One of the first objects you notice when sitting in Marc Halperin's office is the large cleaver mounted on the wall. Halperin, the principal and culinary director at the Center for Culinary Development in North Beach, is internationally known for his sharp sense of taste, something made even edgier by a staff of in-house chefs and an 86-member Chef's Council, which includes kitchen wizards from some of the Bay Area's finest restaurants — like Joyce Goldstein of Square One, Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys, and Craig Stoll of Delfina. That sharpness is what large food companies like Kraft, Nabisco, and Kellogg's and chains like McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's call on when they need ideas for new products. As weird as it might sound, San Francisco — arguably the nation's foodie capital — has a hand in developing the Middle American favorites of the future.
Despite the cutlery on the wall (part of a small collection of antique kitchenware), Halperin's no cutthroat. The office at the CCD seems upbeat and casual, the staff populated by healthy-looking folks who don't look like they eat much fast food outside the job. The melodic clinking of pots and pans is audible in the office kitchen, where a quick peek reveals energetic people in white aprons at play.
Outside of germinating fresh ideas for food products, the marketing and product development company tracks trends along a five-point continuum of “stages.” It then uses that analysis to advise clients on what might be hot over the next two to five years.
Stage One begins in the restaurant industry, watching for innovations in ingredients, flavors, spice blends, and cooking techniques. Stage Two checks discerning food publications (like Bon Appétit) for consistent coverage. Stage Three is when a chain family restaurant (like Applebee's) starts incorporating these items into its menus. Stage Four brings on the consumer publications (such as Family Circle), and Stage Five sees the new item land in the supermarkets and golden arches.
To a large food company keen to capture a growing market, a late Stage Three/early Stage Four trend might be the equivalent of an orange alert from the Department of Homeland Security. But clients, like civilians, don't always listen the first time they're told.
Halperin cites one flavor the company has championed: “We've been talking about chipotle forever, but when we first brought it to the QSRs [that is, the quick-serve restaurants like Mickey D's], no one wanted to touch it. Now, it's everywhere; it's even in mayonnaise.”
Once the CCD has convinced a client to proceed with an idea, selected members of the Chef's Council try to come up with a product. After much tasting, a super-powered hybrid of all the most interesting elements takes shape. So while we might not see a Big Mac with chipotle anytime soon, S.F. has more influence on fast food than most of us realize.