This weekend, we will be attending the National Restaurant Association tradeshow in Chicago, Illinois. Such an event makes me realize how passionate we are, here in eastern North Carolina, about our food. In the past 10 years, there has been a resurgence of southern cuisine that has allowed smaller towns in the region to gain national recognition for their cuisine. This has not only made the locals happy, it has driven economic growth in areas where big industry has all but left. One example is Kinston, North Carolina. In the beginning of the 20th century, Kinston had a booming tobacco and cotton industry with more than 5 million pounds of tobacco being sold every year. As a result, a flourishing real estate industry emerged driving prices sky high, with some parcels of land increasing 5 fold. Fast forward to present day and the tobacco and cotton industries are all but gone, making Kinston one of the most economically challenged areas in the state. Even with the loss of big industries, the culinary economy in the area is as strong as ever. Restaurants like Chef & the Farmer, owned and operated by the James Beard awarded chef Vivian Howard, have garnered worldwide attention that has driven economic growth in the area.
Not only does eastern North Carolina have a growing culinary industry, but the region continues to supply some of the top restaurants worldwide with produce straight from the farm. Here are 4 restaurant trends in 2016 that will continue to drive growth for eastern North Carolina farmers. All percentages were gathered by a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association.
1. Locally Grown Produce
77% of survey participants pointed to locally grown produce as a hot trend in 2016. This is the highest percentage in the entire produce category, in front of organic produce. Restaurant goers still like to know where their produce is coming from. This is especially true for regions generally known for specific commodities (North Carolina Sweet Potatoes). Consumers point to these advantages of locally grown produce;
2. Environmental Sustainability
74% of participants indicated environmental sustainability as a hot trend in the restaurant industry in 2016. People continue to care more and more about their own impact on the environment. This is especially true for North Carolina farmers. Farmers, like us, are finding new innovative ways to decrease waste and the impact on our local environment. With the introduction of our dehydration and puree facilities, as well as our distillery, we have the ability to utilize 100% of all the produce we have grown. We are definitely proud of this and will continue to find ways to decrease our impact on our environment.
3. Healthier Kids Meals
The center for disease control (CDC) (define what this is) continues to monitor the obesity epidemic in the United States. Not only has this trend affected adults, but children continue to be the heart of the problem. In a recent report, the CDC revealed that over 17% of the adolescent population is considered obese. As a result of this trend, 73% of survey participants pointed to healthier kids meals as a hot trend in 2016. Restaurants are now seeking alternative options for healthier kids meals. More specifically they are looking for fruit and vegetable kids side items, oven baked items, and 100% juice options. This is one of the reasons we have seen such an increase in popularity of sweet potato fries as they are a healthier alternative to regular white potato fries. If you are ever looking for a “gateway vegetable” for your kids, try sweet potatoes.
4. Farm/Estate Branded Items
Brand development for produce companies and farms has become an integral part of the industry. Now, restaurants want to display these brands on their menus and advertisements. In fact, 69% of participants pointed to farm branded items as one of the hot trends in 2016. Not only do restaurant owners want respected produce brands, but their customers want the exact same thing.
As a result of these factors we have a seen an increase in demand for our sweet potatoes and sweet potato products in the restaurant industry. Next time you order a sweet potato side dish, main dish, or even dessert ask the waiter where your potato comes from. Chances are it is from eastern North Carolina.