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Building a better bowl

SHAPE December 2017

Operators get creative with bowls as consumers opt for more healthful, exciting menu choices.

As Americans increasingly seek out menu choices that are not only healthful and appealing but customizable as well, restaurateurs are catering to this emerging trend by taking the bowl boom to a new level.

Chefs and operators are finding these versatile one-dish meals can accommodate a wide variety of flavors and textures served across multiple dayparts and price points. Once chiefly the culinary province of Asian-centric noodle dishes and green, leafy salads, today's catch-all bowls are driving sales by embracing a range of multicultural influences, preparations and ingredients, including proteins, grains, vegetables, sauces and broths, fruits, nuts and seeds.

And while this new wave of bowls most often can be found at fast-casual restaurants, the trend has spilled over into all commercial and noncommercial corners of the industry where it is frequently typified by such feel-good terms as fresh, natural, organic and sustainable.

The benefit of the bowl

“Consumers love the benefit of bowls in terms of customization, adaptability and the health attributes that they bring,” says Dale Miller, president of Master Chef Consulting Group in Clifton Park, N.Y.. “They are well suited for breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, and they give diners the option of eating the ingredients individually or tossing them together to get an explosion of flavors all at once.”

Bowls are featured on 13 percent of entrée menus, an increase of 50 percent over the past four years, says Joe Garber, marketing coordinator for Chicago-based research firm Datassential. “The trend falls in line with what consumers look for when it comes to identifying healthy choices. Bowls continue to gain popularity as the healthy/clean eating movement and the low-carb, high-protein diet trend gain ground.”

Amy Myrdal Miller, founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting Inc. in Carmichael, Calif., says bowls are popular with a growing number of diners with special needs based on preference, allergies, food intolerances and specific dietary goals, such as eating gluten-free items.

Operational efficiency

Operators have jumped on the bowl bandwagon, too. “Restaurateurs like bowls for a variety of reasons, but one of the top reasons is efficiency,” says Myrdal Miller. “Making a bowl is quicker and easier than making a wrap, burrito or sandwich. You omit a few steps like wrapping the tortilla tightly around the fillings, cutting the burrito or wrap in half and then wrapping it up. Bowls can save precious seconds on serving lines, which makes customers happier. And time is money for the operator as well.”

Additionally, operators can pursue cost-cutting measures with bowls, such as substituting more modestly priced items like grains or vegetables for costlier ingredients like proteins.

According to Datassential's Tips: Spring 2017, 19 percent of operators see bowls as a long-term trend and 68 percent say they are likely to add them to their menu.

As a result, operators continue to explore the bowl's possibilities in an effort to create a novel dining experience and drive frequency of sales. The bowl trend “definitely lends itself to Asian-style dishes as it is perfect for containing broth, rice, noodles, stir fry vegetables and proteins that accompany them,” Miller says. “However, from there the bowl has evolved and has been adapted to include Mexican-flavored burrito bowls, poke bowls [Hawaiian raw seafood salad], breakfast bowls, quinoa/ancient grain bowls, Bibimbap Korean vegetable rice bowls and many other global variations.”

By way of illustration, Miller cites an array of healthful bowl selections:

• Balsamic grilled chicken and portobello mushrooms with citrus bulgar wheat pulao

• Red lentils “risotto-style,” charred asparagus, roasted butternut squash and tomato confit

• Smoked eggplant caponata and green lentil stew with french-pressed saffron garlic thyme broth

• Moroccan vegetable tagine with crispy couscous cake, tomato mint and cumin chutney

• Lobster, scallop and pumpkin rasam, Szechuan noodles, coconut milk, tamarind and lime

Moreover, virtually all bowls can be customized to accommodate a guest's culinary preferences or health requirements.

Indulgent bowls

But while wellness concerns are important in driving bowl sales — many iterations total under 500 calories and contain modest amounts of fat and salt — not all selections possess a health halo. For example, one quick-service chain famously menued a bowl containing mashed potatoes, sweet corn, fried chicken, gravy and three types of cheeses — for a total of 710 calories, 34 grams of fat and 2,310 milligrams of sodium.

“Bowls are not necessarily healthy or unhealthy,” says Arlene Spiegel, of Arlene Spiegel & Associates consultancy in New York. “A high-fat creamy dressing on a salad bowl or fatty pulled pork on a grain bowl will have both high calories and fat. Keeping dressings and sauces light and focusing on the grains, veggies and proteins will make the total meal healthier.”

Myrdal Miller agrees, pointing to a best-selling burrito bowl. “By omitting the tortilla, you omit a few calories,” she says. “But what goes in the bowl determines the final calorie count and nutrient contributions. Operators using bowls to promote consumption of more fruits, vegetables and whole grains are doing their customers a favor. But when customization allows consumers to add more meat, cheese and sour cream, for example, the total saturated fat in a bowl may be a day’s worth or more.”

Consequently, she offers operators suggestions to make bowls more healthful.

Focus on portion size. “A measuring tool that dishes out 1 cup of brown rice is awesome, but if servers scoop too generously a customer can get 300 calories just from rice versus 200 calories in a cup of cooked rice.”

Focus on how ingredients are prepared. Too much added sodium or saturated fat can turn a healthy protein option like lean beef, chicken or seafood into a less healthful selection.

Focus on adding more produce. More than 75 percent of Americans don’t consume recommended amounts of vegetables each day. Find ways to add more vegetables to your bowls.

Miller and Spiegel also recommend adding grilled proteins; pickled, roasted, preserved or raw vegetables; dark, leafy greens; whole/ancient grains; and ingredients containing nutritious fat such as avocado, eggs, nuts and olive oil-based dressings.

However, Myrdal Miller concludes, “All ingredients can be healthful. It’s the total composition of the dish that determines whether it is a healthy, reasonable option or something that could be improved by the addition of more vegetables, whole grains or healthy protein sources like lean beef, chicken or shrimp.”

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