Leading onsite operators share strategies for positioning their organizations in the future.
In a year plagued by a topsy-turvy economy, supply surprises and sales setbacks, foodservice directors and onsite professionals met at the FM IDEAS conference in San Francisco to collaborate on organizational goal setting and strategic planning for an uncertain future. Surrounded by the urban comforts of a newly renovated JW Marriott, FM IDEAS attendees directed their attention to “Positioning Your Organization for the Future.”
At the event's opening reception, FM Editor-in-Chief John Lawn encouraged the group to optimize this “practical and professional development opportunity.” The assignment proved easy, the two-day program being packed with sessions offering expert insights and innovative approaches to operating a successful onsite operation. To guide the way, the Food Management staff assembled a team of leading “indicators” to help attendees identify paths and develop concrete strategies through a shaky business climate.
Jon Luther, Dunkin' Brands executive chairman, opened the program with a success story. Charged with turning around two mature, but moribund, brands, Luther recounted the transformation of both concepts into top performers in a span of five years. With a mantra of flexibility and adaptabilty, he guided the reset of Dunkin' brand relevancy: re-crafting Dunkin' brand identity around its coffee tradition, executing a powerful, forward-thinking vision, and instilling Dunkin' values throughout the organization. At the end of his presentation, Luther underscored that a conversion to operational excellence takes courage and dedicated leadership, along with a solid plan, sound preparation and a secure infrastructure.
Turning to closer examination of what today's customer wants, Michele Schmal, Vice President of Product Management for the CREST suite of services at The NPD Group, highlighted consumer and foodservice trends with strong potential for onsite application.
Dissecting “What's Hot, What's Not and What's Next,” Schmal noted “growing chains pave the way” as weakening consumer confidence gives foodservice brands with an established value proposition and an ongoing customer relationship a powerful advantage. Schmal sees a good growth prospects for onsite operators who take advantage of their unique opportunities to connect directly with customers and exceed their expectations to build similar relationships and loyalty.
While value means different things to different people, quality and taste lead the list of criteria for selecting a commercial eatery. In onsite operations, taste falls behind convenience and price. Schmal pointed to making improvements in food quality and flavor as another opportunity to attract clientele. Singling out popular “growth” products adaptable to onsite menus and signature presentations, Schmal listed burgers, specialty coffees and iced tea, breakfast sandwiches, tap and enhanced waters.
Returning to the FM IDEA podium, Victor Gielesse, a Certified Master Chef and associate vice president of the Culinary Institute of America, tackled the topic of harnessing flavor for pleasure and profit. “Flavor presents a huge opportunity for onsite menus,” said Gielesse. He cautioned, however, that flavor is not an isolated dimension; it's an amalgam of stimuli and emotions that chefs must learn to orchestrate and integrate into a satisfying customer experience. To impress his point, Gielesse led the group through an interactive sensory session. Offering several strategies for improving flavor on onsite menus, Gielesse stressed that tasting with your chefs is the key to creating a successful menu.
Moving from upgrading the menu to revamping the venue, renowned restaurant design consultant Arlene Spiegel delivered a fail-safe strategy for turning any operation into a real culinary experience. Spiegel's first order of business is creating a positioning or “only-est statement.” That is, what “one and only” — site, ambience, or menu item — differentiates your concept from your competitors?
Once the critical point of uniqueness is established, Spiegel's practiced design eye takes over. She advises operators to “look for the views” (what do customers see inside and outside of your restaurant), “put in the cues” (add art and artifacts that evoke both theme and menu), and “serve the right food” (make the menu authentic, relevant and in sync with your concept).
The afternoon panel, composed of Angelo Mojica (director of nutrition, University of North Carolina Hospitals), Mary Kate Harrison (general manager, Hillsborough County Schools) and Dean Wright (director of foodservices, Brigham Young University and FM Best-of-Show Best Concept Award Winner), addressed the approaches BYU Dining had used to positively position its brands to win business from current and future customers.
Wright explored strategies he'd used to make BYU's foodservices key to the university's hospitality center, creating concepts with “protectable differentiation” and unique value for students. He said that concerted efforts to identify its offerings as an excellent value in coustomers minds attained a number of goals: increased market share; first choice rating for student dining; and full utilization of employees and technology with reduced costs.
Harrison's approach to branding Hillsborough's school meal program was designed to change the community's perception of school meals by instituting a fresh-forward menu, improving quality, raising prices and improving training. Using nutrient analysis values for maximum menu flexibility, the district has been able to upgrade school menus with higher quality products while also offering more choices to both value-oriented and premium meal customers.
