CHICAGO — More than three years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, foodservice sales are recovering if not fully recovered, and operators can focus on looking ahead instead of recovering from the past.
The need to focus on connecting the changing present with the future foodservice operators want was a major theme of National Restaurant Association (NRA) President and CEO Michelle Korsmo's keynote speech during the event's May 21 keynote session.
"The future belongs to those who prepare for it today," Korsmo declared while discussing the three themes of the session: Where is the industry now? Where is it going? And how will it get there?
Currently, the restaurant industry is "thriving again, with significant growth ahead if [operators] stay focused," Korsmo said, noting that 74 percent of operators are reporting higher sales this year compared to one year ago.
However, 66 percent of operators are struggling with labor and remain understaffed, with half of this group reporting they were forced to reduce hours as a result. Fifty percent of operators also report experiencing more intense competition, and the supply chain remains a struggle.
On the consumer side, household net worths have declined, people are worried about inflation and their jobs and two-thirds of Americans say their finances are only poor-to-fair. Despite this, demand for restaurant food remains strong — but also different.
"We should view their expectations as our opportunities," Korsmo said. This includes using technology to make ordering and payment easier, allowing customers to make and change reservations on their smartphones; offer free WiFi without making people ask for it; and recognizing that work-from-home has turned traditional mealtimes into "a thing of the past."
Turning her focus seven years into the future to the year 2030, Korsmo urged attendees to "force yourself to think bigger." The foodservice industry will be very different in the future, she predicted, with some of the many expected changes including:
- Most restaurants will be hybrid formats
- On-premise and off-premise are becoming dated terms
- The reemergence of food halls
- Facilities will be smaller with more automated kitchens and different layouts from what is typical
- Technology cost will be a standard line item in profit and loss statements
- The average number of employees will decline, but the need for technology skills will expand exponentially
- Consumers will demand more transparency
"This is not a future for those who live in the comfort zone," she said.
Korsmo stressed the importance of creating a great employee culture as operators move into the future, along with thinking like innovators and prioritizing the customer experience, things that seem simple but are difficult to do when people naturally cling to old ways and what they know worked in the past.
"When we recognize change, we not only prepare for the future, we create the future," she said.
By creating a great employee culture, operators will not only be better able to retain their current talent, they'll improve their reputations and make it easier to hire new people. Steps to take include adding flexible scheduling, different compensation models, training on how to be a part of wildly diverse teams, better recognition of employee contributions and getting to know each employee better on their terms.
Innovation with a focus on digital is also extremely important. The most successful businesses are those that have a digital presence that matches their physical presence, allowing customers to do all the things online that they can in person, such as view the menu and order, buy gift cards, join a waitlist and more.
Finally, despite the challenges of labor and other issues, operators need to double down on customer experience as the major differentiator in the foodservice industry.
"For today's customer, the experience is everything," she said.
Looking ahead to 2030, Korsmo expressed optimism that foodservice operators have what it takes to build a new version of the industry that is successful for customers, employees and owners alike.
"Seven years will be here before we know it but we'll be prepared," she said. "Now let's take that next step into the future together."
The 2023 NRA Show continues through May 23 at Chicago's McCormick Place.