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Foodservice 2021: The checklist

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As the foodservice sector emerges from a year of disruption and devastation, Tina Nielsen speaks to professionals around the world about priorities and possibilities for the new year

To many of us the start of 2020 seems like a different lifetime. Last year was like none before and certainly nothing that any of us expected. This time last year, few would have even spoken of any sort of lockdown; as we approach the New Year, it has been named the word of the year. Societies, all over the world, have taken a battering – with (at the time of writing) more than 85 million Covid-19 infections recorded and a staggering 1.84 million deaths worldwide.

The foodservice and hospitality sector has been particularly hard hit, as governments have imposed strict rules on its practices and behavior. Reduced capacity, smaller group numbers, curfews and an apprehensive dining public have combined to decimate the sector as tens of thousands of operators have had to close completely. The pandemic continues to cause the postponing or scrapping of industry conferences and trade shows across the world.

But there is a hint of light at the end of the tunnel – a vaccine has become a realistic prospect and with it the hope that we may soon return to a more normal life. As we enter 2021, we have asked professionals from across the foodservice spectrum all over the world for their thoughts on the priorities for the next year.

The big picture

Claudia Johannsen, business unit director at Hamburg Messe & Congress, who organizes the Internorga trade show in Hamburg, says little has changed in terms of priorities for the industry. “Topics such as sustainability and organic practices are still major drivers in the catering industry, but they are certainly in even greater demand now,” she says. “And, of course, digitization is not new, but it now needs to, and will, be developed even faster. No restaurateur can escape the need to invest in digital processes and measures.”

As operators are starting to embrace new ways to market – setting up temporary grocery stores, offering delivery and take out services – manufacturers are looking to diversification too. Steve Hobbs, the chair of Foodservice Equipment Association (FEA), says adaptability is key. “Manufacturers are already looking to diversify through new channels, new opportunities and areas that are showing recovery and growth, such as the grab-and-go market, convenience stores and independent pubs,” he says.

While the issues top of the list have not changed, the conditions in which operators work for them have, according to Colleen Vincent, vice president of community at the James Beard Foundation (JBF).  “Restaurants are trying to survive. They are focused on keeping staff employed and safe while building structures to provide outdoor dining, distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) for guests and staff, pivoting business offerings to include to-go or delivery, and continue to provide good quality food. It is an extremely trying time,” she says. “Prior to Covid, the industry was already paying attention to important issues across the spectrum, from employee healthcare and paid leave to the big tipping debate and general cost of food.”

Now, she says, is the moment to take stock, identify the inequities and try to fix them as restaurants come back. “Changes to pay disparity, racial and gender equity, basic human resources’ needs – all of these things should be examined as we move forward.”

People

Across the world thousands of workers in foodservice have lost their livelihood. Operators who have been lucky enough to hold on to their teams have an opportunity to solidify during an enforced quiet time.

Anticipating another wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in the spring, Alexander Hofer, CEO of H44 Team in South Tyrol, Italy, believes by that point the worst might at last be behind us. He says this time could be used well to focus on employees. “In the current business there is now enough time and resources to train the employees and bind them to the company and its identity. From my point of view that’s a unique opportunity that will not come [again] anytime soon.”

Adding quality to the lives of his staff is also on the mind of chef Ángel León who plans to go from a five-day week to four at his three-star restaurant Aponiente in the south of Spain, giving his team three days off. “I understand that having three days instead of two can be life-changing and it will allow my team to smile throughout their weekend,” he says and adds that just because things have always worked a certain way, it doesn’t mean we have to keep them that way. “This has always been the sector where people put in most hours, but we have to change the paradigm. Making this change will allow me to demand more from my team and, importantly, we’ll all be happier and have more time for our lives,” he says.

A renewed focus on equality

Vincent of the JBF, points to the “disheartening’” situation experienced by black and indigenous Americans as a consequence of the pandemic. “The impact of Covid-19 on the industry as a whole is devastating, but it is often found that businesses owned predominantly by black and indigenous Americans are disproportionately underfunded,” she explains. “What’s more, since Covid hit, more businesses led by these communities have shuttered and revenue fell more starkly than their white counterparts.”