By concentrating on delivering good quality, value and service to win over customers, Mojica got the support he needed to replace QSR franchises with strong in-house brand concepts. He and his staff developed comparable concepts and implemented a culinary training program that raised the sense of pride and prestige of chefs at his operations.
The second day's keynoter, Fedele Bauccio, founder and CEO of Bon Appetit Management Company, does not consider himself a futurist. Yet, driven by his vision of an earth-friendly global business environment, he has forged this singular mission into a company culture.
To bring his brand to life — connecting with both customers and suppliers — he solidified core corporate values of environmental and culinary sustainability and set his company on a path of foodservice stewardship.
Bauccio defines the Bon Appetit operating platform as a culinary act, not a political one. From its inception in 1986, Bon Appetit ignored onsite foodservice conventions, positioning its operations around the chef and fresh, authentic food.
Following a “road map” to protect the best in American agriculture, his units support local farmers (each chef sources seasonally, procuring as much fresh food as possible within a 150-mile radius), support Seafood Watch, purchase antibiotic-free proteins and cage-free eggs, follow Low Carbon Diet initiatives and defend human rights in agricultural production.
“Our food choices celebrate flavor, affirm cultural traditions, and support local communities without compromising air, water or soil now or in the future,” says Bauccio.
Putting a concrete face on sustainability, Lenny Condenzio, a principal of Ricca-Newmark Design, discussed how the latest innovations in equipment and design can operational footprints, reducing overall costs and energy use while making kitchens and serveries more flexible and welcoming.
To avoid post-construction disappointments, Condenzio encouraged a team approach to planning — from foodservice to waste management — so the designer can understand and facilitate equipment choices.
For Condenzio, innovative and informed design decisions start when you stop thinking in terms of “square” installations. In terms of menu boards, Condenzio said that in a fast changing industry, digital signage and menus are a must for customers on the move.
On the equipment side, he explored various technologies to show how state-of-the-art solutions can save energy, maximize menu flexibility, reduce labor costs and generate buzz.
Snapping the audience from conceptual design fantasies to the stark and frightening reality of a major food-borne illness incident, (FBI), Frank Miller, hospitality services director at the University of Western Ontario, recounted 30 days of hard-earned learnings from an outbreak of salmonella poisoning on his campus (home to the largest foodservice operation in Ontario) that sickened 90 people, including 16 staff.
Miller offered a case study of how he led his demoralized and shell-shocked team through a labyrinth of crisis response and management, while dealing with health department bureaucracy, a press siege, a drastic loss of sales, criticism from university staff and faculty, and — worst of all — in the end, no conclusive identification of the original FBI cause.
Miller also acknowledged an upside to the experience. Having learned the hard way to never let your guard down, his university foodservice is now “the safest place to eat in Canada,” he says, and one where food safety education is a top priority. His staff has rebounded with a new esprit de corps and a new culture of food safety that follows hospital protocols.
Next, a distinguished panel took on the process for developing future management and the next generation of foodservice leaders. Pat Bando, associate vice president, auxiliary services at Boston College, George Maciag, president of GEM Enterprises, and Mary Angela Miller, administrative director at Ohio State University Medical Center, each described their individual approaches to onsite succession planning.
The panelists offered contrasting views of of how strategic succession planning can help support and sustain not only the health of a foodservice, but also that of a larger business or institutional entity.
Miller looks to hire both leaders and managers, assigning one person to one job and developing general strengths for flexibility. Bando creates work plans with employees, using the plans as a baseline for goals assessment and capabilities. Maciag observed that succession strategies for contract foodservice and self-ops support diverse internal structures, “Contractors plan a more complex and formalized process of succession. Drilling down several levels, they develop specific plans for particular positions.”
How to nurture and develop employees who demonstrate upward potential also generated a variety of perspectives. Maciag endorses “define the job, identify the candidate's weakness and work to fill the gap.” He suggests enrichment opportunities like continuing education classes and speakers. Bando opines that great leaders are developed not born, and suggests mentoring managers, understanding their goals, measuring their performance, and encouraging skills that serve an evolving business environment. “Hiring people who know what you don't know,” encapsulates Miller's pragmatic approach.
None of the panelists said they relied on gut instinct when interviewing potential employees, all preferring to “use a combination of intellect and emotion.”
Part-time humorist and full time veteran foodservice consultant Ralph Johns concluded the conference with “Foodservice: We're Only In It for the Money” after its closing lunch. Parsing out wisdom between jokes, Johns advised, “Know how to play the popularity game and you'll succeed in foodservice.”
While quality food is important, observed Johns, an operator must also ensure an operation is offering customers what they want to eat.
“It doesn't matter how good your food is if the customer doesn't want it.”