Walk-On’s enlists help of LSU AgCenter Food Incubator for nutrition analyses

Olivia McClure  |  7/20/2017 3:43:19 PM

(07/20/17) DENHAM SPRINGS, La. — As cooks and servers scurried around to prepare for the lunchtime rush at Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar in Denham Springs on July 6, an LSU AgCenter food scientist and two LSU graduate students carefully measured and weighed the portions of ingredients called for in a binder full of the restaurant’s recipes.

It was the beginning of what will be a lengthy and involved process. Walk-On’s has enlisted the help of the AgCenter Food Incubator to conduct nutrition analyses of its dishes.

Federal regulations that will take effect in May 2018 require restaurants with more than 20 locations to publish calorie counts for every item on their menus, plus have additional nutrition information available if customers request it. Walk-On’s, a Louisiana company that operates or is planning to open locations in six states, falls into that category.

“Walk-On's was founded by two LSU alumni, and our first location sits in the shadows of Death Valley, so turning to the AgCenter was a natural for us,” said Walk-On’s vice president Mike Turner. “We needed outside expertise to conduct nutritional analyses of our menu items in order to comply with the new government regulations, and it seemed like the perfect project for the Food Incubator. We have been very impressed with the entire team.”

The restaurant’s recipes use volumetric measurements such as tablespoons and cups, which are not as accurate as measuring ingredients by weight, said AgCenter food scientist Ashley Gutierrez. She, along with graduate students Pitchayapat Chonpracha and Valentina Rosasco, are weighing every ingredient in every recipe. The weights are recorded and uploaded to computer software that helps calculate nutrition information.

The project marks the first time for the Food Incubator, which helps food entrepreneurs make and market their products, to work with a restaurant. The students have learned important differences between the operations of restaurants and the small companies they deal with at the Food Incubator.

“For the tenants at the Food Incubator, they usually have just one recipe, and it’s completely standardized. You have everything that’s been weighed out in specific amounts and specific cooking times,” said Rosasco, who is pursuing a master’s degree in food science. “When you’re working for a restaurant, even when you have standardized recipes, some things can change at the moment. It’s definitely more challenging for us to make things accurate so the nutritional labels we’re working on now can be reliable.”

Because they are analyzing recipes one ingredient at a time, the project has shed new light on the students’ understanding of food.

“We know exactly what that ingredient can contribute to the taste,” said Chonpracha, a doctoral student. “People may like a taste, but they’re still concerned about the calories they’re going to get and what’s in it.”

The Walk-On’s project, which could take six to eight months to complete, is among several similar projects the Food Incubator is doing with companies. Incubator director Gaye Sandoz said technical service offerings — such as food chemistry testing, developing new formulas and helping write nutrition labels — are being expanded.

The goal is to be a “one-stop shop” for food companies around the country. Technical services also offer an opportunity to learn more about how food companies work while generating revenue to support the regular incubator operations, Sandoz said.

“It’s a good challenge for us and the students as well,” Sandoz said.

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LSU AgCenter food scientist Ashley Gutierrez, second from left, takes notes as Harrison Decker, far left, manager of the Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar in Denham Springs, Louisiana, places ingredients on a scale in the restaurant’s kitchen on July 6. Gutierrez, along with LSU food science graduate students Pitchayapat Chonpracha and Valentina Rosasco, pictured at right, are analyzing Walk-On’s dishes so nutritional information such as calories can be printed on menus. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

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