Last month, I wrote about the challenge all of us in the foodservice industry face in today's media-intense environment, where it sometimes seems that news reports are filled with one story after another suggesting our food supply is risky, unhealthful or produced in environmentally unsustainable ways.
Today, our customers have grown more sophisticated about their food in others ways than their taste for more authentic fare. Particularly on college campuses, where it is becoming common for customers to ask about supply chain issues, with questions about food's source of origin, processing techniques, ingredients and even the labor practices at manufacturing plants.
The questions are endless. What quality assurance measures are in place at the factory that made this product? At the distributor's warehouse? In your own back-of-the-house? Is it organic? Was it grown locally? Does it have artificial additives? Do you use trans-fat oil in your kitchen? How far does the delivery truck drive to bring this to us? Does your distributor use biofuel in its trucks?
The industry at large must listen carefully to such questions and be willing to address real issues rather than seek to dismiss them.
Meanwhile, manufacturers, distributors and operators often have a much better story to tell than is sometimes believed.
But it is not enough to have a story tell—it is important to tell it effectively. That means providing the kinds of information that helps your customers retell the story to their own customers in ways that are authentic, believable and effective.
Ask yourself: as a manufacturer, what changes have been made in the formulation of your products over the last few years, and why? If you have a state-of-the-art HACCP or quality assurance program in place, have you communicated the details about it to your customers?
Have you moved to packaging that produces less pre-consumer waste? Post-consumer waste? Can you put a number on the impact it has had in terms of your market? The benefits it has had for society? Has your company implemented "family-friendly" policies? Has it sought green certification in new buildings?
The same advice applies to operators. Many must compete with local restaurants and others for the catering business of their institutions. If you offer attractive employee benefits, employ union labor at higher "living" wages, purchase product from local companies, or maintain a HACCP system that exceeds the requirements of local health inspectors, these attributes can help you positively differentiate your services.
To make consumers feel good about their choices in consuming your products, tell them you share their concerns and then explain what you are doing in response.
Here's an example. Earlier this year I received an informational DVD from Starbucks that included nearly a dozen short videos entitled "Farmers Stories." They portray nearly a dozen efforts the company has made to be more than just a very large and very successful gourmet coffee producer.
For instance one story profiles Dr. Isabel Rivera, who has treated nearly 4,000 people at the free clinic she runs on the grounds of the San Miguel coffee farm and mill near Antigua, Guatemala. The clinic was started with 50-50 funding from the mill and Starbucks.
Other examples: At the HFM Conference in September, Gene Kahn, the founder of what is now General Mills' Cascadian Farm division, spoke to a packed room about the things his company and others have done to bring sustainable practices and social responsibility to business. It was not delivered as an exercise in self promotion, but as an effort to educate those in the room about how manufacturers look at the issue. Earlier in the year, John Cabot from US Foodservice and Joan Ralph from the Premier organization moderated a workshop at the ASHFSA conference that considered many of the same issues.
The point is: more companies are moving in this direction than are perceived to be doing so. If you are looking to tell a similar story, the best representative may in fact not be a traditional marketing or PR person. You want the presenter to be someone for whom this is a personally meaningful issue. Those you are trying to reach will recognize the difference. The message will resonate more effectively even if the delivery is somewhat imperfect.