Rice Farming

Grown In The USA

U.S. rice: Hot, in tune, inspiring
and on a roll

By Carroll Smith

For many years, U.S. rice has enjoyed a respectable place on the menu. Order up a plate lunch, and more than likely, you’ll be offered rice and gravy as one of your choices of sides. In south Louisiana, red beans and rice is always a popular menu item, especially on Monday.

But a couple of years ago, the USA Rice Federation saw the possibility of a “rice renaissance” as the foodservice industry rushed to respond to growing consumer demand for food away from home and the popularity of ethnic cuisine. This versatile grain had the potential to gain new importance on menus in all restaurants, hotels, catering, schools, colleges and universities and health-care organizations.

It was exactly the right time for U.S. rice to update its image and capture its fair share of the fast-growing foodservice market. The USA Rice Federation, working with Marriner Marketing Communications, a well known foodservice marketing agency, created a bold new program that would increase awareness and menuing of U.S. rice in foodservice and demonstrate that U.S. rice is an essential ingredient to any successful menu.

Working with chefs/food influencers
To gain traction in today’s foodservice industry, you’ve got to create partnerships and relationships with the right people. USA Rice’s Judy Rusignuolo, Director, Consumer Education & Foodservice Marketing, says USA Rice sponsors and attends foodservice industry events with organizations like The Culinary Institute of America, Research Chef’s Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals to meet high-profile chefs and food influencers.

“For example, at a Culinary Institute event, we met Chef Ed Wronski who heads up menu development at Walt Disney World Resorts, who in turn introduced us to talented chefs on his team,” Rusignuolo says.

“Through such events, we connect with people who are on top of trends and represent leadership in the foodservice industry, and to provide creative assistance with their use of rice.”

Rusignuolo says USA Rice also identifies other individuals and organizations that are highly respected in the industry and reaches out and contacts them directly.

“For example, we had the opportunity to partner with SYSCO Corporation, the leading foodservice distributor, about two years ago and sponsored an innovative rice recipe contest for SYSCO Operating Company chefs across the country who wanted to enter their favorite rice recipes,” she says.

“Mark Bernetich, Corporate Chef with SYSCO Food Services of Portland, Ore., was the grand prize winner. The base of his recipe was fried rice. He customized it for the Pacific Northwest region with Dungeness crab.”

USA Rice and SYSCO promoted all of the winning recipes on their Web sites and in printed materials.

Web site exudes 'a world of great ideas'
The central tool at the core of this comprehensive program is a Web site – Menu-Rice.com – that was launched in September 2006 to coincide with National Rice Month.

“We wanted to make sure it reflected USA Rice’s new look and feel and clearly met the needs of our target foodservice audiences,” Rusignuolo says. “We reinvigorated rice’s image by linking it to key food trends like ethnic cuisine, healthy eating and chefs’ desire to use more local foods.”

A little over a year after the site’s launch, USA Rice reports that MenuRice.com had had more than 140,000 visits, averaging about 12,000 hits per month. It also boasted over 14,000 click-thrus to member sites, with a record 2,300 in January. The most visited section is the Recipes & Culinary Center at 23 percent. The foodservice communications program also successfully promoted healthy rice bowls in K-12 grade schools via the Kids Love Rice Bowls contest.

Publicity & advertising campaigns
In 2007, to keep U.S. rice in the spotlight of positive public perception, an article titled “As American As Rice” appeared in the prestigious Food Arts magazine, which targets all types of restaurants, hotels and contract management companies.

All together, the foodservice program’s publicity efforts after one year reached two million impressions – creating awareness, promoting U.S.-grown rice and driving traffic to the Web site.

The ad campaign consisted of six different rice ads appearing in seven major foodservice magazines both in their print publications and Web sites.

“Before USA Rice decided to re-visit and re-invest in the foodservice area, we did have a program, but now we’ve taken it to a whole new level,” Rusignuolo explains. “As you can see in the ads, the look and feel has changed. The promotion of U.S. rice is exciting. Chefs and operators are seeing new, inspiring ways to use rice in their menus.”

And this is right on target. The new award-winning ads are fresh, clever, eye-catching and reflect today’s consumer trends. Two of the new 1/2-page ads are featured in this article. The verbiage for two of the other ads reads: “Rice Is So Hot – It Makes Every Menu Sizzle” and “Rice Is So In Tune – Healthy Meals Hit A High Note.”

“In large part, we’re directing our efforts toward the consumer’s desire for global cuisine and adventurous taste,” Rusignuolo says. “When you think about it, what other grain is central to so many ethnic cuisines?

The really good news is that as rice continues to attract more attention and gain popularity, foodservice sales are still climbing, reaching a projected $540 billion in 2007.

“Rice is sometimes taken for granted,” she adds. “But when people see it come to life in these exciting executions, particularly chefs in restaurants, this gets their attention.”

Contact Carroll Smith at (901) 767-4020 or csmith@onegrower.com.

Rice – What the chefs have to say

A popular feature found on MenuRice.com is Chef's Corner where accomplished chefs are profiled and asked to share their thoughts on cooking, and, of course, rice.

Mark Bernetich, Corporate Chef with SYSCO Food Services of Portland, Ore., has worked in the industry for more than 20 years. Bernetich, who was the grand prize winner in the rice recipe contest sponsored by the USA Rice Federation and SYSCO Corporation, gave this reply when asked what inspired him to create the winning rice recipe.

“I was thinking about Hawaii and the delicious fried rice dishes they do over there,” he says. “To give it my own touch, I wanted to make sure the dish represented my philosophy of using straightforward foods and had regional ingredients, such as the Dungeness crab from the great Pacific Northwest.”

Bernetich also explained how he uses rice to showcase its versatility.

“I appreciate how many different types of rice are available and how each can be applied to so many dishes,” he says. “For instance, using Arborio to create a risotto-style dish or using sticky rice with truffles for flavor, or even using leftover rice to make a stir-fry that tastes like a million bucks.”

Chef Joel Schaefer, Culinary Development and Special Dietary Needs Manager, Walt Disney World Resorts, focuses on the special dietary needs of Disney guests and creates food that is flavorful and healthy.

“There are so many different whole grains with wonderful flavor profiles – whole grain brown rice is a great example,” he says. “These grains give chefs more options to create new items that will help them enhance their menus and educate their guests about whole grains.”

When asked how rice helps him create healthy meals, Schaefer says, “Whole grains are easy to prepare and hold hot without the product overcooking; parboiled brown rice holds very well on the serving line. We have introduced a whole-grain rice pilaf to our Kids’ menu. And for gluten-sensitive guests, we offer chicken tenders and cake mixes made with rice flour as a great alternative to wheat products.”