Why Frozen Vegetables and Potatoes Can Make More Sense than Fresh
By Mark Hill, C.E.C
When I first started working in restaurant kitchens, a big-deal chef told me something I have never forgotten. He pointed to a somewhat questionable side of asparagus I was plating and said, “to us, this is one of 400 covers. But to the guy sitting at table 8, this is his one and only dinner.”
In foodservice, there’s no law of averages when it comes to quality. Getting it right most of the time just isn’t good enough. If that guy at table 8 decides his dinner’s under par, chances are he won’t be back.
People talk about how creativity, culinary innovation and staying on top of the trends can help build traffic and create repeat business, and that’s true of course. But for most operators, offering consistent quality—even in the face of labor challenges, shrinking margins, food safety issues—is still the name of the game.
And when it comes to vegetables, knowing how, when and why to buy frozen rather than fresh can be one profitable way to win that game.
HOW CAN FROZEN BE BETTER THAN FRESH? It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that fresh vegetables are the gold standard. We were all brought up on images of farm-fresh vegetables plucked from the fields and rushed to the table—and that is the gold standard. But the fact is, most fresh vegetables sold in the foodservice are picked unripe so that they can survive shipping, and truly fresh locally grown produce, aside from being expensive, is subject to seasonal ups and downs in both availability and quality.
High quality frozen vegetables, on the other hand, when produced by a reliable, company committed to acquiring and pioneering the latest technology, are harvested at the moment of peak ripeness. After initial preparation, these vegetables are usually blanched, or slightly pre-cooked, a process that ensures that they retain much of their natural appearance and flavor for long periods of time in storage. And often, that flavor and appearance will actually be superior to that of fresh vegetables, which begin losing flavor within a few days—sometimes even hours—of harvest.
In fact, with today’s growing, harvesting and freezing technologies, in many cases it’s virtually impossible to distinguish fresh from high-quality frozen on the plate. Anyone who has compared the flavor of well prepared frozen corn kernels to fresh corn grown out of season knows that the frozen product will often have better flavor and texture.
There’s a reason 96% of table service operators and 100% of quick-service operators in a recent National Restaurant Association survey said they use frozen food. Simply put, frozen vegetables offer not only consistent quality but also outstanding operational advantages over fresh.
Availability - With a shelf life of up to one year, frozen vegetables and potatoes are, effectively, always in season, so you’re guaranteed consistent quality year-round. That’s particularly important to operations in which core items remain on the menu year after year or are planned, rotated and budgeted on a long-lead annual calendar.
Labor Savings - Frozen vegetables and potatoes are an ideal solution to labor challenges because they eliminate costly prep. They also reduce the need for training and skilled labor, because they’re easy and fast to prepare and serve.
No Waste - Unlike fresh vegetables, every ounce of frozen vegetables is usable. There’s no paying for stems, no trimming and discarding, and no wilting or spoilage. When properly stored, the product stays frozen and perfect until you’re ready to use it. Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) vegetables can be held in the freezer, so you use only what you need—whether that’s a few handfuls or several cases.
Portion Control - The consistent piece-size and blend ratio of premium quality frozen vegetables mean you always know exactly what you’re serving, order after order, year after year. With fresh ingredients constantly fluctuating in quality, price, size and availability, frozen vegetables give you an effective way to predict and control plate presentation and food costs.
Storage - Compared to fresh, frozen vegetables and potatoes are convenient to store, make efficient use of storage space, offer lengthy shelf-life and free up walk-in/refrigerator space for high-turnover items.
Affordability - Pound for pound, frozen vegetables are often less expensive than fresh, especially when you factor in the hidden costs of labor, spoilage and waste that fresh vegetables entail. And compared to fresh produce, frozen vegetables offer significantly greater price stability throughout the year.
Nutrition - Operators concerned about serving healthy, wholesome foods should know that frozen vegetables have an outstanding story to tell, as confirmed by numerous independent research studies. One such study, conducted by the University of Illinois, revealed that frozen vegetables can have equal, or higher, nutritional value compared to fresh. According to the study, frozen green beans contain twice as much vitamin C as fresh green beans. “Many consumers regard the nutritional value of fresh vegetables to be superior to processed,” the study said, “but post-harvest handling and transportation can seriously affect nutrient content.”
Value-Added Products - There was a time when frozen vegetables meant succotash and green beans. But with frozen foods now accounting for roughly one-third of all food sales in foodservice, manufacturers have worked hard and invested substantial resources to meet the demand for labor-saving, value-adding products—sauced, pre-seasoned, or further processed products, many of which can be featured as big-ticket menu items in their own right. At Simplot, we’ve pioneered numbers of these, including RoastWorks,™ the first line of IQF roasted potatoes and vegetables, as well as such innovations as Plate Perfect™ mashed potatoes, fully seasoned and ready to be piped right onto the plate. A wide variety of premium vegetable blends and exotic veggies like Simplot’s new Edamame (shelled Asian soybeans) give operators the kind of value-for-dollar advantages that fresh vegetables simply can’t offer.
IT'S ALL ABOUT HOW YOU USE THEM As a chef, I know that there’s a time and place for both fresh and frozen vegetables on the menu. And the key to tapping into the profit potential of frozen is knowing how and when to use both—separately or together.
Side Dishes - Whether you’re serving a simple vegetable at the side of the plate or a specialty side-dish item, one trick I often use is adding a fresh ingredient or garnish just before serving. This could include anything from a sprinkling of minced chives, cilantro or mint to a few diced tomatoes, or a little lemon zest or juice. The flavors of fresh and frozen vegetables marry perfectly, and a “touch of fresh” goes a long way toward enhancing appearance and appetite appeal.
Soups, Stews and Casserole-Style Dishes - Slow-simmered comfort-food and baked items are more popular than ever, and cost-effective frozen vegetables, such as diced carrots, green beans or our new Stew Blend are ideal for these kinds of dishes.
Pastas and Sautés - Adding products like IQF roasted corn relish, asparagus or extra fine green beans to pastas, sautés and stir-fries is an economical way to upscale and add interest.
Ethnic Foods - From Asian foods to Mexican, Italian and Indian, products such as IQF snap peas, snow peas, baby corn and edamame make ideal additions to noodle or rice bowls, wraps, pizzas, frittatas and more.
Salads and Sandwiches - Add color, texture and merchandising power to fresh salads, sandwiches, and profitable panini with products like Flame Roasted Peppers and Onions or guacamole.
Whether you run a small operation or a major foodservice institution, frozen vegetables and potatoes can be an invaluable asset—a great way to help enhance profitability for you and ensure a consistent, high-quality dining experience for your customers. And after all, if that guy at table 8 eats all his vegetables, that’s a really healthy sign for your business.
1 Source: National Restaurant Association 2 University of Illinois, 1991, Source: American Frozen Food Institute
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