How to Stay Relevant With Today’s Foodservice Consumers, Part 2


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 confusions 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 specialize 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.

Part 1 of the panel discussion can be read here. What follows is Part 2:

Q. While staying on trend is important, how can operators avoid becoming too trendy and end up as yesterday’s flash-in-the-pan news?

Turner: It’s something you have to watch and manage all the time. In my opinion, you can have death by LTO [limited-time offer]. LTO to me just spews out desperation, trying to put something on the menu to fill a quick gap. That’s not what we’re about. It goes back to what I said earlier about being in a world of celebrity chefs, and being disciplined to stay in our lane, knowing who we are and what our guests want. You can’t chase everything. We like to do our own new and cutting-edge things that stay true to our core business concept.

Derian: We’re just the opposite in convenience stores. Our guests have got to see something new to keep their attention. We pulse in LTOs for 30 days, 60 days at a time to see if people will look at something new. If they do, either we’ll bring it back again in larger scale or put it on the menu permanently. But we have to keep bringing in new ideas to keep people interested. It also tells us if we’re overwhelming them with crazy new ideas –- you know, Food Network-type ideas that are a no-no –– but the sales will tell us that.

Miller: People can, however, LTO themselves into extremely low margins and extremely confused consumers. While I see some chains being really successful with LTOs, it’s a balancing act and knowing what you can execute well. LTOs may work in some formats and not others, and that’s OK. You have to stay true to your brand.

Moore: Staying current for us also involves restaurant décor and design. For instance, I might keep floors, ceilings and furnishings neutral where I can adjust to trends and make things look trendy by changing the color or décor items because that’s cheap. In equipment, [I stay away from] going with the trendy — like right now the big thing for us is oil-less fryers, but I’m not going to buy one. They’re expensive and they’re a single-use item. I can get a crisp fry out of a Rational and I can use it for a million things. So that way, I’m saving money and I have a multi-use product.

In terms of our food, we always have to have comfort food … but we also have our trendy areas. We have a Persian restaurant and a Pan-Asian restaurant that offers Chinese and Japanese food, as well as items from Singapore, Thailand and India. We have to keep everything really authentic, inexpensive and flexible.

Q. What can foodservice manufacturers, suppliers and distributors do better/differently to better serve your business needs?

Derian: I just want them to understand my business, my consumer and my needs. A lot of times, I’ll get reps that come from a big company and they’ll offer me what they have in the little convenience store portfolio. I might be in a convenience store, I might sell gas out front, but I’m in the foodservice business. So, call up your colleague who sells foodservice and get him out here as well. I don’t care what channel I’m in. If I’m in the foodservice business, treat me like a foodservice customer and show me what you have to offer. Show me the products that I can use as a foodservice operator and not just a convenience store guy.

Turner: I’m looking for partnership. That’s critical when you’re working with a vendor. As a chef and an operator, I look for peace of mind. Our managers are busy working 50 to 60 hours a week, serving 1,500, 2,000 guests a day. When an issue arises –– whether it’s shortage of an item or an out-of-stock — that’s where the service comes into play. With my customers, I strive to offer excellent service, and [when] working with a vendor, I like that same relationship. I expect great service and great communication. I hate surprises. I like to know if there is an out-of-stock. If there’s a sub, tell me what the options are and that you’re going to be able to take care of this for me.

Moore: Piggy-backing on what Bob [Derian] said, know my business. Don’t assume because I’m serving 18- to 20-year-olds that we’re slinging hash, because we’re not. We’re every bit as good as restaurants and our student customers have very sophisticated palates. I shouldn’t have to spend a year trying to source edamame. Now, we’ve missed that trend. So, when it’s beginning to trend, that’s when you need to bring it in to us.

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