FCSI leaders: challenges and opportunities

How will labor shortages, a post-pandemic economy, and AI change the world of foodservice? At HostMilano 2023, members of the FCSI Worldwide board, supported by The Middleby Corporation, gathered to discuss exactly that


William Caruso FFCSI (WC), Past president, FCSI Worldwide

Ben Gregoire FCSI (BG), Chair, FCSI Asia Pacific

Mario Sequeira FCSI (MS), President, FCSI Worldwide

Frank Wagner FCSI (FW), Chair, FCSI EAME

Sponsors: Meghan E. Daro (MD) and Scott Heim, The Middleby Corporation

Chair: Michael Jones (MJ), Foodservice Consultant

MJ: What do you think are the key challenges the industry is facing and how do you feel operators are rising to those challenges?

BG: I’m based in Southeast Asia, and the biggest challenge we’re facing is labor. It’s not necessarily labor costs yet, but it’s the talent pool and the appeal of getting young people into the industry. With technology, these days people want to move into high tech sectors – looking into the back-of-house in the culinary or hospitality world is very difficult.

WC: I would agree with Ben because I’ve seen labor shortages not only in the US and in Mexico, but everywhere I travel throughout the world. I think one of the challenges is creating an atmosphere that interests young people to get into the industry. We need to make it sexy, unique and fun, and market that very well through our friends and industry associates throughout the world.

FW: The labor shortage is also a big problem in Europe and the Middle East. There will always be a lot of manual work, but dishwashing and other things you can automate. We should also be focusing on having a healthy environment in kitchens. That means better ventilation for happy workers.

MS: In Australia and some parts of Asia, there’s several main challenges. Labor, and also occupancy cost. With rising property values, the rental costs are high for the operator as well. That is where we as consultants play an important role, [especially] in the smaller SME environment. They have great chefs, but they don’t understand numbers. Our members can mitigate those challenges.

MJ: We haven’t talked about the impact that pandemic had on the industry a couple of years ago. Do you feel that change, positive change, will come from having to face some of these challenges?

WC: I do. It’s not going to come overnight, though, it’s going to take a while. The challenge is an economic challenge, as I see it. Between the large corporate giants of the world and the small mom and pop operators, there’s a big chasm. My feeling is that because of the investment that large corporations around the world have in this industry, that change will definitely occur because it’s an economic impact situation and that economic driver will force the larger firms to create more innovation. I’m hoping that the large corporations can invest in this research and development, I’m hoping that training, information and research gets passed down through the whole network, and thus I am positive about the industry. But Rome wasn’t built in a day and it’s going to take a little while to affect that change.

MJ: Do you think the industry will emerge stronger from all this?

MS: The future is now – it’s not something that we enter into, it’s something that we create. As they say, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. When’s the second-best time? It’s today. We have the tools and the skills, [but] most important is to have the right attitude to make this all happen. That’s what we’re doing right now, we’ve come all the way to Host to create our future and to combat all the challenges that we’re facing.

MJ: How do you think changing consumer habits are going to shape the kitchens of the future?

BG: Going back to the idea of the mom and pops, unfortunately a lot of them closed up during the pandemic. Still, it’s a very resilient industry, though the barriers to entry to setting up your own restaurant are high from an economic point of view. But people in cities still value these rather than big corporate restaurants. The pandemic had a big impact initially, but we’ve seen people pop back up, and I think consumer behavior is influencing that. Not everybody wants to go to fast-food joints, or even just corporate chain restaurants, they still value the place on the corner. What I’m not seeing from my side yet is people wanting to spend the money on setting up the kitchens. I still think it’s taking time, to be honest.

MJ: Bill, I’d like to come back to that point you made about how we make this industry more attractive to younger people. How do we do that?

WC: Well, if I had the answer, I would be a very wealthy person. But my feeling is this: we have to take the mundane out of the daily workflow and training of young people. We have to create an environment that makes it unique and fun for them to work. My background is in a lot of very large public assembly facilities, major stadiums, arenas throughout the world, big convention centers, and it’s very difficult to find people in those particular industries. However, what we’ve started to do from a design standpoint is create multimedia fun, even for the employees, creating new programs in our digital signage to train young people, to get the mundane away from the daily activity, like selling a hot dog. We took a lot of that away from the front counter and made kiosks very unusual with fun games, and very simple for people to operate. And again, it might have to start at the top through all the research being done by the larger corporations. But it’s got to filter down to the mom and pops in the factories and other segments of the industry.

MS: What young people want now is they’re not just looking at how much you’re going to pay them, they want to see the value of the organization. What’s your sustainability statement or mission statement? How do you want to operate? What drives you? What’s the ‘why’ in your business? And so that’s then back on the employer to create that atmosphere and the culture, [making an employee feel that] they’re not just a number.

