Why are so many eateries switching to healthy menus. Are people in Nashville really eating healthy?
NASHVILLE — Standing in front of a case of fresh juices, quinoa salads and other healthy snacks, Todd Harte grabbed a bright green juice blend to help power him through his work day.
Harte doesn’t cook much at home and wants to make smart food choices at restaurants, so he frequents places like Nashville’s Urban Juicer. He’s part of a growing contingent of consumers seeking nutritious and local foods when dining out.
Nashville historically isn’t known for the healthiest foods. Meat-and-threes, hot chicken, biscuits and barbecue typically are in the spotlight.
But there’s a new wave of independent and chain restaurants in Nashville serving healthy alternatives from fresh juices packed with produce to superfood salads made with local ingredients. At the same time, many existing restaurants are altering their menus to appeal to health-conscious customers.
This is part of a national trend during the past few years as consumers, especially millennials, demand to know what’s in their meals and where their food was grown.
In fact, more than 70 percent of consumers are trying to eat healthier at restaurants than they did two years ago, according to the National Restaurant Association. In addition, 70 percent of consumers say they’re more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally grown food items over one that doesn’t.
The association identified some of the top culinary trends for 2016 as locally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce, natural ingredients, minimally processed food, environmental sustainability and healthful kids’ meals.
“(This trend has) been gaining momentum over the last maybe five years or so and it’s driven by consumers having more awareness of health and nutrition and healthy lifestyles, not just in food but across the board over all kinds of areas of their lives,” said Annika Stensson, the National Restaurant Association’s director of research.
Many of Nashville’s top chefs have been committed to serving seasonal produce. Restaurants like Miel and Capitol Grille pluck produce right from their own gardens to serve that night. Vegetarian restaurants The Wild Cow and Sunflower Cafe have served healthy items including quinoa bowls and kale salads for years.
But there’s a new onslaught of casual healthy eateries opening in Nashville, making nutritious food accessible to more people. Those include True Food Kitchen in Green Hills, EiO & The Hive in Sylvan Park, Franklin Juice Co. in 12South, Vui’s Kitchen in Berry Hill, Grabbagreen in Franklin, Graze in East Nashville and I Love Juice Bar in the Gulch.
Nashville consumers now have access to popular health food trends like acai and pitaya bowls, bone broth and raw vegan food.
Longtime Nashville restaurateur Bob Bernstein has watched Nashville’s culinary landscape change over the past 25 years. Bernstein was a pioneer, introducing organic coffee, healthy menu items and local produce and dairy at Bongo Java, Fido, Grins Vegetarian Cafe and Fenwick’s 300.
Bernstein said his restaurants have evolved to offer more health-conscious menu items as consumer demand skyrockets. Bernstein still remembers the only menu item ever named after him at Bongo Java on Belmont in the early 1990s — a bologna and cheese sandwich on white bread called Bongo Bob’s Ethnic Plate.
Today at Bongo Java customers can find a hummus plate, salmon plate, root vegetable tacos, a house salad and a turkey sandwich on wheat.
“It’s come a long way. People are eating more and more vegetarian options and we get more and more emails about what’s gluten-free. More people are concerned about what they’re eating,” Bernstein said.
Cost is still a challenge for restaurateurs because buying organic produce, exotic superfoods and local dairy and meats can be expensive. Many small farmers don’t have the resources to make produce deliveries directly to restaurant customers. That’s where companies like Nashville Grown, a nonprofit farm distribution company, work to provide a solution.
Ian Navarro, marketing director at food distributor Creation Gardens, said prices have decreased for organic produce as it becomes more commonplace, but still, many restaurant operators can’t afford it.
“Some people can’t make it work in the numbers to offer organic or free-range or grass-fed options, but we’re definitely hearing more and more interest almost every day from someone wanting grass-fed or something organic. When you look at the past five years, it’s night and day,” Navarro said.
Owner Celeste Krenz said Urban Juicer doesn’t serve strictly organic juices because the juicery would have to charge consumers more to make it work financially. Each juice is packed with two and a half pounds of produce.
But she said prices for local produce, health foods and exotic superfoods have dropped since she opened her first juicery in 2011. She stopped serving wheat grass for a while because it was hard to find and very expensive.
“Now we get our wheat grass and it’s super fresh, organic and we get it at a great price. We used to have to work really hard to get amazing produce and now we have access to all kinds of exotic produce right here. There are so many restaurants buying it, so many which are farm to table, so that it’s really accessible and really affordable,” Krenz said.
Jennifer Masley’s goal for her upcoming Sylvan Park eatery EiO & The Hive is to change the perception that nutritious food lacks flavor. EiO stands for “everything is organic,” and The Hive is a reference to community and the critical role bees play in the food system. Masley is committed to locally grown food, and education is an important component of her business.
“Our goal is to help people understand that it’s in the creativity of the food — it’s combining the right flavors that gives you the feeling of satisfaction and the healthy part of it is just the bonus,” Masley said.
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