KANSAS CITY, MO — There’s no doubt the phrase “fresh” or “freshness” is dominant in foodservice today. Consumers can’t listen to a restaurant ad or go to a restaurant without hearing those words, said Bill Kuecker, director of marketing foodservice, Sealed Air/Cryovac Food Solutions, during last week’s webinar titled “Fresh Year, Fresh Start” co-sponsored by Sealed Air Corp.’s Cryovac brand and presented by MeatPoultry.com.

“Thirty-four percent of consumers said they will pay more if they know meat is fresh,” Mr. Kuecker said citing recent company research.

Sealed Air/Cryovac conducted a series of research studies with consumers as well as chain and independent restaurant operators. These studies involved about 3,000 consumers and 200 to 300 operators. Consumers were surveyed on their perceptions of fresh versus frozen on every major segment of commercial foodservice. The company gathered data looking at consumer perceptions at white table cloth restaurants, casual family style and quick-service restaurant dining. This multi-tier study took place before to the recession.

“As we saw in the retail data, 42% of consumers said they would prefer meat in casual restaurants to be received in a fresh state from the supplier and 34% stated they would be willing to pay more for the fresh meat,” Mr. Kuecker said.

In reviewing more upscale segments, consumers strongly indicated they expected meat not to be frozen. “We’re not saying there is a quality difference,” Mr. Kuecker said, “because certainly there are excellent frozen products.”

“Fifty-nine percent of consumers said they would like to know if the restaurant they’re eating in is serving entrées received fresh or not...that’s significant, something that’s important to consumers,” he said.

Fifty-six percent of consumers stated they believed product received fresh, refrigerated was high quality compared to only 27% stating the same on frozen. “Consumers believe they can tell a difference between fresh and frozen,” Mr. Kuecker said. “Consumers believe there’s an advantage in quality, tenderness, juiciness and flavor (in fresh).”

Consumers identified fresh/refrigerated with a quality eating experience and expressed a willingness to pay more for fresh meat on a menu. “They identify (fresh meat) with upscale dining,” Mr. Kuecker said. “We see this as a potential item in the tool chest of foodservice operators who are trying to go more upscale in presentation and menu items.”

What surprised Mr. Kuecker about foodservice operator feedback was the degree of difference operators did believe that meat products received fresh had higher quality — or tenderness, juiciness and flavor — advantages. It also carried through with similar rankings for poultry.

“Operators felt fresh was something that’s important and they’re willing to pay (for fresh),” he said.

Sixty-five percent of operators considered fresh as an important characteristic of their meat purchasing. And 28% said they’d be willing to pay for fresh versus frozen meat. Those numbers were similar though slightly lower for poultry and seafood.

Mr. Kuecker said, however, there are many situations in global foodservice where logistically it’s impossible to switch from a frozen distribution model...be it operationally, delivery systems or other constraints.

Steak was the item operators preferred to the highest extent to purchase in the chilled, fresh state followed by chicken.

“Ribs are usually all primarily purchased in the frozen state,” Mr. Kuecker said. “There has been research that shows frozen ribs in a non-protective packaging environment — frozen within a box — show rancidity surprisingly quickly.” Ribs may be something that should be purchased fresh or in protected packaging, he said.

This year is expected to be a tough year for foodservice. But some foodservice segments have shown growth, or at least an ability to sustain some degree of success. “Over the last 10 years, the fast-casual segment has registered double-digit growth, based on Technomic data,” Mr. Kuecker said. “This segment has largely (accomplished success) based on the perception of food quality and multi-dimensionally looking at fresh. I think we have to look at that as a model that shows how important the multi-dimensional fresh message has been.”

Technomic data in 2009 shows quite a bit of growth in comfort foods from a menu development standpoint. “We expect that to continue in 2010, but with folks trying to differentiate this into fresh or high-quality spins on some of those comfort foods (like premium burgers),” Mr. Kuecker said.

One National Restaurant Association study of 2009 indicates 76% of adults said they are trying to eat healthier at restaurants than they did two years ago. “As we saw in previous data, consumers felt that fresh is healthier, so it buys into this trend in 2010 as well,” Mr. Kuecker said.

Click here to listen to the entire Webinar.