Restaurateur Danny Meyer speaks at the PMA Foodservice Conference and Expo. ( Ashley Nickle )

MONTEREY, Calif. — Education sessions during the 2018 PMA Foodservice Conference and Expo tackled challenges facing foodservice operators and produce suppliers and offered suggestions on how to combat those obstacles and take advantage of the current trendiness of good food.

Attendees had plenty of questions for renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer and for a panel of buyers that included Markon Cooperative president Tim York, Sizzler USA director of food culture Tamra Scroggins and Brinker International senior vice president of supply chain management Charlie Lousignont. Celebrity chef Jet Tila served as moderator.

In his address July 28, Meyer described 2018 as a “magical moment for food” given the desire for quality, healthy fare.

Cost and convenience are also major factors, however.

Meyer — the founder of Shake Shack and the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group — advocated that foodservice operators try to meet each of those needs to a certain extent rather than choosing just a couple to focus on and neglecting the others.

He also emphasized that, among new products and new technology and other elements designed to be exciting, experience is still a differentiator.

“As important as those innovations are going to be, it’s how we make them feel along the way that determines whether we’re going to be able to keep the lead,” Meyer said.

He noted that as part of the effort to provide a positive experience, companies should make sure to adapt to what the customers want.

Meyer compared the process of fine-tuning a restaurant concept or product offering to breaking in a new baseball glove by playing catch — someone else is always involved.

“It doesn’t become yours until it becomes theirs,” Meyer said.

One comment from Meyer that stood out to suppliers was his answer to a question about what keeps him up at night when it comes to produce.

Meyer named food safety, citing the fear of another incident like Chipotle experienced or an E. coli outbreak like the one recently linked to romaine.

York, on the panel of foodservice buyers July 29, said that response should spur the industry to recognize that it has a problem. He expects retail and foodservice will be a major part of the solution.

“It’s going to be the buyers that are going to drive the change that we need in our industry,” York said.

The panel also discussed other topics ranging from tariffs to labor to plastic bans. In addition, the group talked about rising costs, with Scroggins articulating the reality of the situation.

“We’re not going to make less money as a corporation, so we’re going to have to pass that onto the consumer,” Scroggins said.

Lousignont also noted that evolving the business model needs to be part of the process for restaurants and other companies. He cited as an example the growth he has seen in the takeout and delivery business.

“What that tells us is the consumer wants to use our brand differently,” Lousignont said.

The panelists also discussed how they stay on top of trends and evaluate them, as well as how they communicate information to customers.

Transparency appears to still be a big-ticket item for diners.

“They want food with a story,” Scroggins said. “A lot of them want to know, ‘Where did this lettuce come from?’”

Tila suggested Facebook and Instagram as the best media for sharing that kind of information.

 
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