The Hustlers, Innovators and Visionaries: a Collection of Foodservice Insights

With America (and the world) forced to hunker down, it’s no surprise that the entire foodservice industry has been affected from every angle. Although some states have begun to open, for most of America, going out to a restaurant is not even an option. This unprecedented time has tasked food marketers to be even more creative in finding real-time solutions adapted for this “new normal,” while remaining sensitive to the situation at hand.

  • Foodservice as a whole is down over 65 percent across all segments.
  • Restaurant net revenues are down by over 80 percent.
  • Approximately 7 million people in the foodservice industry have been furloughed.
  • 35 percent of restaurants have shuttered completely, while the remaining are only open for limited take-out or delivery service.

If you simply look at the data, the numbers can appear dismal. But if you dive deeper into how this industry is adapting and the role that foodservice continues to have in people’s lives, these business model shifts and innovative tactics are inspiring. In fact, most restaurant operators believe they will get through this in the long run, though it will take time to come back to normalcy. And what does “normal” mean now?

As the industry progresses, operators will likely need to be more explicit in making people feel comfortable dining in a restaurant. They will need to take extreme measures to show that they are meeting safety standards and cleanliness. Business models may see a shift from full service to more of a grab-and-go platform, and in place of self-serve prepared foods, assembly line cafeteria-style service could be favored.

The Future of Foodservice Depends on Innovation

Over the past few weeks, I opened lines of communication with food professionals in the non-commercial and commercial foodservice space. I asked some pressing questions in order to better understand how we, as food marketers, can best be of service during this murky time. After also listening to several industry webinars, live streams and news reports, I’ve compiled the top insights I’ve collected. This research further confirms for me a truth I’ve long known about the foodservice community – it is a true band of hustlers, innovators and visionaries. The hospitality world thrives on these pillars, and it will come out stronger because of them.

Having to rethink priorities with regard to long-term implications will be no easy task. However, a common thread, which seems to ring true across all sectors of the foodservice community, is to keep innovation in the pipeline.

Here’s What Foodservice Pros Are Saying

Consumers will again be looking for those signature experiences and flavors that they can only get at a restaurant. It is critical for all food professionals to keep this in mind and not put innovation on the back burner. Setting aside an innovation focus will cause even greater pain in the future and may pigeonhole the industry from advancing.

“This is a time where we should all work together to help one another so that we can all emerge from this as intact as possible. We need to be in tune with the latest trends and continue to focus on sustainability, alternative protein sources and food options that have healthy benefits,” said Executive Chef John Baez, El Dorado Cantina Group.

Innovation does not necessarily have to be around the menu itself. Foodservice pros can innovate in different forms across best practices, storage solutions, ingredient synergies, labor efficiencies and marketing direction.

“Connecting the dots between those who work on the supply chain side and those on the operations side may be the catalyst we need to get a more cohesive voice across the industry in order to collaborate on problems and solutions in the near future and beyond,” said Executive Chef Nicholas Ciccone for Restaurant Associates at Google.

Four Opportunities to Keep Foodservice Innovation at the Forefront

Now is the time to bring new ideas, recipe inspiration and menu support tools to operators working hard to stay current and open. Here are a few tactical ideas food marketers can implement right now that will encourage continued innovation practices across the foodservice sector.

Creative Menuing

Within this new culinary landscape, operators are starting to realize that their competition is no longer just other restaurants. Consumers  themselves are now cooking and dining at home in droves. Most likely, we will not see an immediate return to how things “used to be.” Consumer purchasing and behavior may be permanently altered. Either way, it’s a perfect opportunity for food marketers to pivot and hone in on their creativity through their industry network. One option is funding a limited-time offer (LTO) like a branded family take-out meal or to-go cocktail. Another is supporting an initiative that gives back by providing supplies or meals to those on the front line; for example, offer them a buy one, give one LTO meal. Or strike up a partnership with an operator to create a community kitchen effort helping those in need like Maker’s Mark has done with Chef Edward Lee in Kentucky.

Recipe Development

Many high-profile independent chefs have temporarily closed their operations. This is concerning because these are the people (and places) typically bringing culinary ideas to life and encouraging them to blossom.

Marketers can engage with these professionals and contract recipe development projects to help foster innovation, enhance industry trends and facilitate brand awareness. Choosing this path forms a mutually beneficial partnership. It helps these chefs stay on their feet by keeping them relevant and providing them with cash flow.

Another suggestion is to offer virtual menu ideation educational sessions with larger operators. You’ll also be providing product for these operators to experiment with, which is a win-win for you and the chef/s.

Branded Foodservice Supplies & Staples

Due to the dramatic increase in take-out, operators will most likely be looking to buy alternative menu items that can travel well. This is forecast to include a shift away from entirely scratch menu items to more semi- and pre-made items. This also means improvements to packaging and upping their cleanliness game. 

Chef Brian Duffy from ArdmoreQ said he is “worried about the supply chain and the availability of products from kitchen supplies to safety gear as this continues, and even more so as restaurants are able to reopen when the mandate has lifted. Many staples will not be able to be procured as easy.”

Due to these conditions, marketers have an opportunity to offer branded food safety supplies, such as gloves, masks, food shields and sanitizer stations. There is also an opportunity for creative take-out packaging, like disposable glassware for cocktails or specialty french fry cartons to keep fries crispy in transport.

Digital Platform

With most of our day consumed by time spent in front of a screen, this is a great time to consider innovative technology to support the foodservice community. Consumers are craving connectivity and togetherness. They are seeking new food experiences since they are not able to dine at their favorite restaurant with their friends, family or colleagues.

Marketers could sponsor (and host) virtual cooking classes or a guided at-home tasting event. Utilize social media to become a resource arm for the industry. Explore popular social platforms like TikTok to test food-related content. TikTok’s micro-entertainment, with video content that is only 15 seconds, is a perfect way for a food brand to capture the attention of hungry consumers. Think about unique chef-driven “hands-in-pans” video snippets, or trending ingredient challenges like what’s happening with Dalonga Coffee.

TikTok makes it quick and easy for users to follow brands. A brand’s profile page on the app can direct customers to any of the brand’s other social platforms in one tap. There are a number of videos under food hashtags, like #chefs and #recipes, for brands to explore.

Stimulating the Future of Foodservice

One thing is certain: our world has changed, and we must adapt to stay current. It is important to keep the innovation pipeline alive (and thriving) within foodservice during this difficult time. As a food marketer, you are playing an important role in this food revolution. Your work is stimulating energy, innovation and excitement as the foodservice world revives and evolves from here. We’re all in this together!

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Emily Nordee PR Director EvansHardy+Young
Emily Nordee-Rogers, PR Director

After earning degrees in both Nutritional Science and Viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Emily spent several years working at top NYC communications agencies. Now she’s brought that big city energy and in-depth knowledge of food marketing to us, where she plays a leading role on the California Walnuts, Lamb Weston and Avocados From Peru PR business.