Food and Beverage Trends

Area food and beverage purveyors offer bold local flavors

After 25 years in the restaurant business, formerly as a health inspector and now in her own business, Cheri Schweitzer, principal of Credible Consulting, has seen trends come and go. With her background, she’s especially attuned to food safety and freshness. She finds restaurateurs are more aware of safety issues after well-publicized food-borne illness outbreaks and are ensuring their employees are better trained.

“While buying local is hot, chefs and restaurant owners have to make sure farmers can guarantee the safety of their food,” she says. “Then, once the food is in the restaurant, the staff has to be very careful preparing it so customers don’t get food-borne illnesses. It’s part of my job to perform private health inspections, uncover issues and train restaurant staff how to be the best and safest restaurant in town.”

Clients such as Food Fight Restaurant Group find her an invaluable resource. President Monty Schiro says, “Credible has been performing food safety audits at all of the Food Fight restaurants for three years now and we’ve seen improvement year after year.”

Schweitzer is also a second set of eyes for restaurant owners, analyzing startups and existing businesses and uncovering opportunities for growth and improvement. One trend she’s observed is the value of social media in the restaurant world—and yet too few restaurants take advantage of it.

“I believe they’re missing out,” says Schweitzer. “It’s not going away and it has a huge impact. Pinterest is the newest darling. Dunkin Donuts launched a site and quickly got 2,500 followers.”

In terms of consumer preferences in the wake of the recession, people are looking for comfort. “That’s one thing I ask my customers. What do you have that’s comforting? The food? The service?” Schweitzer says.

That may explain the trend toward old-fashioned foods and beverages. “Our childhoods are comforting,” notes Schweitzer. “Malts, carnival food and picnic food are popular, and that comes on the tails of the cupcake craze. Pie and macaroons—fresh, not coconut—are the next trends in desserts.”

Seasonal Comfort

There’s always a spot for comfort foods, depending on how you deliver them, observes John Bauer, chef of The Wise restaurant in HotelRED. “Pot roast in winter, even a Caesar salad—you put your own touch on something familiar,” he says. “People really enjoy our macaroni and cheese—using RP’s Pasta—with truffle oil. In spring, with artichokes coming in season, we’ll do artichoke and pancetta mac and cheese.”

He cooks with local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible, a trend that’s become increasingly prevalent in recent years. “We buy from local farmers whenever we can and we work with lots of local companies,” he says. “It’s really important to the community, our owners and to me.”

HotelRED’s owners wanted to create a restaurant that would pair with the uniqueness of the boutique hotel. “That’s a trend when people travel; they look for boutique hotels,” Bauer says. “They expect a restaurant that’s a little different.”

The Wise’s evening menu features small plates, like tapas. “Small plates with bite-sized offerings are taking hold,” says Bauer. “People can share, and it gives them the ability to sample more than two or three flavors.

“We’re really excited about our neighbors,” he continues. “They’re right in our demographic—people ages 25–55 that go out to eat. We want to be the neighborhood place. We love to see people traveling sit and chat with local people stopping for a drink.”

Travelers and locals alike are looking for lighter foods with less saturated fat. “It’s very easy for chefs to incorporate,” says Bauer. “And now there’s an awareness of what gluten does to the body and chefs need to accommodate that.”

Sustainability is also top of mind for diners. “It’s a blessing people are aware of not eating Chilean sea bass, blue fin tuna or other fish bordering on endangered,” Bauer says. “We work with our seafood supplier under the watchful eye of the World Wildlife Foundation.”

Like grandma used to cook

Seasonality is central to Elizabeth Dahl, co-owner with husband, Tim, of Nostrano. “A lot of Italian food is based on what’s in season,” she says. “Cooks in Italy pull flavors from surrounding countries—France, Spain—but use local ingredients. That’s what we’re trying to do here. We take Midwestern foods and cook in Italian style.”

She and her husband have been cooking since their teens, and both trained in French techniques at culinary school. “But Italian food is where our hearts lie,” she says. “We use French techniques, but the flavors are Italian.”

Nostrano serves recipes from all regions of Italy. “They’re all so different, and we want to make people aware Italian isn’t just spaghetti and meatballs,” says Dahl. “American Italian food is so influenced by the Sicilian culture, especially here with the Greenbush neighborhood.”

The Dahls’ goal is to create upscale food with a rustic feel. “People here appreciate the farm-to-table approach. They want to sit down and trust chefs have taken foods from the local area and know they’re not over-manipulating them. We want people to feel they have a beautiful dish in front of them, but there’s still a homey feel, like they’re back in Grandma’s kitchen.”

