. That’s important to restaurant customers and chefs alike.

“Our goal is to lower the approved end-point cooking temperature (now at 160º F) for certain fresh pork products because it is safe and increases consumer acceptability,” says Steve Larsen, NPB food safety director. “This effort is confined to whole muscle products such as chops or roasts.” NPB will make a proposal to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service sometime in 2008.

Consumer-preference studies also are underway to determine what appeals to today’s consumers in terms of flavor and texture. Those results will help determine a target end-point cooking temperature and direct future pork recipe development.

While NPB efforts are focused on keeping pork on pace with the fast-moving American population, foodservice creates its own set of consumer demographics and preferences. Certainly plenty of challenges lie ahead.

The natural and organic pork niche market, while still small, is strong and will continue to increase. The category is especially appealing to middle- and high-income consumers who eat many meals away from home. More pork menu items are needed for this expanding category. 

“Rising incomes in the United States are expected to support the continued expansion of foodservice expenditures,” according to USDA’s report. Pork must be there with creative, flavorful menu items. One such dish, Kurobuta pork, is getting the attention of chefs in fine-dining facilities and seeing increased demand.

The U.S. pork industry is benefiting from expanded exports — a channel that now consumes about 15 percent of U.S. annual production. For the pork remaining stateside, the foodservice industry claims 35 percent and it’s growing. That requires close attention and represents a great opportunity for pork right here at home.