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Commercial Kitchen 2019: FCSI expert panel

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FCSI Professional members came together at this week’s Commercial Kitchen show in Birmingham, UK, to discuss the future of foodservice and hospitality

Hosted by Michael Jones, editorial director of FCSI’s Foodservice Consultant magazine, a panel of FCSI UK & Ireland and Europe, Africa and Middle East (EAME) Professional members took to the stage at the Commercial Kitchen show in Birmingham, UK, on Wednesday 5 June for a special panel discussion on the future of the sector.

The panel talked about a broad range of issues, including the changing demographic among operators and consumers, navigating a turbulent economic and political climate, attracting a younger workforce and the increasing focus on sustainability and drive to reduce food waste.

The consultants taking part were Matthew Merritt-Harrison FCSI, managing partner of Merritt-Harrison Catering Consultancy and the chair of FCSI UK & Ireland; associate FCSI member Naomi Duncan, director of Phoenix Consultancy Services and chief executive of Chefs in Schools; Liz Rose FCSI, principal consultant, A&E Catering Design; and senior FCSI associate Lugano Kapembwa, managing director of Lukap Consulting. Remko van der Graaff FCSI, the chair of FCSI EAME added a European perspective to the conversation.

The future means people

The theme of the day was the future of foodservice, something that naturally brought the conversation the topic of people. “When I talk about the future, I think about the people working in foodservice,” said van der Graaff. “FCSI’s purpose is to encourage young people to join the Society because they are the future and we must provide an attractive environment to work in.”

Duncan agreed, pointing to the challenge of attracting more young people to foodservice and hospitality. “We need to deal with the challenge of getting young people into the sector. Young people today are not interested in joining foodservice. How can we understand these people if we don’t have younger people working with the operators?” she asked.

In the Netherlands, van der Graaff’s consultancy AAG, has actively engaged with hospitality schools in the last five years. “We offer lessons in food consulting and hospitality so we get closer to the area of people who are in fourth or fifth year of school so they learn about the industry and the society,” he said. “We really want to help by offering advice and tips and that is when they get interested in what we do and how they can get into it. This is not about advertising but engaging and communicating.”

Left unaddressed, the contentious topic of the UK’s departure from the European Union, could easily become the elephant in the room – so the panel tackled it head on. It is clear that Brexit certainly now forms part of the way the consultants plan their business. Merritt-Harrison was downbeat in his assessment, concerned that leaving a big trading partner would make life harder. While agreeing with this sentiment, Duncan said it would inevitably bring opportunities for British producers to grasp. “I think we will get a really good idea of just how much lamb Britain produces once it gets harder to export to other markets,” she said.

Technology at the centre

Brexit notwithstanding, people remains among the top priorities in foodservice, but keeping the pipeline going is by no means the only thing that consultants have to keep a close eye on. Take technology for starters – while it can provide some welcome relief in the areas where operators struggle to recruit, the worry that technology and robotics leave people out of a job remains. But, said Rose, technology is something that operators and consultants have to make the most of.

“In terms of foodservice design we need to be more aware of tech and connectivity in the commercial kitchen setup because it will be the centre of the hub and it will be how we measure success,” she said.

Consultants have to play a part in educating where the new technology is concerned, she added. “This is about infrastructure because we need to make sure this tech is fitted in the kitchen when it is planned. This stuff is hard to add late on and it means that the consultant needs to be involved early on in the process so they can help plan in.”

But, as Merritt-Harrison reminded the audience, hospitality is about people and, he said, no amount of automation can replace that human interaction. “Yes, there is a place for tech but service delivery is about well-trained people delivering a service and interacting. Human interface is important because we as people need that and that is hospitality,” he said.

To what extent automation reaches into hospitality is up to us, said Duncan. “There is a lot to be done around education to make sure automation is not taking over,” she said. “There is a generation of children who are not being taught about food and foodservice in school and they are not interested in joining the sector. We need to address the culture of food we have in the country.”

Getting a grip on food waste

As priority topics go, sustainability and the focus on reducing food waste comes hot on the heels of technology and automation. Kapembwa, an expert on the circular economy has helped businesses improve sustainability. In foodservice, he said, there are companies doing exceptionally well on sustainability and then there are all the rest – there’s not much in the way of a middle ground.

“I have been impressed with the fact that in foodservice there are more voluntary agreements than in other sectors; it tells me that there is more awareness and a willingness to solve the problems and cooperate,” he said. “Some people are doing it really well and they are shouting about it – and then there is everyone else.”

Merritt-Harrison said much remains to be solved in foodservice, bringing up the contentious issue of breakfast buffets. “You are still seeing buffets in hotels where there is so much food waste – you should be cooking to order today.”

But this, argued Kapembwa, is a high-level business challenge. “There are buffets where food is wasted a lot but that is consequence of the business approach and management – no one is educating the customer and actually telling them why there is less food. It is part of addressing the entire system,” he explained.

Operators who don’t completely avoid producing food waste at least have ways of processing it nowadays. Again, that comes with its own challenges, said Rose. “Space is a real issue, if you are going to have to introduce all these systems you need to have the ability to store things properly and split bins and so on. If you are processing waste then you need to have equipment to process that waste. And that takes up space,” she said.

A Society to connect and collaborate

At the core of all these challenges – and opportunities – FCSI exists to unite consultants from across the foodservice spectrum, providing a forum for learning, networking and collaborating. “We are committed to continued professional development and standards,” said Merritt-Harrison.

At a time of considerable upheaval in the wider foodservice sector, it matters to count on such a group of fellow professionals, as Duncan asserted. “I think the future of consulting is strong. As far as the future of foodservice is concerned, we are facing some challenges that will mean that we have to be smarter and come up with new solutions,” she said.

“Anyone who is not already a member of FCSI I would encourage them to join.”

Tina Nielsen