Before moving to Madison, the Dahls worked in Chicago restaurants. “Molecular gastronomy (understanding the chemistry and physics behind cooking and making experimental dishes) was a big trend there a few years ago and the people at avant-garde restaurants who were doing it really well still are,” Elizabeth says. “But people got tired of seeing their food get manipulated so much. Especially in this economy, they can’t go out and spend hundreds of dollars to get tiny portions. They want to get something special that’s a value for their dollars.”

She and Tim try to share with people the history of their food and use an artisanal approach. “We make everything we can homemade and fresh—all our bread and pasta—we get curd from Crave Brothers and pull our mozzarella ourselves,” she says. “People appreciate that, and we make our food very affordable so it doesn’t have to be a special occasion to come here.”

Burgers people crave

Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry has long been known for its hamburgers. “They’re what have made us unique,” says Rachael Stanley, co-owner and general manager. “They’re always fresh and made to order. They’re something people crave and have been consistently successful.”

Unlike her friends in fine dining, her restaurant didn’t suffer too much during the recession. “People could still have a meal here for under $10, so business stayed pretty consistent, fortunately. People still want to enjoy a burger and a beer.”

Dotty Dumpling’s buffalo burger has become very popular in the last few years. “I think it’s mostly because people recognize it’s a healthier red meat option, with less fat and more protein than beef. We’ve also had a lot of success with our turkey burger, our veggie burger and our homemade vegan burger,” Stanley says. “People are trying to eat healthier, but we’re still known for what we do best—burgers.”

On the beverage front, specialty cocktails are the newest trend. “But people still can’t get enough of Wisconsin beer,” says Stanley. “If you have it on tap, they’ll look for that first. Second are microbrews. People aren’t as interested in imported beers, which is a big change. New Glarus Brewery’s Spotted Cow and Ale Asylum’s Hopalicious are big and Lake Louie’s Reserve Scotch Ale is off-the-charts popular.

Premium meats are an emerging trend. “We offer a Kobe burger and we’re having great success with it,” Stanley says. “People are becoming a little more adventurous.”

The purity of your food

They’re also more aware of the food they’re putting in their bodies, notes Natalie Neddersen, co-owner with her husband, Nedd, of Eagle Harbor Inn, located in Door County. “They love the immediacy of driving by an orchard, or a farm growing organic beef and pork, and buying food right where it’s grown. It feels so good to know you’re more in control of what you’re eating and the purity of your food.”

The Inn serves breakfast to guests in its B&B rooms and also caters weddings on the property. Door County’s economy historically relied on orchards and fishing, and with tourism now its biggest industry, those staples still play a huge role. “Montmorency cherries and apples, along with whitefish and Lake Michigan salmon, are on every menu,” Neddersen says. “Here at our B&B, we incorporate them as much as possible in our elegant, full, homemade breakfasts. We have an herb garden outside the door and we use fresh herbs for savory dishes and as garnishes, and we get our vegetables from the farm markets.

“Our plate presentation is very artistic and a lot of people take pictures before they dig in,” adds Neddersen. “We rely heavily on cherries all year round, serving things like cherry cider, ginger cherry apple crisp and our most popular item, cherry-stuffed French toast. Our homemade granola with cherries is a big hit, too.”

Door County has gained more farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture groups with the growth of the organic food and raw food movements. “And in the last ten years, people have discovered northeast Wisconsin is a great environment for growing grapes,” Neddersen says. “It’s becoming a wine trail region and Door County has nine wineries. We also have artisanal cheesemakers.”

Bold flavors

That’s a trend statewide, observes Heather Porter Engwall, director of national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB). “In Wisconsin, there’s a new cheese created every few months. There are a lot of mixed-milk cheeses, new fresh cheeses and Hispanic-style cheeses, and artisans are going for bold, strong, unique flavors and using different aging techniques.”

She cites Roelli’s Red Rock cave-aged cheddar blue and Sartori’s Bella Vitano line. “Sartori is adding a lot of interesting flavors by soaking the cheese in certain liquors, or adding things like rosemary to the rind, or rubbing the outside in balsamic vinegar,” says Porter Engwall. “Holland Family Cheese is adding things like fennel seed and thistle seed.”

Specialty cheese sales continue to grow. WMMB defines specialty cheeses as value-added cheese products of high quality. It defines a high-quality cheese product as one that commands a premium price, has particular processing, design, a limited supply, unusual application or use, or extraordinary packaging. And convenient cuts—prepackaged, ready-to-use cheese courses or specialty cheese in slices—are a recent phenomenon.

Sales of Greek yogurt doubled in 2010 and 2011 as people recognized its health benefits. “And artisanal styles of butter—flavored, hand rolled, European style—are creating excitement,” says Porter Engwall.

Sales of specialty coffees and beverages, many using dairy products, are on the rise,” she adds. “You see them not just in fine dining but in fast food chains.”

