How to Stay Relevant With Today’s Foodservice Consumers, Part 1


ORLANDO, Fla. — Foodservice purveyors in all channels of trade strive to remain relevant and top of mind to consumers, but must be careful not to chase every trend, which can lead to brand confusion and brand identity erosion.

At a recent panel discussion at ECRM’s foodservice event in Orlando, foodservice operators from various channels of trade and expertise –– from convenience store chains and college dining services to full-service restaurants –– offered their perspectives on the most important foodservice trends today and what they see coming down the pike.

Panelists included:

  • Bob Derian, corporate executive chef for RaceTrac Petroleum Inc., operator of 370 convenience stores in the South, based in Atlanta;
  • Cairon Moore, assistant director of dining services, University of Colorado at Boulder, which operates 10 retail markets and grab-and-go formats plus more than a dozen dining concepts on campus;
  • Mike Turner, vice president of culinary training for Walk-On’s Enterprises, a full-service restaurant and sports bar franchise that specializes in southern cuisine; and
  • Larry Miller, principal of Miller Management & Consulting Services.

Maureen Azzato, a regular foodservice contributor to Convenience Store News, moderated the panel.

Q. What are the biggest challenges of staying relevant to consumers in foodservice today?

Derian: The biggest challenge is matching our operational capabilities, equipment and training with what guests really want. For instance, we don’t have deep fryers and grills, but I’d love to be able to serve my guests burgers and fries, among other things. So, we try to figure out some of the ways around that stuff. We also can’t really customize our fresh food offering yet, although that’s coming at the end of the year.

It’s just been difficult giving customers what we think they really want or what they really need. We are really good at grab-and-go and offer fresh commissary-made sandwiches delivered to us daily. But if customers want extra lettuce, onions or pickles, I really can’t do that for them today. We do have a toppings bar, which helps. So, how do you eat a sandwich that’s easy to eat on the go and then can customize it? We’re working on that piece.

Moore: Our customers are much more sophisticated than they once were, and they change every year on campus. Every day, we have to reinvent ourselves and make sure we’re relevant. The other piece that’s difficult for us is having the finances in place so that we can be attentive to changes. We set our budgets a year ahead, so if something new and innovative comes out in November that we want to jump on, we have to wait until the following year.

We also have to be amazing salespeople because we have an administration that only cares about research and education, which is important but the thing that draws the students in is what the foodservice looks like. A lot of students, oddly enough, make their decision about schools based on how good the food is the day they come for orientation and whether they’re going to actually commit to that university.

Turner: Full-service is tough because we have a very competitive space. For us, it’s about “staying in our lane.” What I mean by that is that we know from a culinary perspective that hot food is always going to come out of the chef-driven restaurants. For me being a chef, it’s about knowing my market, staying in my lane and what our chefs can actually pull off. There’s a lot of things I would love to put on our menu that are high end, but they’re just not going to work for our demographic. It’s about designing food and a menu that’s going to fit our demographic.

We are a world full of celebrity chefs right now with the Food Network, and everybody loves to come in with their opinion of how food should be. It’s really up to us to appeal to our guests who come in and deliver that experience every single time. It’s about meeting that expectation day in and day out.

Miller: Bob [Derian] hit the nail on the head about the foodservice challenge in convenience stores. Controlling labor costs is another critical issue, as is trying to stay ahead of changing consumer food wants and needs. By the time an operator gets into a program — researches the equipment and the food they’re going to be able to prep easily — the market could be done with pizza, chicken and burgers and now may want sushi. But knowing who you are as a brand and what your customers expect from you is the key. It’s important to stay focused on your plan and consistent execution.

Q. What are some of the most important consumer and industry trends you see coming down the pike?

Moore: For anybody who has any 18- to 20-year-olds in their life, they know that they’ve lost the ability to look up. They’re looking down all the time at their phones and other technology. They live and breathe looking down. So, some of the trends are signage and menu promotions on floors. Augmented reality is another big one that we’re looking into where our consumers will actually be able to go into one of our micro restaurants, wheel over –– you know, using their telephone –– look at the station, find out what’s on the menu, click on a menu item and get the nutritional information for that.

The other thing is the customization [and offering food free from top allergens]. We have actually trademarked the A9 project where we’ve identified nine allergens and actually go around to universities across the country and train them on how to identify allergens in their food and how to do the labeling. This year, we added ovo-lacto, alcohol and vegan to our information because we’re seeing that is now a really big portion of our consumer base.

Derian: I see gluten-free as being a big deal and not just targeted to people with celiac disease; a lot of people are eating gluten-free because it makes them feel better and it’s perceived to be healthier.

We also try to develop items that either are actually healthy or are perceived to be healthier. A lot of folks say “I want to eat healthy” but yet they eat a salad and a coke. So, what do you do?  It’s trying to figure out what can we put on the menu, what can we put in our stores that is healthy or at least seems healthier or is partially healthier than what we used to serve. Bringing in more fresh food is also really big for us.

Miller: Technology is going to be a big driver and a challenge, from advance ordering, placing orders over the Internet and paying for it with mobile devices with things like Apple Pay. There are so many more ways to interact with customers today and these technologies are changing and advancing so quickly. I have trouble seeing my own watch, much less reading a computer on my wrist, but the next big thing is going to be the Apple Watch.

Retailers and foodservice operators have to learn and stay on top of all of these new and evolving technologies to remain relevant to today’s younger and more connected consumer.

Turner: Farm-to-table is something that people are really focusing on right now. Companies have a social responsibility, social consciousness to be able to support those local markets, and we really strive to do that with local produce, selling fish and shrimp that is raised in southern Louisiana, etcetera. There’s a cost involved, but we also know it’s the right thing to do and it’s going to support local economies. It also presents some better quality food.

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