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A fresh take on food

KIMBERLY NICOLETTI
summit daily news

Foodies nationwide have been tracking culinary delights throughout the last decade, and they’ve come up with some hearty trends, including bacon as a favorite food (and flavor) and locally produced fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy. Here in Summit County, while bacon may be popular, it’s more likely to be organic and creatively prepared – as is most of the latest popular cuisine.

Local chefs and restaurant owners are noticing a greater demand for all-natural, sustainably produced food. Consumers are growing weary of over-processed, salty soups and fatty foods. As David Welch, owner of Food Hedz puts it, “They want to taste a tomato the way a tomato should be.” That means turning to locally produced, seasonal produce, rather than strawberries that “ripen” in a warehouse because they were grown so far south of the border.

Welch worked in Keystone’s finest restaurants for decades before opening Food Hedz in Frisco, and he said the desire for organic meats and produce has increased significantly. In his days at Keystone Ranch (his last post before Food Hedz), about 5 percent of guests requested organic, whereas in the last five years at Food Hedz, about 80 percent of his customers make such requests, especially in the last year, he said.

“People are more concerned about what they’re putting in their bodies,” Welch said, crediting medical doctors, media, and, of course, chefs for educating the public. “The more I use the organics and the more people taste them, they say, ‘wow – this is a big difference.'”

Hearthstone Restaurant in Breckenridge has seen “enormous success” with its farm-to-table menu, which includes chicken, lamb, pork, cheese and eggs from Colorado ranches, owner Dick Carleton said. The combination of better tasting, fresh food and the fact that buying locally is more sustainable has led to the popularity, he said.

The organic and regional trend also extends to large events, such as weddings – more and more brides want an all-organic, Colorado-grown menu, said Kevin Abernathy, manager of Harvest Catering. The catering company (formerly Hearthstone Catering) is not only focusing on all-natural, but also on a zero-waste program to be more environmentally friendly.

Though comfort food is often popular during the winter, said Modis and Downstairs at Eric’s owner Eric Mamula, comfort food with a creative twist is making a strong comeback.

“There’s not a market for fancy food – stacked and played with – but (rather) a trend back to comfort food fixed up a bit but not fussed over,” said Doug Pierce, owner of Arapahoe Cafe in Dillon. “One reason in this economy is you can get comfort food at a very reasonable price.”

Pierce spices up grandma’s traditional dishes by “taking comfort food to the next level.” For example, regular meatloaf becomes buffalo meatloaf with cheese mashers, and mac ‘n’ cheese gets infused with smoked cheddar, or, in Modis’ world, truffles.

“(People) want food that’s recognizable but a little bit more interesting,” Pierce said.

Carleton uses the trend to his advantage by offering “upscale” comfort food, such as a banana split with caramelized sugar, homemade ice cream and chocolate presented at the table.

He also finds guests are interested in bolder flavors, such as ethnic cuisine, and even unique pairings, like his Cake and Shake, which combines whiskey and chocolate cake.

Not surprisingly, diners are more discriminating these days, particularly when it comes to price and value.

“I think a lot of businesses are down that I hear of – with a lack of snow and the economy, people are looking more closely at value, consistency and general hospitality,” Pierce said. “They want to walk away feeling special – people are no longer willing to throw down $100 for two people and not be made to feel special.”

Most of the restaurateurs agree that customers are still coming – the numbers haven’t declined significantly, but what has decreased is the amount they spend. Mamula said his guests are more likely to buy a salad instead of a full entree, or a glass of wine rather than a bottle at Modis. They also enjoy decedent dishes at a lower price. For instance, Modis offers Wagyu strips, which are Kobe beef strips, shaved on to little potato rolls.

“Price and value is a huge issue,” Mamula said.

Carleton seconded, saying guests demand fresh, properly prepared, well-presented dishes, but he added that doesn’t mean people are buying the cheapest thing on the menu.

Another way people are saving is through take-out.

According to The Food Channel editors, nationwide, more people order restaurant food to go, rather than dine-in. Even traditional restaurants are catering to the take-out trend, with short-term “to go” parking.

And, of course, restaurants are responding to customers’ call for compostable or recyclable containers, rather than Styrofoam or other non-recyclables. And, as social media technology grows, more consumers are using Twitter and iPhone apps. For instance, Pizza Hut’s app has led to more than $1 million in sales, according to The Food Channel.


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