JBF has launched its Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans to provide financial resources for food or beverage businesses that are majority-owned by black or indigenous individuals. The grants make up part of the Open for Good campaign that was put in motion in April to rebuild a more resilient and sustainable independent restaurant industry. “We believe it’s time for us to take intentional and aggressive action to help create a more equitable industry for communities that are disproportionately impacted by systemic racism,” says Vincent.

Ricardo Chaneton, chef owner of Mono restaurant in Hong Kong, agrees. “All eyes are now on the economy and the profit margins and it’s so easy to overlook the more human and social factors of the fall-out. Discrimination was prevalent in the past, but the gap has widened significantly with the pandemic, people have become less kind.”

Financial stability

The industry may have been caught unprepared by Covid, but there’s consensus that a priority for 2021 and beyond must be to prepare for this to happen again. “It may not be possible to anticipate the nature of the next macro-threat, but one underlying factor that helps the operator beat the odds for survival no matter what is thrown at them is holding a strong financial position. Going forward, a top priority should be strengthening the P&L and balance sheet,” says Don Fox, CEO of the American sandwich chain Firehouse Subs.

Denis Daveine FCSI, general manager of Alma Consulting in France is straightforward: “Without hesitation, the priority is to avoid bankruptcy and closure of restaurants,” he says “If these do not present a risk in public foodservice (institutions such as schools and hospitals need to be open), commercial catering, corporate catering and all activities related to events and cultural venues are in the red and must find alternative ways to make money, at least for a while.”

Before the pandemic, restaurants were often based on flimsy financial foundations and this is set to change. Those who make it through the year will count themselves lucky. Others may rethink the way they fund their restaurant ventures.

As Hans Neuner, executive chef of Ocean Restaurant at Vila Vita Parc Resort & Spa in Algarve in Portugal, says, this is not an industry that puts aside money for a rainy day. “Many of us have not experienced a pandemic before, so if you have money left over you invest – in new chairs or in the kitchen. You are never going to keep half a million to one side in case Covid strikes,” he says.

“Many restaurants have not been built on super stable financials and people take out loans from the bank and then they open the restaurant and if they can’t pay back one month they are finished. That is a problem worldwide.”

Sustainability

Before Covid-19 hit, the drive for sustainability was already building momentum. From this sharp focus on eliminating single-use plastic and reducing food waste emerged clever solutions – this is set to resume as the sector, acutely aware of environmental challenges, moves on. Chaneton predicts sustainability will go from a nice-to-have to becoming a business imperative. “There has been a surge of single-use plastic in disposable packaging as restaurants pivot to the delivery/take-out model,” he says.

In recent years, chefs launched zero-waste restaurants – London’s Silo and Amass in Copenhagen being two examples – and the public embraced a new approach to eating what would usually be considered off-cuts destined for the kitchen bin.

But Covid-19 and the increased hygiene restrictions as well as the surge in delivery and take-out have brought along a new wave of single-use plastics. “Recent years had seen incredible momentum in reducing the use of disposables for foodservice in contract catering environments, but Covid has seen an overnight reversal of this at many operations as they move away from self-service to pre-packaged product,” says Ed Bircham FCSI, director at Humble Arnold Associates in the UK.

He predicts one of the mega-trends that will become more dominant in future years is so-called net zero targets and these will affect how operators and designers plan operations. “We are at the embryonic stage of companies and organizations divesting themselves from fossil fuels as part of ‘net zero’ targets. This laudable environmental initiative will present operators and designers with a real challenge to fulfil the consumer demand for authenticity for certain cuisines,” he says. “The theater and flavor associated with open flame cooking such as grilling and wok cooking is compromised by ‘all electric’ solutions so this might start to influence development of concepts in some environments.”

