Insights Conference Delivers

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TORONTO — The Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto was home to the inaugural “2011 Canadian Restaurant Insights Conference,” hosted yesterday by Kostuch Media Ltd., and the Chicago-based research firm, Technomic.

Kevin Higar, senior manager at Technomic began the day with a look at the economy and state of the industry. Highlighting several bright points with regard to positive employment numbers and chain growth, the overall concern was consumer confidence, which continues to take a hit as gas prices and food prices continue to rise.

Higar also examined growth at foodservice concepts, which are being spurred by superior ingredients, an environmental focus, varied atmosphere, entertainment and menu customization. The topic led into a Q&A session with Matthew Corrin, founder and CEO of Freshii, a brand that embodies the trend toward customer customization.

The young founder, whose brand is comprised of units in North America, Europe and the Middle East, has built a successful quick-service concept, based on menu customization, low costs (stores don’t even have a dishwasher), a small footprint and green-friendly initiatives. “We are such a small company and have a long way to go,” says the entrepreneur who launched Freshii at the age of 23. He explained the key to his success: “It’s focusing on the bad stuff to get to the good stuff.”

The customer was the next area of discussion. Melissa Wilson, principal of Technomic presented research that revealed cautious optimism on the part of the consumer, 61 per cent of who say the recession has impacted their households. “If they haven’t lost their job, they know someone who has,” Wilson reminded the roomful of conference attendees, explaining why consumer confidence remains low.

Wilson told foodservice operators to capitalize on sales by using specials and deals sparingly, delivering to target demographics through portion size and service and evolving expectations by adding healthy options, for example.

Before breaking for lunch, Technomic reps discussed menu labelling and healthy food, a presentation that was augmented by insights from Katie Jessop, dietitian for the Heart & Stroke Foundation, who offered operator tips for appealing to the heart-healthy customer. “If you have a relationship with your customer, you can be their trusted advisor,” she began before talking about the importance of including nutritional information on the menu, revising less healthy recipes and creating healthier recipes, promoting the restaurant’s health halo and cleaning up kids’ menus.

After lunch, which was followed by a look at foodservice flavour profiles, an operator panel addressed questions on topics ranging from the health movement to innovation and the economic downturn. When all was said and done, research and industry opinion reflected the importance of offering customer choice in a changing industry that will eventually win back cautious customers hungry for an indulgence.

“We pray to the consumer confidence gods every night,” joked Don Robinson, president and CEO of Cara, parent company of five chains, including Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet, during the panel discussion, which ended on a positive note. “I’m very optimistic about the future,” Robinson said. “If you’ve lived through the last three years, you can live through anything.”

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