Robert Carter, executive director of the NPD Group, opened the second annual Canadian Restaurant Summit, held yesterday, April 14, at the Ritz Carlton, by telling a crowd of 250 operators “growth will come from stealing share.” As customer counts fall and competition heats up, operators are being forced to be more innovative to appeal to an increasingly demanding clientele.
One of the issues plaguing operators across industry sectors is rising food costs. “The tension comes from how to enhance the customer experience while keeping costs down.” said Don Robinson, president of Cara Operations. The dilemma is leading operators to think differently. For example, “Do we really need art that is so expensive or can we get off-the-shelf equipment?” asked the Cara president. “We’re focusing more on sales per square foot…and restaurant utilization.”
For others, keeping customers engaged remains paramount. “We’ve spent the last year working with coffee mills to get our coffee certified Rainforest Alliance,” said Stacey Mowbray, president & CEO, Second Cup. “We found 50 per cent of premium coffee drinkers want certification. As a result, “100 per cent of our espresso beans are rainforest-certified and that’s given us a sustainable advantage.” In other product news, the company is introducing three frozen drinks this summer, including chocolate.
That being said, health and nutrition are also top of mind for operators. According to Laurids Skaarup, president of Moxie’s Classic Grill, today’s consumers are asking for smaller portions and healthier food. “People are getting healthier, and we recognize a big plate of fries is not necessarily seen as value-added. So we have less fries on the plate but a higher quality of fries.”
The challenging economic environment has spared no one. “Banking institutions are changing the rules to make banks more cognizant of risk,” explained Warren Jestin, chief economist, Scotiabank Economics. “There are more players and regulations; that points to higher cost for risky propositions.”
Overall, the idea of change was an ongoing theme at the conference. “We need to throw out the rules of the past, innovate and break free in a new world that is changing,” said Bruce McAdams, professor at the University of Guelph.