Vegan and gluten-free foods may seem commonplace to grocery store customers now, but Ben Ali Foods chef Scott Beale was experimenting with products that left out meat, dairy and wheat a decade ago.
“I look at stuff that hasn’t hit the shelves,” he says when describing his process for developing new dishes for the Fort Myers-based food manufacturer. “Red and gold quinoa, for instance, was available for years, but it was famous for being used in birdseed. I played around with it as a binder and a filling when developing my veggie burger concept around 10 or 12 years ago.”
Now Beale keeps up with the latest culinary needs of the restaurant, resort and retail world via his extensive network on LinkedIn, where he has nearly 14,000 followers.
He’s determined to provide innovative solutions to satisfy the tastes of customers who are looking for healthy, flavorful food, often keeping three to five years ahead of the trends in the mainstream.
From couscous and orzo pasta to jerked yucca and cinnamon plantain gnocchi (two of his newest flavors), Ben Ali Foods offers an array of options to chefs in hotels and country clubs who are suddenly overwhelmed with requests for varied vegan and gluten-free food.
Besides Beale’s visionary approach to food development, Ben Ali’s other secret weapon is spice. Founder and owner Mike Asaad is a third-generation spice trader from North Africa who opened Mermaid Spice Corp. in Fort Myers 30 years ago.
A vegan himself, he teamed up with Beale to create products for a division of the company that they originally called Angel Pasta, but rebranded as Ben Ali Foods when they began to move beyond pasta with their veggie burger and croquette. The new name honored Asaad’s origins and spoke to the company’s national and global aims as it moved into the retail space.
“With our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility and equipment,” says Marketing Director Jennifer Coomer, “our options are endless when it comes down to what we can create.”
Beale uses the many spices at his disposal to craft foods that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are delicious, rigorously testing his pastas to ensure their bright colors don’t fade when boiled or baked. His lavender pasta maintains its rich purple color all the way from the package to the plate, as do the six other flavors in his Mardi Gras pasta, including spinach, tomato and lemon pepper.
“In today’s world,” Beale explains, “people pull up their phone and take a photo of that appetizer, entrée or dessert at a restaurant to put on social media right away. If I’m going to create something that’s cutting-edge, I want it to shine.”
In addition to thinking about that Instagram photo, Beale always has the end user in mind. Ben Ali’s gnocchi, for instance (which comes in 15 flavors, including chocolate espresso and everything bagel), eliminates the need for boiling. Chefs or customers at home can take the product out of the freezer and transfer it to the sauté pan or oven immediately, preparing a filling vegan meal in minutes. The everything bagel gnocchi flavor was a hit at the Naples location of Lucky’s Market, where Ben Ali recently handed out samples in preparation for their retail launch of the product.
Coomer continues to expand the division’s presence at community events and venues throughout Southwest Florida to showcase Ben Ali’s product line and promote fresh vegan food as an easy, fast meal choice.
“We want to show people that there’s a healthier option than the typical pasta or burger out there, and different ways of cooking beyond deep frying.”