Patrick Nycz is President of NewPoint, a full-service food and beverage marketing agency, and author of Moving Your Brand Up the Food Chain.
As a food industry strategic marketing professional, I spend a great deal of my time speaking with foodservice, catering and hospitality food and equipment suppliers. They tell me that the foodservice worker shortage is one of their most pressing concerns.
In a world seeing increasingly high demand for convenience, the foodservice industry is an integral part of any community. It includes restaurants, schools, catering, hospital cafeterias and the businesses that prepare meals outside homes for these institutions to serve their customers with ease.
But “convenience” has hit a literal speed bump in a workforce shortage. It is not only the foodservice industry struggling to recruit workers; businesses across many industries are looking for workers. Foodservice operators are listening and making adjustments to offer competitive wages and flexible schedules but are still seeing pushback from a more selective workforce looking for better working conditions, higher pay and benefits.
Foodservice Meal Innovation To Drive Consistency And Profit
Out of the many factors that drive industry-specific innovation, simple production processes can be a game changer. The foodservice industry has always been a prime example of process innovation. For example, meals made “from scratch” may not be prepared on-site or even that day.
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In the past decade, more food processors have worked to deepen their partnerships by selling more “finished” meal products — such as adding proprietary seasoned breading to a chicken breast — to foodservice operators to ease prep time in the kitchen.
At the same time, the practice of bulk purchasing ingredients and preparing meals in centralized commissaries and distribution locations increases cost savings while providing higher quality control and menu consistency for chain restaurants. A peek in the kitchen of almost any chain will give a glimpse into a “heat-and-plate” process. Every employee knows how to reheat food in a microwave. This removes the need for each chain location to have a trained cook — or, even more expensive, a chef — at each location.
In recent years, foodservice suppliers have developed pre-prepared meals that restaurants can resell to customers to heat and eat in their own homes. Convenience is a huge factor in the foodservice industry, and these types of advancements make it easier for customers to get what they are looking for more efficiently and quickly.
What’s Old Is New Again?
With these common meal-prep practices already in place, the area ripe for innovation appears to be between when the consumer orders and then receives the meal. This may look like Automats — meal vending restaurants — that were very popular from the early 1900s to the 1950s.
This concept has been made new on the consumer side as the convenience-loving consumer adapts to ordering meals through a screen: whether hand-held, laptop or kiosk at the airport.
Foodservice Equipment Development
By mid-2020, Covid-19 had decimated the foodservice industry. While many restaurants pivoted toward pickup and delivery options to save the business, foodservice equipment companies had to scramble to find new sales channels. For instance, one food equipment company leveraged its supply chain to secure polycarbonate (and other like substrates). It maximized its machinery equipment to cut/bend to custom sizes to launch a new brand of polycarbonate Covid-19 shield protection products for all industries — from restaurants and grocery stores to banks and offices.
Other foodservice suppliers are looking at ways to provide more cost-effective options with fewer employees on-site while still providing high-quality products. Today, several products automate certain aspects of foodservice production by minimizing the staffing required to run conventional equipment or substituting manual labor with robotics.
As foodservice operators continue to compete for worker shortages, I predict they will also see an increase in innovation from pre-prepared food and foodservice equipment suppliers motivated by business interests — to keep the foodservice industry healthy and growing. As a result, foodservice product innovation will continue to be an integral part of foodservice in the coming years.
Foodservice suppliers will continue to innovate and diversify their product portfolios as foodservice supplier companies look toward product innovation for ways to reduce labor costs while improving worker safety.
The Role Of Marketing In Innovation
Marketing plays an important role in shaping research and development (R&D) efforts. For example, although the worker shortage trend is newer, foodservice meal innovation has been a topic of study for several years.
Food Manufacture magazine notes that the restaurant industry is looking at ways to explore product development for routes including meal delivery, meal vending machines and even 3D printing of food. Food Magazine has reported on companies such as Foodini, a 3D printer company whose technology can print foods such as ham and quiche. Foodini executed its first 3D-printed restaurant order in 2014 via the Foodini kiosk at the EAT Food Channel in Australia.
Food processors and food equipment manufacturers recognize that sales in the foodservice industry are hindered by limited staffing on the operations side. The best suppliers will see the current industry state as a catalyst, an opportunity to innovate through the foodservice worker shortage to spark sales growth and profits for the entire industry.
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Author: Patrick Nycz, Forbes Councils Member