In the Madison area, purchasing of local produce, cheese, wine, meat and premium chocolate has increased, and nationally, cheese accounts for the largest specialty food category. “Specialty cheese remains an affordable indulgence for consumers,” Porter Engwall says. “That was true even when the economy was down and now sales and production are up.”

Time-saving, restaurant-quality foods

New to Madison, GFS Marketplace sells specialty products in family- and party-size quantities. “We’re here for anybody who wants to shop in larger quantities and get restaurant-quality products with no membership fees,” explains Dan Scher, store manager. “Our most popular products are convenience items, such as family entrées to serve at get-togethers and parties or graduation celebrations, and appetizers you warm or thaw and serve.”

The concept arose because of the time crunch everybody faces. “The kids have soccer practice or other activities and people don’t have the time they did thirty or forty years ago,” Scher says. “They can thaw or heat and serve our food and clean up quickly, and it’s better quality than the typical frozen entrée.”

GFS has gluten-free products and Kosher items are also available. “If someone wants particular products we can research and special-order them by the case,” says Scher.

The store’s menu-wizard program helps determine quantities. “You can plug in what you’re serving, the number of people and the size of their appetites, and it tells you how many to buy,” Scher says. “It’s helpful during this big party season with graduations and confirmations.”

In Madison, a lot of people prefer upscale, quality products, he notes. “They’re concerned about where their food is sourced from, and everything manufactured in Wisconsin is indicated on our shelves. We know how everybody loves to support the local economy.”

Elevating beer in the food world

That’s true of their beer as well. “People prefer local products,” says Brittany Kraemer, co-owner with brewmaster Scott Manning of Vintage Brewing Company. “They want to know where their money is going and support their neighbors.”

When the economy is challenging they still want to go out and see people, and have good food and a beverage, she indicates. “They may not have as high a bill at those times, but guests are spending more as the economy gets better.”

She’s finding customers becoming more open to beer. “So many people emphasize menus based on local ingredients, and the natural next step is to pair dinner with a local beer. Microbreweries have become so strong and are using local hops and other ingredients.”

People are steering away from lighter ales these days and it’s trendy to try different beers. “You can sample our beers and find out which ones suit your palate. It’s really fun; each one is complex and different. We have a new one with ginger in it,” says Kraemer.

Vintage Brewing incorporates its beer into its menu from the beginning of the preparation process. “We use it in sauces, breads, fish fry and desserts,” Kraemer says.

Beer is rising in popularity in the food world and she hopes to continue to elevate it. “People have done food and wine for so long—and wine is so fabulous—but beer is so fun to incorporate into food.”

Fresh ingredients

Jack Sosnowski, co-owner with his wife, Julie, of Capital Tap Haus, agrees. “We have a full bar, but we’re known for our beer,” he says. “We serve exclusively beers from Capital Brewery. We have about twelve draft lines and some specialty stuff you can’t find anywhere else.”

Hoppier, small-batch beers are favorites. “People want things they can’t get on tap elsewhere. We have Wild Rice Doppelbock right now, and at least two or three beers change with the season,” says Sosnowski.

Capital Tap Haus serves upscale pub food and focuses on local, fresh ingredients. “We have an all-scratch kitchen and we don’t even own a freezer, except a small one for ice cream,” Sosnowski says. “We make all our sauces in-house—we keep our head chef very busy. We take a little longer in the kitchen because we cook from scratch, and we work very closely with our vendors and get deliveries six times a week. Veggies look and taste better if they’re fresh.”

His most popular food item is a Reuben roll. “It’s a Reuben in an egg roll,” he explains. “It won second prize at the Taste of Madison. We also have a burger in a pretzel bun that’s very popular.”

More customers are seeking gluten-free or vegan food than in past years, and Sosnowski accommodates those needs. “We have a couple of specialties, like our vegan stew.”

When it comes to drinks, his house bloody mary is most popular, especially on farmers’ market Saturdays. “It’s made with house-infused vodka, with onions, carrots, red pepper, green pepper, garlic and jalapenos—it’s nice and spicy.”

A good, simple Wisconsin flavor

Travis Hasse, co-owner with wife, Carly, of the Missouri Tavern and Travis Hasse’s, also makes specialty drinks with a local flavor: his Original Apple Pie Liqueur.

“During the holiday season my father used to make hard cider,” he says. “And I remember small taverns in northern Wisconsin serving it, especially in winter. It’s a Midwest tradition.”

When his family bought the Missouri Tavern about six years ago, they sold Apple Pie shots. “It caught on, and I made the liqueur every three or four days on my kitchen stove,” says Hasse. “It was too much and I decided to outsource production. I figured I might as well share it with everyone.”

His goal was to sell 500 cases in the first year and he sold 10,000. Now he actively ships to all fifty states and Canada. He also sells a Cherry Pie liqueur, but Apple Pie is the primary product. “I have eight flavor recipes ready to go, and I’m looking for a good opportunity to launch them, when they won’t cannibalize each other,” he says.

