Kitchen Stories

Purdue University Adopts Frozen Grains to Match Plant-Based Trend, Reduce Labor

Sep 28, 2020

Purdue University Adopts Frozen Grains to Match Plant-Based Trend, Reduce Labor

The trend toward plant-based dishes has gotten a lot of ink over the last few years, and college students are a big part of fit.

“We're all looking for healthier options. Plant-based products are where these kids are looking to go,” says Darcy Smink, Executive Sous Chef at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Replacing animal products with plant-based alternatives is far more popular among Gen Z (56%) and Millennials (45%) than Boomers (28%). About one in three Gen Z’ers eats plant-based protein alternatives at least once a week.1

On campus, Gen Z students mindful issues like climate change and animal welfare appreciate their environmental benefits and sustainability of plant-based, relative to other food choices. So it’s no surprise many students are actively looking for plant-based dishes in their dining halls.

Ancient grains check all the boxes…except one

Ancient grains like quinoa, couscous and brown rice can play an important satisfying the hunger for plant-based dishes. Loaded with important nutrients and fiber, these grains are well-known among health-conscious eaters. To those oblivious to their nutritional goodness, they just taste great whether on the side, in recipes, atop a salad, or as a base in ever-popular build-your-bowl concepts.

Despite these benefits, grains prepared from dry bulk product have one significant drawback, according to Chef Smink:  a long, time-consuming prep process.

“There’s a lot of training involved. Overnight soaking of grains, being sure your rice is not overcooked or undercooked—with student labor that’s a challenge for us,” says Chef Smink. “All of the grains have different cooking times and the chefs aren’t always using the same equipment to cook them so training is a challenge, too.”

Does it really make sense to prep dry grains from scratch?

Mike Kepner, the university’s Protein Manager, and Misty Snyder, Strategic Sourcing Manager, are always looking for ways to maintain Purdue’s high food quality with fewer dollars. When Simplot proposed replacing their dry grains with Simplot Good Grains™ (fully cooked, frozen grains and blends), they recognized the operational advantages of their heat-and-serve prep right away.  Cost was the sticking point, however.

On a pound for pound basis, Simplot’s frozen grains cost more than dry, but Snyder knew the cost of labor needed to be factored-in before deciding.

“I'm going to take break all this down,” she says, recalling the calculations she made. “This is your expense, we're moving that from labor, we're removing that from time, we're putting this to production. We're easing these areas, so we're moving the money around to where it needs to be.”

Once the cost of labor was accounted for, Good Grains™ made more sense than dry. For Kepner, the shortage of kitchen labor in 2019 also played an important role in their decision to bring in Good Grains™ frozen products.

“We thought this was an excellent opportunity, especially with the issue of having enough people to cook the product,” he says.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is craziness.’”

Then it was time to introduce the idea of using frozen grains to Purdue’s culinary staff, a group that takes justifiable pride in the quality of the food served in their dining halls. When Snyder broached the subject of switching to frozen grains, their chefs were…suspicious.

“They looked at me like, what are you talking about a frozen grain? You don't freeze grain,” Snyder recalls.

“I remember thinking, this is craziness,” says Chef Smink. “I was very leery about the product until I got my hands on it and I saw the offerings. Then, the funny part was we saw the list of different products and then the chefs started fighting over, who wanted what flavor. That was pretty funny.”

The quality and flexible prep of Good Grains™ ultimately won her over.

“The color is great. The presentation is great. It holds up, like I said, in the steam wells, and it's literally something that we can do in five minutes,” she says. “One of my favorites, and the one that we serve quite frequently is our chorizo and shrimp couscous with the Red Quinoa and Vegetable mix. The veggies are cut beautifully. They're colorful. The quick preparation. The choices can be added with all kinds of other ingredients and all kinds of fun stuff.”

The products’ versatility was also key.

“It makes a great taco filling. It can be a good enchilada filling. It's also a great side dish, and it's fast. The color is great, the presentation's great. It holds up in the steam wells and it's literally something that we can do in five minutes,” says Smink.

Fellow Chef Heath Browning agrees: “I prefer to put them on the flattop, with a little bit of hot oil and cook it that way, just because it kind of toasts it and gives a little bit of a texture within it. It works out great steamed, too.”

Healthy eating made easy for students

The feedback from students and staff has been overwhelmingly positive, but Smink has another way to gauge a product’s popularity.

“I always go see what people are eating. I want to see what's coming off. Are their plates full and then empty as they're taking them to the dish room? That's how I know,” she says. “The Ancient Grains and Kale is a great product. I can get these kids to eat kale, and that's hilarious to me because that's not easy!”

1.    Datassential SNAP™ Keynote, 2018