MJ: How are you seeing automation stepping up and plugging that gap in the meantime, while we attract this workforce that we need?

BG: Automation eliminates those mundane tasks so people can spend more time engaging with the guests. It’s taking out the tasks that people find tedious. You want to get people to see the exciting opportunities, because foodservice actually is a very fun industry. It’s taking care of people at the end of the day, and everybody in this room loves to do that in some shape or form. Adding to that, and giving some sort of excitement about it, will help retain people. But we don’t want it to suddenly just become pure robotics where there’s no human engagement.

We should automate the things that are less important to spend more time on creating interesting concepts, interesting experiences, because that’s what young people are looking forward to. People love the front-of-house. It’s that service that you can’t necessarily capture in a photo. And that’s what we’re lacking a lot of now when people get tired, stressed, they don’t have the right labor and all the quality experiences are going down. So, if automation can step in and help that then hopefully it’s better for the industry in general.

MJ: Do you feel the industry might is in danger of losing that balance between being people-focused but also needing automation to do everything else?

FW: No, actually, I don’t think we will have a problem as long as we take it as entertainment, as serving people. Automation is just one small part of education, to try and train people so that they don’t have stress. AI will take a lot of pressure out of kitchens. It can organize workflow and take somebody’s order… It’s not about robots. It’s about the whole system.

MS: At the end of the day, if you’re a good operator, you should know who your market is. Don’t rely on AI to tell you what trend to follow. But AI is still very helpful because it supplements your knowledge and helps you make easier and quicker decisions. But it will never replace humans.

MJ: Mario, you mentioned sustainability earlier on, talking about how young people value things like a company’s corporate responsibility in its approach to the environment. Can we talk about how operators, manufacturers, consumers alike are taking sustainability more seriously? And how are you seeing that manifesting itself in the industry?

MS: The interesting thing is that over the last few years until recently, the focus was on the environment and climate change. We’re going to electrification, and we’re trying to reduce energy consumption, all of those things, but there’s a massive shift towards social governance, and the social responsibility of operators. Consumers are focusing on the provenance of their produce, they want it to be sourced and made locally. Part of that is also the well- being of the staff, creating a peaceful and ambient environment for employees.

WC: I agree wholeheartedly. However, I will say, when you get down to the mom and pops, we have to figure out a way where that social responsibility message gets through, and that’s going to take a little time. We all have to think about that to make the industry better.

BG: It needs to be done in a way that can be translated to each stakeholder. We all want to be socially responsible but you get down to the final end-user on the property level, then they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just about cost. It’s about saving’. Hopefully, everybody does see an impact on the bottom line, it doesn’t necessarily mean just cutting costs.

MS: FCSI takes that very seriously. At the Worldwide level, we’ve created our own sustainability statement, and we rolled it out to all our members as guidelines for them to follow. Even more so as FCSI consultants, it’s our role to educate the moms and pops, even the bigger corporations for that matter. They look at the cost and the debate, and we give them a list of benefits. And then all of a sudden, they’re taking notice.

MJ: What is abundantly clear is that change is coming. Why are you positive about the direction foodservice is taking?

BG: This industry is not going away. I’m cautiously optimistic. I mean, we’ve wondered about the grill perhaps going away. I work in Asia, where everybody cooks with fire and woks and if we tell the chef ‘We’re switching to electric’ they just look at you… But as FCSI members we have to drive a bit of that change and show that there are solutions out there.

MS: I see food as medicine. Every human being on the planet needs to eat and drink. It doesn’t only impact your physical being, it impacts your mental wellbeing as well. It’s fundamental. The biggest way to drive change is as role models ourselves, practice it in our business or through our clients, then spread it through the world. But again, we can’t do it alone.

BOX: The sponsor’s perspective

Also at the breakfast briefing were Meghan Daro and Scott Heim of global equipment manufacturer The Middleby Corporation, who gave a presentation on the innovation their business will be introducing over the forthcoming years.

“Our strategic focus is to be very focused on solutions-based training and education for our partners,” explained Daro. “We were talking about things such as how kitchen design fits into the actual operation and impacts menu optimization, sustainability, and larger thematic topics that are really going to suit the needs of our end-users.” Daro also discussed the opening of the Middleby Innovation Kitchens in Dallas, Texas, US and Madrid, Spain, as well as new facilities in Dubai, UAE, scheduled to open between Q3 and Q4 of 2024, plus a further planned facility in Munich. “These will be a learning center, and a training and education piece for all of you at FCSI – and all your partners – to be able to come and leverage,” said Daro.

Further details:

For more information on The Middleby Corporation visit here.

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