About sixty percent of his customers serve Apple Pie on-premise. “In Wisconsin I have over 2,000 accounts purchasing yearly,” he says. “There are local places, like Bonfyre Grill, which makes an apple crisp martini. They serve it with hot cider at Quivey’s Grove as an after-dinner drink. It’s also
popular at tailgating places, especially in summer. And Full Compass’s on-premise restaurant uses it as a glaze for ham.”

The other forty percent of sales are to off-premise stores, like Woodman’s. “People buy it for gifts, as a piece of Wisconsin,” says Hasse. “General Beverage is my Wisconsin distributor. I walked in with a bottle I’d glued a homemade label on and they took a risk on me. They do a fantastic job placing the product.”

He finds it interesting that Apple Pie has gone from an on-premise shot market to being part of drinks like martinis. “It’s so flavorful and all natural,” he says. It starts with real apples and cane sugar. It’s moved to trendy places that use it for more applications, and it’s been fun to watch it evolve.”

His pie liqueurs are a word-of-mouth brand. “A lot of brands try to gain traction that way and mine has picked up very well,” Hasse says. “It’s a typical Wisconsin brand. I never wanted to make it too fancy, like Grey Goose or Belvedere vodkas. They’re great, and more high-end, but I wanted to keep it simple—a good, simple, Wisconsin flavor and a Midwest tradition.”

An urban winery model

Wine is becoming a Wisconsin flavor. Ten years ago, the state boasted fifteen to twenty wineries and now there are more than eighty. “One thing that held us back is our cold weather, which limited the types of grape varieties we could grow,” says Alwyn Fitzgerald, president and winemaker of Fisher King Winery. “Now an increasing number of hybrid grapes can grow in the upper Midwest. They flourish in cold climate and have the potential to produce very good wines.”

Fisher King opened last September in Mt. Horeb, although it took two years for Fitzgerald to develop the business plan, secure investors and complete a build-out. “Our first four months of business way exceeded our plan and expectations,” he says. “We get great comments and repeat business—double what we expected.”

He follows an urban winery model. “It’s a growing trend that started on the coasts,” he says. “It’s not the classic example of a winery out in the country surrounded by vineyards. It’s more like a microbrewery. We grow some of our own grapes and we have grape contracts with Wisconsin growers. It’s a more cosmopolitan model.”

In 2011 Mt. Horeb celebrated its sesquicentennial year, and Fisher produced red, white and “blue” sesquicentennial wines. The blue—white wine in a blue bottle—was the sweetest and sold out first. The red, a dry Marechal Foch, was a close second. And the white, medium-dry, is running low.

Fitzgerald’s mantra is to make premium-quality, drinkable wine mostly from locally grown grapes. Last fall he brought in about fourteen tons of grapes from Wisconsin vineyards, crushed and pressed them and pumped them into tanks. He bottled the wine this spring.

Wine is growing in popularity. “In 2005, wine surpassed beer in the U.S. as the preferred alcoholic drink for the first time,” Fitzgerald reports. “It goes back and forth. Beer had been king, and there are plenty of wonderful local craft breweries, but now wine is as popular, if not more so.”

People can buy wine by the glass or bottle at Fisher King and drink it on the premises or take it home. “Although we’re not a restaurant, we have accompaniment food—local artisan cheese, sausage, bread and chocolate—I’m very big on buying local,” Fitzgerald says. “We have music most Friday nights, local artists mostly playing original songs.”

Committed to buying Local

Local sourcing of ingredients is becoming mainstream, notes Brewer Stouffer, president of Madison Originals and owner of The Roman Candle Pizzeria. “It’s a wonderful trend, but a challenge for people like us that founded our brand on local sourcing seven years ago. The national chains have caught on and it’s not a market differentiator anymore. Even fast food chains are offering a local item or two.”

Moving forward, he and other independent restaurateurs will have to ensure consumers understand that being committed to buying local is an ongoing proposition. “We’re the real thing,” Stouffer emphasizes. “Local players will have to work hard to differentiate themselves.”

He’s puzzled that, while Madison has a wonderful, thriving local restaurant industry, it’s hard to find good cooks. “There are a lot of openings for line cooks—an entry-level job for people who care about food.”

Rising food costs pose another challenge. “Last year was really tough, and unless you drastically raise prices or shrink portions—which we haven’t—it cuts into your bottom line, says Stouffer. “In my three restaurants we’ve tried to be more efficient and
consistent. We’ve also tried to find new sources for ingredients.”

Costs seem to have leveled off this year. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but the good news is people are still eating out, maybe in greater numbers,” Stouffer says. “More people are coming in and they’re ordering more expensive items. People are optimistic about 2012.”

- Judy Dahl

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