All Fired Up

16 February 2006
All Fired Up

Bridging cultures and markets, salsas add flavor, freshness and flexibility to menus.

This article first appeared in the 1 February 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Erin J. Shea, Associate Editor

Plump black beans that serve as the hearty base for R.J. Gator's Florida Sea Grill & Bar's fruit salsa do more than just signal that the staple sauce of Mexican cuisine has evolved beyond its conventional flavor profile. They allow the casual-dining chain to put a unique imprint on what otherwise would be plain grilled chicken.

"Because we started in Florida, a lot of our food has a Cuban feel," says Jim Samuel, vice president and director of marketing for the Jupiter, Fla.-based chain. "Introducing black beans into our fruit salsa allowed us to improve the product while keeping tastes in line with our Florida roots."

As versatile as they are popular, salsas provide simple, cost-effective ways to add nuance and texture to menus across industry segments. While traditional tomato-based versions captivate guests with varying combinations of chiles, spices and heat, the growing popularity of fruit salsas springs from different needs. Customers are drawn to the freshness they add to simple grilled entrées while operators appreciate their versatility and easy food cost.

As 2005 drew to a close, management at 16-unit Bar Louie felt it was time to revamp and expand its menu. They started by revving up the salsas.

"We needed to do something more with the foods we already had," explains Marc Wuenschel, concept chef for Bar Louie, owned by Glenview, Ill.-based multiconcept operator Restaurants America. "We needed to give some of our more popular items a night-and-day change: Improving salsa seemed the way to do that."

Wuenschel says Bar Louie's new salsas nail several objectives, including making menu favorites such as flautas and quesadillas more memorable without changing their fundamentals.

"Salsa can provide a subtle draw for a restaurant," he says of the condiment's popularity. "Adding various elements to a salsa can give it uniqueness that attracts."

Layering cumin or chile powder and molasses into a salsa already in use at Bar Louie gave it depth and opened it to an array of menu applications inappropriate for the original salsa. "Adding these flavors to the salsa made it a bit more expensive to produce," Wuenschel explains. "Instead of working it as a dip for one or two appetizers, we use it across the menu, including in salads and on entrées."

Examining salsa's food costs from a different perspective often brings to light a new value proposition. "There doesn't have to be any extra impact from a cost standpoint," says Jim Baron, president of Dallas-based Blue Mesa Grill, a six-unit casual-dining chain. "Cost only becomes an issue when it comes to how well you sell the items and how well you're using the salsa in other applications."

Effective Creations

Bolstered by fresh ingredients and lively flavor profiles, fruit salsas can be alluring, but turning out consistent product can be tricky. Their quality largely depends on the availability of ingredients, including fresh seasonal tomatoes and fruits.

"Mangoes aren't too hard to source but it's tough to get them in the right condition," says Cynthia Lategan, coordinator of culinary education for residential dining for Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins. "There isn't much yield and it's difficult to procure them at the right stage of ripeness."

The mango salsa Lategan and the CSU dining-services staff serve nearly 25,000 students proved to be such a hit that it prompted her to explore the most cost-effective way to keep it on the menu.

"We've gone to a fantastic frozen product," she says. "We have to cut it down because it is packaged in large chunks but it works."

When she developed a pineapple-chipotle salsa for use in a catering class she teaches, Lategan saw its potential as an addition to dining-hall menus. In order for it to be operationally feasible, she knew that convenience products would have to be part of the formula.

"Instead of fresh pineapple, we use canned," she says of the salsa, which also includes canned chipotles, red and green bell peppers, lime juice and adobo sauce. "Using canned pineapple and chipotles cuts prep time and makes it pretty easy to put together."

Paying Beans for Mangoes

R.J. Gator's Samuel says that mixing black beans into mango salsa allows the chain to save money without sacrificing quality. "Black beans are a lot less expensive than mangoes," he explains. "We already have black beans on the line. They add weight to the dish and help balance the cost by allowing us to use fewer mangoes."

Even within the confines of traditional Mexican cuisine, where salsa is as common as mustard is at hot-dog stands, salsas can become a point of differentiation and a means to capture repeat customers.

"Salsa gives life to what you're eating," explains Patricio Sandoval, chef and owner of Mercadito in New York City. "It gives a sense of texture to a dish."

Sandoval says he concentrates on ensuring that salsas reflect the season. In colder months, when quality tomatoes are at a premium, he purées his base and adds onions, garlic and chiles that vary from the mild ancho to the hot serrano. He also incorporates vegetables not normally showcased in salsa preparation.

"I do a salsa with a butternut squash salsa in the winter," he says. "Even with salsas you want to try and be as seasonal as you can."

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