Restaurants Get Grainy
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Vol. 9 No. 5 P. 30
Yesterday’s all-beef patty on a sesame seed bun is today’s chicken sandwich on whole wheat as restaurants start serving up whole grain goodness.
Dine at the acclaimed restaurant redwhite+bluezz in Old Pasadena, Calif., and you’ll select from mouthwatering menu items such as a vegan-style marinated portobello mushroom stack with whole grain pearl barley and apple-ginger reduction and honey ancho chile-glazed salmon with red quinoa.
Thirty years ago, you may have been hard-pressed to find restaurant menus showcasing whole grains, unless you happened to stumble into a hippie establishment in a town such as Berkeley, Calif.
But times have changed. Whole grains are cool, and they are basking in the afterglow of positive publicity. Whole grains have been pumped up by the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and major health organizations such as the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and American Diabetes Association. Researchers continue to discover their benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and stroke and improved satiety for weight maintenance.
A Whole Grain Health Halo
The whole grain message is one consumers have easily digested—they understand that whole grains are good. “Consumer attitudes are positive when it comes to whole grains. Whole grains are cited the most when it comes to what people are trying to get more of in their diet,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council.
The food industry can give itself a pat on the back for helping to put whole grains on the map. When a mega-company such as General Mills announces that all of its cereals will contain whole grains, everyday shoppers take notice. The Whole Grains Council created a Whole Grains Stamp Program, that slapped golden Whole Grains Stamps on food labels, further providing visual reminders of whole grains’ desirability. And today, a plethora of products—from side dish mixes to chocolate chip cookies—brag about their whole grain status. The whole grain baked goods market increased by 18.3% in the year ending in June 2005. Whole grains even managed to stay above the fray of the low-carb diet movement, which was in large part refocused into an emphasis on healthy carbs over refined carbs.
There’s no doubt that whole grains are hot, but how do they fare in the restaurant segment, a category that is often last to jump on the health bandwagon? As consumers increasingly consider healthier food options as a driving force behind their choice of where to eat, restaurants are starting to be sold on the whole grain message.
Fast Casual Whole Grains
While fast-food restaurants have recently been mired down with negative publicity for their possible role in obesity, some are stepping up to embrace healthier food options such as whole grains. In January 2006, Blimpie restaurants became the first national chain in the quick-service sandwich category to switch out its wheat bread to a whole grain wheat bread developed by General Mills exclusively for Blimpie. The whole grain bread, providing one full serving (16.8 grams) of whole grains in a 6-inch roll, is baked fresh on the premises.
Quick to follow were other quick-service restaurants, such as Panera Bread, which introduced a new line of all-natural whole grain breads containing 16 grams of whole grain per slice, serving it at more than 800 bakery-cafes across the country. Even McDonald’s features a whole grain bun with 17 grams of whole grains for its Premium Chicken Sandwich.
Putting whole grains on the menu in quick service is a cinch. Just swap out a white bun for a whole wheat bun and voila—customers may be able to meet one of their three recommended whole grain servings in one sitting. Harriman reports that consumers see whole grain breads as more than just healthy—they see them as delicious. “People don’t want to see a soggy white bun in a premium sandwich anymore. They want artisanal, whole grain bread,” she says.
Whole grains are also plowing into the casual dining segment. Asian restaurants are more frequently offering brown rice as a substitute for white rice, some pizzerias feature whole grain crusts, and some Mexican restaurants serve whole grain tortillas. The Olive Garden restaurant chain began offering whole wheat linguini as a substitute in pasta dishes roughly two years ago. “We had pretty strong, continuous dialogue with guests, and they expressed an interest in learning more about carbohydrates and the additional benefits of whole grains,” says Steve Coe, director of media and public relations at Olive Garden, about the decision to add whole grain pasta to their menu lineup.
Alternative Grains in Haute Cuisine
Creative chefs are finding that alternative grains, such as bulgur, wheat, amaranth, and quinoa, offer a wonderful palate of tastes and textures as a respite from mundane sides, such as white rice and mashed potatoes. “In food trends, we are trying to go back to basics, to simple food and how you can use it in a cuisine that matches it. Customers are interested in the diversity of grains. Rice is old. Alternative grains offer different textures and flavors that are unique,” says Bryan Hankins, executive chef at redwhite+bluezz. “I am using these grains by themselves. The barley has a little more meatiness to it with earth tones that go well with mushrooms. Sweet and spicy flavors go well with quinoa, which is neutral and crunchy.”
Chefs are whipping alternative grains into stuffings, pilafs, crepes, salads, risottos, stir-fries, fritters, bread puddings, breading for meats, grits, polenta, soups, crusts, pastries, and cakes. For inspiration, look no further than New York’s Aix Brasserie, which features Atlantic salmon with millet pancake, sautéed fresh corn with young garlic, scallion, and bacon, and tomato reduction. Robert Weland, chef at Poste Brasserie in Washington, D.C., who features grain-based dishes using quinoa, wheat berries, or kamut prepared with seasonal vegetables, says, “Our whole grains took off at our restaurant. We are seeing tremendous sales.”
While some cutting-edge chefs find whole grains a welcome challenge, plenty do not know how to cook with them, pair them with foods, or flavor them. “I challenge chefs to learn to do something delicious with whole grains,” says Harriman, who notes that chefs can rely on cookbooks such as King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking (Countryman, 2006) and Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way (Clarkson Potter, 2006) by Lorna Sass, as well as culinary advisors available through the Whole Grains Council, to help them get cooking with whole grains.
