Bubble or new business level? Laura Lentz on a new boom in foodservice

The Maryland-based principal with Culinary Advisors considers the current state and future direction of travel of the foodservice design sector

From what I know, the world of foodservice consulting started in the 1950s and really took hold somewhere around the 70s when chef driven restaurants and foodservice became more of a focus in the United States. 

Fast forward 50 years and I’m finding myself in a design world that feels like we’ve started a new ballgame. We have post pandemic business that was deferred, technology changes that are transforming the customer experience and operational controls, and labor shortages that are defining everything we do. 

From my perspective, these factors are creating a foodservice boom with the goal of helping our clients keep up with changing times. But here’s what I want to know: is this a bubble or a new business level?

My views is that it is both.

I think we have a bubble that is post pandemic pent up “energy” from deferred projects. I believe it is complicated by market segments that continue to have uncertainty around their so-called ‘new normal’. Workplace is probably top of mind as a segment that is still in transition. When I review the SHFM Industry Report I can’t help but think that the changes aren’t over as some clients still can’t envision what their new workplaces will look like. In my mind, this market segment is redefining who it is. 

Other factors, specifically technology and labor, seem like they are going to stick around and bring about a new business level. I’ll admit, I’ve gone back and forth. I know some consultants believe that there can be a universal design that can meet all technologies, or at least that’s what I’ve heard in the past. 

A new business level

But with how we think about foodservice these days, it’s a whole new ballgame. A whole new design where every customer order, every customer pick up, and each inch on a prep station, matters. I could go on: the flow and location of POS, location of KDS systems, what they do and where they are placed within the space; these are all critical to the design. So critical in fact, that I believe it needs to be at the forefront of design discussions and driving the decisions, not the post-design overlay. Technology changes and the pace at which they are happening are prompting a new business level.

And then there’s labor. Labor shortages will drive every inch of space of a design. It must be reviewed and confirmed.  In some cases, the correct answer will be to grow, centralize, and standardize to bring consistency. In other cases, it will be to decentralize, increase the convenience of location and increase the amenity to their customers. 

In design, it used to be more forgiving to get the aisle spacing right or at least that there were fewer ways to get it wrong. We could make assumptions about how many FTE’s were assigned to a given design. But now designs must work for the peak labor periods and the valley labor periods so that the service is consistent throughout. This too is likely to ripple through every foodservice venue as labor and technology are adopted.

Through all these factors, one thing is for sure, this is an exciting time to be in foodservice consulting. And if I’m right, and it is here to stay; we are all in for a fun ride! The key is to keep informed, share our new statistics, and work together to help clients get the best products our industry has to offer.

Laura Lentz FCSI is design principal with Culinary Advisors in Maryland and a Foodservice Consultant columnist 

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