Trends and Directions Conferences Hones In on Customer Call for Quality

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TORONTO — It was a day of learning and networking as foodservice operators and suppliers united at the Pearson Convention Center in Brampton, Ont., yesterday for the annual Canadian Restaurants Trends & Directions conference.

Hosted in partnership with Chicago-based research firm Technomic and Toronto’s Kostuch Media Ltd., the event began with an economic overview delivered by Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist, RBC.

He explained that the economy is stable, barring any negative shock to the system. “We’re not out the woods yet. Growth will continue but at a modest pace,” he began. The good news is Canadian resources in provinces such as Newfoundland, Alberta and Saskatchewan will lead to real GDP growth. And, despite high Canadian household debt, Canadians are continuing to spend.

Patrick Noone, VP, Technomic, recounted a similarly slow time in foodservice, noting that the top 200 chains in Canada grew sales by 4.3 per cent, up from $26.8 billion in 2011 to $27.8 billion in 2012. 

Moving forward, total commercial foodservice sales are expected to rise from a predicted 4.4 per cent in 2013 to a forecast 4.7 per cent in 2014. “It’s not quite bullish, but we’re seeing some opportunities,” said the VP, alluding to a 1.6-per-cent forecast increase in limited-service sales in 2013 over 2014. Overall, full-service restaurants have been continuing to fight for market share with sales expected to drop from 5.6 per cent this year to a forecast 4.6 per cent in 2014.

Noone and Darren Tristano, EVP, continued the foodservice analysis with a look at what is setting “hot concept” restaurants apart, profiling establishments, such as Yogurty’s, Liquid Nutrition and The Symposium Café. “One of the things that’s key across the board is a customer’s demand for quality,” said Noone.  Whether that pertains to offering customization, premium ingredients, healthy options, sustainable goods or unique experiences, the idea is to offer the best value possible.

And, value is one issue that Michel Lanctôt, VP – general director of Quebec’s La Cage aux Sports, is trying to hone in on at the sports bar that originally focused on the technology experience and atmosphere. “It’s getting harder and harder to have a competitive edge on technology, so we have to offer more now,” he said during a panel discussion. “[Customers] want more variety — they want more taste, which is why we’ve been working on our menu.”

On the flip side, Jason Rosso (pictured) is working on improving the guest experience at Milestones Grill + Bar since learning that food is not necessarily the top driver of business. “When I started [at Milestones just over a year ago there was] a 39-week menu roll-out plan, and I couldn’t get my head around that … We managed to break that down from about 39 weeks to about 19 weeks,” said the corporate chef. Today, he spends more time on personnel development and creating a “communal dining” environment.

Creating a valuable customer experience was a theme at the conference, which touched on the need to engage customers on social and mobile networks and eventually unite core restaurant subsets to create a strong customer-service community. “We’re trying to break down the barrier between IT, marketing and research and development,” said conference panelist Drew Campbell, marketing manager – Digital, Boston Pizza, while discussing how all customer information will eventually “speak to each other.”

The future is unknown, but the value of customer service remains. It was a point hammered home with Technomic’s inaugural Consumers’ Choice Award presentation, which awarded operators based on consumer restaurant brand metrics. The winners included Booster Juice, Mr. Sub, Second Cup, Tim Hortons, Harvey’s, Cora, The Keg Steakhouse & Bar, La Cage aux Sports, St-Hubert and Scores Rotisserie & Ribs.

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