Datassential CEO Jack Li discussed how operators are adjusting due to COVID-19 in a session July 21. ( Screenshot from PMA Foodservice Delivered presentation )

Datassential found in a recent survey that many foodservice operators are purchasing less fresh product as they reduce their order frequency to adjust for lower demand.

“This is not because they don’t want fresh product,” said Datassential CEO Jack Li, who presented the findings July 21 during a session at the Produce Marketing Association’s virtual event PMA Foodservice Delivered. “It’s because the product can go bad. You used to be able to get deliveries every couple days, now you’re getting deliveries every seven, eight days — or 10 days, even.

“Shelf life becomes a much larger concern all of a sudden,” Li said. “You don’t have as much business coming through your doors in many cases, and you can’t have stuff that’s sitting there and spoiling over the period of several days waiting for your next delivery, so they have moved away from fresh product, and many have moved toward things like frozen product instead.”

In his presentation, Li said that 51% of operators reported buying less fresh product, while 25% said they are buying more frozen.

Along the same lines, there is increasing interest in convenience-focused products, with 38% saying they need more items that take a step or two out of the preparation process.

“You have a lot of restaurants that don’t have their full staff back,” Li said. “You even have some restaurants that would like to bring more of their historic staff back but that staff doesn’t want to come back because they’re getting really great support from the government via the CARES Act, and instead those restaurants and other places have had to bring in less trained staff.”

Ingredients that require less preparation are also helpful because many operators are having difficulty forecasting demand amid the decrease in dine-in business and significant increases in takeout and delivery orders. Products that aren’t as time-intensive provide flexibility that is very much needed in this unusual time.

Versatility is another request from operators, Li said. It’s a theme he recalled hearing also during the Great Recession.

“We saw the exact same dynamic in 2008, 2009 as we were getting out of an economic crisis, and a lot of operators pared down their menus and (said), I’m going to buy fewer total products and have a smaller pantry and try to do more with each one of those products that I buy,” Li said. “They’re saying exactly the same thing today, and versatility, the ability to use a given product in multiple ways, is going to be more important than ever, at least for the short-term foreseeable future.”

He suggested suppliers highlight for operators all the ways their products can be used, from different preparation methods to recipe applications.

The session also covered consumer attitudes on a variety of topics, including their comfort level at various foodservice formats. The main takeaway there was that many people will continue to want to steer clear of crowds for a while, but Li noted that Datassential expects on-premise dining will continue to recover and off-premise dining will keep growing.

“We’re actually relatively bullish on what the future looks like,” Li said.

For more PMA Foodservice Delivered coverage, check out the following articles.