Blending Whole Grains Into Authentic Ethnic Cuisine
Whether it’s buckwheat soba noodles accompanying Japanese flavors or bulgur wheat in Middle Eastern tabouli, many whole grains are part of traditional ethnic cuisines. At Andina, a Peruvian restaurant in Portland, Ore., the chef showcases Pimiento Piquillo Relleno—peppers stuffed with cheese, Serrano ham, and quinoa, a grain that originated in South America. As diners increasingly seek a more authentic culinary experience in which traditional ingredients flavor the dishes rather than their Americanized versions, restaurant operators can further capitalize on getting back to the roots of cultural cuisine by using the original grains in ethnic dishes. Whole cornmeal can be used in traditional Latin dishes, such as tortillas and tamales, as well as in the Italian dish polenta; brown rice can be served with a variety of Asian and Indian cuisines; whole wheat couscous can be featured in North African recipes; and whole rye flour can lend traditional Scandinavian breads their unique flavor.
Getting More Whole Grains on the Menu
Whole grains are definitely on the radar of restaurant operators. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) reported more whole grain participation by exhibitors at the 2006 NRA Show. Susan Reid, professional chef, coauthor of King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking, and editor of the King Arthur Flour newsletter The Baking Sheet, says restaurants can incorporate whole grains into their menus quite easily, simply because these menu items are not only healthy but also tasty. The easiest way is to fill the bread baskets with rustic, crusty, artisan breads and cracker breads made with whole grain flours.
While customers say they want to incorporate whole grains into their diet, they might not be prepared for the taste and texture of 100% whole grain breads. Some operators are finding success with blending whole grains into their favorite dishes and baked goods or using products such as white whole wheat flour, which lends a lighter color and texture to baked items. And bakers are moving beyond whole wheat flour; they are mixing triticale, barley, millet, and spelt flours into their multigrain breads, searching for new flavor and texture inspirations to form signature hearty breads for eclectic bread baskets.
Whole grains can be featured on the menu in numerous ways in a growing array of food operations—from kiosks and convenience stores to hospital cafeterias and school foodservice. According to Reid, whole grains can star as appetizers with starts such as whole grain pizza, side dishes by creatively accompanying entrees with options such as whole grain risotto, in brunch menus with fare such as whole grain pancakes, or on the dessert tray with treats such as whole wheat pastries.
The Whole Grains Restaurant Challenge
The Whole Grains Council is promoting a new program called “Just Ask for Whole Grains.” A grassroots consumer campaign, the Whole Grains Council encourages consumers to ask for whole grains everywhere they eat, thus coaxing restaurants to offer more choices to consumers interested in whole grains. If you’re a regular at your favorite Chinese restaurant down the street and you ask for brown rice every week, chances are the restaurant owner might eventually get the picture and start supplying it. If restaurants are offering whole grain choices, the Whole Grains Council will reward them with prizes, the use of a whole grains menu symbol, and publicity on their Web site.
In addition, the Whole Grains Council is sponsoring “The Whole Grains Challenge,” an awards program for restaurants and foodservice operations that regularly offer whole grain options. Award winners will be featured prominently in national publicity campaigns and announced in September during Whole Grains month. (See www.wholegrainscouncil.org for more information.) Harriman reports that the Whole Grains Council plans to create a whole grains stamp suitable for restaurant menus later this year to help customers identify reliable sources of whole grains on their menus.
A Whole Grain Choice
Even though whole grains are hot, plenty of customers don’t care to seek them out. Let’s face it: Many people still consider dining out a splurge, so they may not be interested in the healthiest choice on the menu. “Guests are coming in across the board in the ways they want to have their dining experience accommodated. Some are looking for healthier options, while others look at the dining experience as indulgent. We provide a range of choices for our guests,” says Coe. Harriman believes that even though not all consumers want whole grains at restaurants, it shouldn’t be difficult for a restaurant to offer one whole grain choice, even if it is simply adding a whole grain selection to the bread basket.
“I think that a lot of customers are still in the dark about whole grains. We have our servers explain it to them. It is a cool way for people to think outside of the box and get used to different grains,” Hankins says.
Restaurants may be instrumental in helping people learn more about the many ways whole grains can be healthy and delicious.
— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.
Restaurants Serving up Whole Grains
Here’s how creative foodservice operators can dish up healthy, tasty whole grains at hot spots across the country:
In the Bread Basket
Restaurants are filling bread baskets with rustic, artisanal whole grain breads—from Boston brown bread and whole grain foccaccia to multigrain breadsticks and crackerbreads.
Hors D’oeuvres of Whole Grains
Creative appetizers featuring whole grains include whole grain crusts on pizzas and quiche, buckwheat crepes, and whole corn tortilla wraps.
Whole Grain Side Dish Heaven
Alternative grains make unique, flavorful side dishes—from wild rice and bulgur pilafs to quinoa custards and buckwheat soba noodles.
New Age Brunch Alternatives
“What’s for brunch?” becomes an exciting question when choices include whole wheat scones and biscuits, buckwheat pancakes or crepes, oatmeal pies, and whole grain beignets.
From the Dessert Tray
Diners can feel a tad less guilty when selecting a whole wheat Napoleon, a whole grain lemon cake, or a multigrain bread pudding for dessert.
— Source: King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking by Susan Reid
Restaurants With the Right Whole Grain Stuff
Here’s a list of selected restaurants putting whole grains in the limelight:
• Bruegger’s Bagels
• Great Harvest Bread Co.
• Jersey Mike’s
• Noodles & Co.
• Olive Garden
• PF Chang’s
• Romano’s Macaroni Grill
• Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill
• Ruby Tuesday
• Rumbi Island Grill
• Samurai Sam’s
• Taco Time
• Whole Foods (deli take-out)
— Source: The Whole Grains Council