Grocery-to-Table Is a Challenge for Restaurants in the Pandemic

Grocery-to-Table Is a Challenge for Restaurants in the Pandemic
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Grocery-to-Table Is a Challenge for Restaurants in the Pandemic

Grocery-to-Table Is a Challenge for Restaurants in the Pandemic

Last summer, Nick Wiseman, founder of Little Sesame, a small chain of hummus stores in Washington, DC, had done all the “pivot” expected to save his business. He had offered delivery, meal kits and pantry items, and had worked with local nonprofits to feed the hungry.

But with his two stores in the downtown business districts – and no sign of returning office workers – he needed something else to keep the business afloat. The obvious solution: sell your hummus in grocery stores. “We have a great brand and a great product,” Wiseman recalled thinking. “How difficult can that be? “

Turns out it took nearly a year for three Little Sesame chefs, each with experience cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants, to make a hummus that looked and tasted like they wanted. , with the necessary shelf life and food safety. attestations. Along the way, they created a mini food lab, equipped with a magnetic stirrer (for taking uniform hummus samples) and a pH probe, and became experts in the art of high pasteurization. pressure, which kills bacteria by applying isostatic pressure to levels six times those found on the ocean floor. This month, their hummus finally hit the shelves at the Whole Foods Market.

The bumpy road from restaurant dishes to retail products – often paved with trial, error, and compromise – is one that many chefs and food entrepreneurs have taken in the past year as they researched. ways to diversify their businesses or reinvent themselves in the pandemic.

Carbone Fine Food, a retail division of New York-based catering company Major Food Group, has launched a line of pasta sauces. Another New York-based company, Levain Bakery, sells versions of its famous gooey chocolate chip cookies in the freezer aisle at Whole Foods. Independent restaurateurs across the country sell everything from jars of hoisin sauce to savory snacks on their websites.

“If you are a proud chef and your soul is dedicated to preparing food that smells, looks and tastes wonderful, this is a delicate transition to the world of food making, where the taste doesn’t always come first, ”said Bob Del Grosso, a chef and former professor at the Culinary Institute of America who has consulted with a wide range of food manufacturers. “The hope is that the new, better-quality, unconventional products they bring to market can bring a new set of values ​​to the company. “

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While Mr. Wiseman was surprised by the challenges of making retail-ready hummus, another of Little Sesame’s chefs, Ron Even, was not. Dual specializing in biochemistry and food science, Mr. Even initially thought he should use powder stabilizers and acidifiers that increase shelf life and more importantly help ward off dangerous bacteria like salmonella. or Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism. The risks are real and recalls are not uncommon. The large hummus producer Sabra issued one for possible salmonella contamination last March.

But the Little Sesame team didn’t like the pungent, sometimes sour, aftertaste these additives produced. Mr. Even began to look for ways to increase the acidity without affecting the flavor. For weeks, he used a Bluetooth probe, which sent data to his iPhone, to test the acidity of every ingredient, including chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice. He even compared the pH of tap water with purified water. (Tap water was less acidic.)

Surprisingly, the solution was not found in the ingredients, but in the process of making hummus. In his restaurants, Little Sesame bakes his chickpeas with baking soda, which helps break them down and results in a creamy spread. But baking soda is naturally alkaline, and that added to the challenge of bringing the overall pH to a safe level. After hundreds of iterations, chefs discovered that using a pressure cooker degraded the chickpeas enough and allowed them to use fresh lemon juice rather than commercial acidifiers.

Some things had to change, however. Grocery store hummus should be pasteurized. Little Sesame has chosen high pressure pasteurization, which uses intensity rather than heat to preserve the fresh flavors. (It’s often used in cold-pressed juices.) But the extreme pressure crushed the containers of Little Sesame, pressing its toppings against the lids and leaving an unappealing tablecloth. The company now places its candied tomatoes or caramelized onions under the hummus. Chefs hope this has the added benefit of ensuring the toppings (bases?) Last beyond the first serving.

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The realities of retail have also forced Levain Bakery founders Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald to drastically adjust their plans.

Originally, they envisioned their brand in the cookie aisle. But the qualities that define a Levain Bakery cookie – a mound of butter that’s crisp on the outside and chewy and chewy on the inside – were impossible to recreate in a cookie that could sit on the shelf for months.

“The moisture levels in our cookies are really high,” Ms. McDonald said. “After a short time, even two weeks, everything turns around and becomes wet and mushy on the outside and hard on the inside. So it was really unpleasant.

Consultants the women had hired recommended they bake a thin, crispy cookie instead. A series of very embarrassing phone calls followed, recalls Weekes: “They were the experts, and we didn’t know what we were doing. But we knew we didn’t want to do what they said we had to do.

Last fall, about two years after their debut, Levain delivered a smaller but identical retail cookie to the one they sell at their eight bakeries. They are precooked and frozen.

The freezer aisle isn’t where a lot of people look for cookies, but Ms. Weekes and Ms. McDonald are thrilled. “When people came to the bakery and asked how they could save the cookies for later, we would always tell them to freeze them,” Ms. McDonald said. “The solution was right under our noses. “

This was not the case for Emshika Alberini, who wanted to radically remake the Thai iced teas and coffees she sold at her restaurant, the Chang Thai Cafe, in Littleton, NH. The drinks were incredibly popular and profitable. But like many Thai teas and coffees, they contained artificial colors and a lot of sugar from condensed milk.

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“You should know that the restaurant’s Thai tea has some coloring. How else would a super bright orange be? Said Ms. Alberini. “Somehow people don’t think about that in a restaurant. But they do when they are shopping in a store.

She was fortunate enough to find a company in New Hampshire that made canned iced coffee and had a chemist on staff. Together they experimented with plant milks (to make the product vegan) and various sugar substitutes (to achieve a zero sugar nutrition label). It took three months for Ms Alberini to settle for oat milk for the lattes and 32.5 grams of monk fruit per can for the sweetness. The final products are sold through independent retailers and online.

For every chef who has made the leap into retail, there are still plenty who are trying. Ash Fulk, culinary director of Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York and Washington, has been working on a line of sausages for almost a year, but he’s also been exploring barbecue sauces and rubs. The Carbone Fine Food range of pasta sauces does not yet include its signature spicy vodka because, explained its new managing director Eric Skae, “as soon as you put in cream and cheese, it becomes much more difficult”.

As demand for restaurant-quality home food has skyrocketed during the pandemic, restaurateurs like Little Sesame’s Mr. Wiseman are hoping the hard work pays off.

But on the culinary side, solving the puzzles of retail products is its own kind of reward. Even after months of toil on their hummus, the Little Sesame team is already back in the food lab, working on new retail products.

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