Back-to-Basics Thinking Prevails in New Foodservice Climate

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TORONTO — What do today’s restaurant operators need to do to appeal to an increasingly sophisticated consumer in an increasingly competitive market? According to speakers at yesterday’s Restaurant Trends & Directions conference, it’s all about emphasizing fresh, made to order and customizable fare. The all-day conference held at the International Centre, and staged by Technomic Inc., and Kostuch Media, attracted more than 160 attendees interested in learning more about food trends and concept development.

“There should be more growth in the global economy,” said Aron Gampel, VP and deputy chief economist at Scotiabank, who opened the conference by providing a birdseye view of the Canadian and global economies. Gampel explained that despite low oil prices, low interest rates, and more spending on infrastructure, it hasn’t translated to growth. “In the four decades I’ve been forecasting, I’ve never seen a period where the positive support provided by so many factors should be propelling the global economy to much greater performance. Absolutely this is the best period I’ve ever seen — we have such favourable fundamentals — and yet, we cannot get the economies out of low gear.”

Lower oil prices means consumers have more disposable income in their pockets, and they’re not necessarily saving it, so that cash is being fuelled into the restaurant business. And, the place they’re spending it most often is in the coffee/café category, explained Darren Tristano, EVP of Technomic. Over the past year, Coffee/cafés have lead the limited-service category with a 7.5 per cent sales growth, followed by burgers (6.8 per cent), pizza (6.8 per cent), bakery cafés (6.1 per cent) and specialty restaurants (5.5 per cent). Sandwich shops such as Subway have declined by 10.2 per cent.

So, how do operators win in an environment threatened by the ever-growing home-meal replacement category? “There has been endless options in the middle of the store, but it’s grown on the perimeter,” explains Mary Chapman, senior director, Product Innovation, Technomic informing the audience about the growth of made-to-order sushi, ethnic dishes, and fusion-inspired fare that’s luring customers away from restaurants and into their grocery aisle. In addition to contending with grocery competition, operators must innovate to appeal to shifting demographics characterized by smaller family sizes and multi-generational households as well as aging boomers.

As for appealing to the ever-growing foodie culture, the key is to focus on the story of how the ingredient got to the plate, and push the envelope on flavour, creating dishes that are bolder, spicier, and above all, more authentic. Upcoming trends will see the emergence of superfoods, artisan tea stations, and mini appetizers and snacks. Ramped-up, prepared-to order, or even express formats will continue to flourish in the restaurant scene.

“Hormone- and antibiotic-free” were words echoed throughout the day, as the Technomic team and operators speaking on an operator panel, shared different ways operators are upping the transparency factor in their quest to deliver a pared down menu and a fresh and healthful promise to the consumers. “What the consumer is asking for is [information] about the farmer, it’s about the family and the welfare of the animal, and how our ranchers are raising the animal here in Canada,” explained John Lettieri, president of Hero Certified Burgers, speaking as part of an operator panel, moderated by F&H editor/publisher Rosanna Caira. Lettieri stressed the importance of buying Canadian product as a means to strengthen the agriculture scene for the next generation. The back-to-basics theme is quickly taking shape across the country evidenced by slimmer menus, less core offerings and an abundance of gourmet toppings.

Meanwhile, restaurateurs continue to face an ongoing challenge to build loyalty with the finicky millennial consumer. Operators lamented the challenge of the demographic that is willing to spend their money in foodservice, but which remains a largely transient business. “They have less of a degree of loyalty,” said Greg Ambrose, director, Consumer Insights & Strategy at Tim Hortons. “They are going to go where it’s convenient but also where they feel they are being treated property. We have found that more than any other group, [millennials] are interested in what an organization is doing from a social cause standpoint, from ethical sourcing — things you can talk about that will make them connect with your brand.”