Foodservice innovation strives to leave the pandemic in the rearview


The fourth quarter of 2022 brought a return of the traditional foodservice industry conference season. Over the course of approximately eight weeks from October to early December, I spoke at four conferences in person, one virtually, and attended one more as a delegate. For an industry focused on hospitality, this return to in-person gatherings — and connecting — was a welcome opportunity to meet with colleagues again after a long absence. The virtual-conference circuit of the past two-and-a-half years was an effective means of sharing information and keeping the industry educated on all the latest trends, but there is no substitute for the in-person exchange of information, meeting new contacts, and like-minded people.

There was plenty of talk on the industry’s hot topics: labour shortages, high inflation, enduring supply-chain issues, and government red tape. It was enlightening to me, and I learned so much, even after more than 20 years in the business. But I’ll leave the discussion of these topics to other experts. Instead, I will summarize some of the overarching themes that I encountered.

Resilience, determination and hard work
You can’t keep a good restaurateur down for long. The industry came together; operators banded together to assist each other; and suppliers and distributors stepped up to do their part. Many came away from the pandemic period realizing we may be fierce competitors, but we’re stronger when we work together. Industry associations rose to the new challenges brought on by the pandemic and helped the industry survive and make a strong comeback.

Digital technology
Ordering systems, back-of-house software, staffing apps, and digital menus were key ingredients during the industry’s toughest moments, and they’re not going away. Smart kitchens, self-serve offerings, and even fully automated restaurants and touchless store concepts are emerging as important solutions.

And there’s no forgetting the importance of rewarding loyalty and building customer information through the continued expansion of apps, digital ordering, and other digital-tracking technology.

Future outlook
Stay focused on younger consumers and really get to know them. They think, act, and engage differently with brands compared to their older counterparts. As Boomers age out of their prime foodservice years, Gen Z is emerging to take their place.

Sustainability, food sourcing, fair trade, educated consumers, and corporate messaging are more than buzzwords. The challenge will be to deliver on these considerations without a jump in prices. Many consumers are not willing or able to pay a premium for reassurance that your brand is doing good for the world.

Marketing continues to evolve. From a simple tactical standpoint, such as integrating more social and digital platforms into your marketing program to appeal to younger, more diverse customers, to legislative action, where regulations may alter the ways brands can collect and access consumers’ private information, this is a time of change. Stay informed and remain agile.

New store formats and food channels are increasing. They reflect the new ways consumers expect to be able to access and interact with food and food brands.

Merger and acquisition activity will continue, and may even accelerate, as investors continue to capitalize on the powers of scale. This has implications for larger, single-brand operators that could find themselves losing their advantages of size. It also will affect independent and small chain operators, who prefer to continue on their independent paths.

As you read this, we will have turned the calendar to 2023. Maybe it’s time to also move past 2019? The industry has come through the worst public-health crisis in a generation, emerging stronger than ever in so many ways. Many challenges remain, but together the industry will thrive and build on new opportunities. Regardless what happened, or may yet happen, Canadians will undoubtedly continue to use restaurant meals to connect with others. And making connections is exactly what this commentary is all about. Here’s to a stellar 2023.

By Vince Sgabellone is the director of Client Development and Foodservice Industry analyst at The NPD Group. He can be reached at [email protected]

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