As customer demands for menu complexity continue to grow, the restaurant industry is struggling to implement store-level safety and handling procedures at the same speed. While the presence of meat on a fast casual or fast food menu was once the sole responsibility of the freezer and deep fryer, new ingredient options — including fresh, organic and local protein choices — have necessitated a crash course in potential food problems ranging from the supply chain to the prep counter. While an abundance of caution can needlessly drive up costs in many aspects of menu-planning, when it comes to protein sourcing and handling, it's an investment that definitely pays off.
Work With Proven Suppliers
Specialty ingredients mean specialty suppliers, smaller sources willing to extend the effort required to cultivate and curate exotic protein choices for innovation-hungry restaurant chains. While supplier size isn't always a foolproof way to safeguard against lax food safety practices, it's not exactly a deterrent, either. What do you do, then, when your main distributor doesn't have the unique protein choices you're looking for? You make sure that your potential specialty suppliers are not only up to the task, but safe and scalable as well:
- Ask about their vendor load, and the names of a few larger clients, if possible. Vetting past performance is an excellent way to determine future behaviors and even fill rates.
- Determine if they meet or surpass food safety regulations. As Roberto Ferdman notes in the Washington Post, meat processing oversight is often accomplished by a "skeleton crew" of meat inspectors and undermined by self-funded processing plant audits that rarely find violations, even if they're present. A supplier that takes a proactive and more-than-is-needed approach to food safety is one with benefits that will extend to your entire chain.
- Make inquires into their supply chain. Are there procedures in place to handle a recall or other problem with their product? Do they have clear fact-finding plans in place? Being prepared for an outbreak or scandal doesn't mean that a company is guilty or worried. On the contrary, it speaks to a concern for their end vendors as much as themselves. In addition to halting potentially harmful ingredients from entering clients' supply chains, they should also be ready and willing to offer alternative sourcing solutions for ingredients that are found to be tainted.
Know Where Your Food Comes From
Geography is more than a potential hurdle for long-haul deliveries, these days. It's a selling point and, at times, a self-imposed ethical guideline for QSR chains — an integral part of their identity that needs to be preserved and promoted. Locally-sourced proteins come with their own concerns, however.
The shorter supply chain travel distances won't need advanced trucks, and that lack of technology might introduce temperature fluctuations that could allow pathogens to flourish. The lack of industrial-sized processing from larger distributors could impact overall quality control, and your local protein providers might need to be vetted for in-state food regulation maintenance.
In the Harvard Business Review, Nicole Torres notes that going local has the potential to introduce fragmentation into the supply chain, making it harder to root out and remove problems if they arise. The so-called locavore movement can also put a heavy strain on the limited abilities of a local production market area, so this is where the rubber meets the road on scalability. Until you've logged some trustworthy fulfillment history with a local supplier, have a Plan B for sourcing ready.
Do Frequent Handling Audits at Store-Level
Something as simple as a reused pair of gloves or a bag of proteins set down somewhere it shouldn't be can cause a chain-wide scandal. Educate all staff on the dangers of cross-contamination, proper meat-surface sanitation procedures and introduce a closed food waste system whenever possible. Beyond pathogen and bacteria fears, a lack of training and familiarity with proteins, both animal and vegetable, can also produce a less-than-impressive product for customers that are putting new menu items to the test.
Plant-based proteins are seeing growing popularity in QSR menu research and development for chains that offer vegetarian, vegan and allergen-free options, but these alternative proteins can be difficult to get right. Pea protein, a common ingredient in gourmet, meat-like substitutes, must be prepared at precise temperatures to avoid a rubbery or powdery consistency. To reduce the chance of having your kitchens turn out dangerous or poor-quality proteins, employees must be properly informed and have training that is reinforced with regular audits.
Your protein choices speak to your investments in finances, innovation, safety and the future of your QSR chain. Make sure your choices are option-testing, not gambles with your brand's name at stake — or should we say at "steak?"