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In the Kitchen: Flying J's upgrades fare with seafood

Truck-stop customers embrace salmon and shrimp specialties on enhanced menu

Popular demand made shrimp a menu regular in offerings like this skewered-shrimp cocktail. - Photo courtesy of Flying J
By Joan M. Lang
February 01, 2006

Bayou Salmon & Shrimp — pan-seared Atlantic salmon dusted with Cajun seasonings and topped with six sautéed shrimp, hollandaise sauce and green onion. If you don’t think that sounds like truck-stop food, you’re right.

That salmon dish and numerous other seafood specialties are on the menu at Country Market Restaurant & Buffet, part of the growing stable of foodservice concepts owned by Flying J, which operates more than 165 state-of-the-art travel plazas and fuel stops along national highways in 41 states and three Canadian provinces.

Seafood has been a key part of the company’s recent attempts to upgrade its food offerings across the board.

“People are sometimes surprised to hear this, but only about 50 percent of our clientele base is truck drivers,” says Rich Marasco, director of menu and product development, who joined the Ogden, Utah-based company four years ago this May.

“The other half is RVer’s, travelers and even locals who demand more interesting food.”

Marasco, a Johnson & Wales culinary and management school graduate who came to Flying J from the ranks of restaurant and hotel operations, has been charged with moving the company’s menus into the future.

In addition to the flagship 24-hour Country Market concept, Flying J also operates the full-service Cookery and Thad’s restaurants, as well as Magic Dragon Chinese Eatery, Pepperoni’s Super Slice Pizza and The CrossRoad Deli, all quick-service concepts.

“Naysayers claimed our customers would never eat something like salmon or shrimp,” says Marasco, “but these are some of our best-selling items.”

When he first came onboard, Marasco had his hands full creating more operations-friendly food standards, including more streamlined recipes and tighter product specs that would also bow to current food trends, rather than the typical “truck-driver fare,” which often runs to burgers and fries and blue-plate specials. Having accomplished that, Marasco is now in charge of a complex schedule of new-menu-item development, which includes three regional menus, each changed three times a year. There is also a calendar of menu promotions that feature six to eight new items and last 60 days.

In the process, Flying J has demonstrated its commitment to improved food quality by building a full-scale test kitchen at its corporate headquarters, which will also employ three culinary support chefs in addition to Marasco by the end of 2006.

In addition to providing variety and contributing 7- to 8-percent spikes in sales, promotions serve as a test platform for items that might otherwise be too risky to put directly on the menu.

“By that, I mean bringing in new ingredients that might be too expensive to cross-utilize on the buffet if they don’t sell,” says Marasco. “We want to promote them heavily and try them out first.”

An Alaska coho salmon promotion that ran in the summer of 2003 was a turning point in Flying J’s embracing seafood on the menu.

“We blew through it so fast that we were scrambling to buy more salmon,” says Marasco. “A lot of people had reservations about putting something that upscale on the menu, but it took off like a rocket.”

At the time, the restaurants were serving a smattering of traditional seafood items that captured an uninspiring 3 percent of sales, such as heavily breaded fried shrimp, clam strips, cornmeal-fried catfish and batter-dipped cod.

Salmon changed all that. Featured items included grilled salmon with a buttery herb sauce, salmon Caesar salad and a grilled salmon sandwich on ciabatta bread with pesto mayonnaise, as well as some steak-and-salmon mixed grills. Before the promotion even ended, Flying J went right to contract for 8-ounce portion-cut farmed Atlantic salmon fillets, which appear regularly on the menu in an ever-evolving selection.

“The Alaska product was really great, but with our high volume we had sourcing issues,” says Marasco.

The salmon introduction was so successful that Marasco recalls being inspired to feature shrimp that same year.

“Shrimp was even more successful in the initial promotion than salmon was,” says Marasco. “Our guests could not get enough.”

The company worked with its suppliers to find a skewered product consisting of five 31/40-count peeled and deveined, tail-off shrimp that can be slacked off and cooked to order any number of ways.

Following the successful promotion, shrimp have become menu regulars in such preparations as a skewered shrimp cocktail and salad and in various combinations with steak. Loose shrimp have also been added (for shrimp scampi and Spicy Shrimp Pasta), along with jumbo fried shrimp.

Part of the appeal is the reasonable price point (i.e., $10.79 for the Shrimp Trio, with a dozen sautéed shrimp, a half-dozen fried shrimp and five skewered, grilled BBQ or lemon-pepper shrimp).

“We’re giving great value at a terrific price,” notes Marasco.

After the successful salmon and shrimp introductions, seafood now accounts for nearly 10 percent of sales, including a land-office business with the Friday night Steak and Seafood Buffet, which includes fried shrimp, fried and baked pollock, seafood pasta and grilled salmon.

Seafood will continue to be an important focus for the company as the menus continue to grow and evolve. Promotions have been designed featuring boneless trout, halibut and scallops, and the culinary team plans to look also at items like snapper, mahimahi and even tuna and softshell crab.

“Obviously something like softshell crab would be a real commitment for us, but we’re very, very interested in exploiting all commodities to add excitement to our menus, especially seafood,” says Marasco.

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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