Sustainability and economics will require a sharper focus on equipment, according to FEA’s Steve Hobbs. “There’s been a seismic shift in understanding the importance of sustainability. Thus the focus has to be on energy efficiency and labor saving, through advanced technologies such as connectivity,” he says. “With a glut of second-hand equipment likely to enter the market, the temptation may be to buy cheap rather than invest in the long term. However, it’s new, modern equipment that will deliver the productivity and running cost savings that foodservice businesses will need. Operators who are doing relatively well at the moment will wish to further leverage their market position, and will be likely to invest in the new technology.”

A renewed drive on combating climate may see restaurants implementing changes to their menus. Neuner in Portugal took the opportunity to eliminate meat from the menus at Ocean during the pandemic. It was something he had wanted to do for a while, having reduced his own meat consumption considerably in recent years. Covid provided the perfect moment.

“I am from Austria and when I was a kid we’d eat meat every day, but the last two or three years if you look at the planet I think everybody has to start with himself,” he says. “The whole world has to change the way it eats.”

Local responsibility

At Ocean restaurant, the practice has been to buy regional and local produce for several years now. “I don’t want my products flying all over the planet and I think today more people think like this,” says Neuner. “It was a trend before but I think Covid made it more a priority. I think many restaurants will change.”

Chaneton in Hong Kong says the entire sector needs to increase the focus on the local market and community on all levels and throughout the entire domestic supply chain, including suppliers, producers and the artists. “When you lock down the borders, it throws a wrench into the works, especially for places that are used to exporting their produce elsewhere, like South America,” he says. “So even if it means choosing to source from local purveyors by 10% more, partnering with small businesses to support them, every bit helps. There is strength in unity, and we have a collective onus to support the communities that need to be rebuilt in the wake of the pandemic and create a sustainable economy.”

This resonates with Javier Olleros, chef owner of Culler de Pau, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Galicia in northern Spain. He says it’s time to move away from certain aspects of gastronomy. “We don’t want to go back to the excess and that disconnect with nature,” he says.

He prefers to talk of being responsible more than sustainable. “I think we need to get back to committing to nature; we had got to a point of anything goes, where we forgot where our produce came from and importantly we stopped looking after our small suppliers,” he explains. “If we can take anything positive from this time, it is that it has forced us to look closer to home at our local communities.” This, he adds, is where we start to build a better society.

It is a philosophy that has been developed during the past 11 years at Culler de Pau, that focuses on people, environment and finance – and responsibility for the world around them. “We are still learning, but we see our path clearly.”

Rebuild customer trust

A year is a long time in the relationship between restaurants and customers and many diners may have formed new habits – delivery to their home might seem more convenient or safer. Fox of Firehouse Subs, warns that customers will be cautious in their approach to dining out. “Restaurant brands where on-premise business is more important to the success of the concept will need to stay in touch with the needs of the consumer relative to the dine-in experience,” he says.

Sanitation will have a major part to play. “Establishing an environment that offers the guest a sense of protection from Covid-19 will be paramount. Some of the steps required – especially maintaining social distancing in the dining room – may work against the restaurant’s recovery to pre-pandemic levels.” For some, he adds, 2021 will still be a year of being in survival mode, with no prospect of meaningful recovery until 2022.

Where hygiene is concerned, double down on the basics. It’s time, says Daveine, to ask: “Were things done properly before? This crisis has brought fundamental notions of hygiene back to the forefront.”

“Now more than ever, customers’ trust needs to be boosted by restaurateurs making sure that a visit to their premises is safe for their guests, and also becomes fun again. A comprehensive, well-thought-out hygiene and safety concept provides the basis for that,” says Johannsen.

Bircham believes foodservice is already in a good place. “Arguably, after healthcare, foodservice is the most conscientious and attentive industry when it comes to matters of hygiene. Operators are required to document processes to demonstrate hygienic processes are followed,” he says. “There may be benefit in trying to emphasize this point to the general public to regain confidence in dining out. This aspect has led to an accelerated adoption of touch free equipment including connectivity with devices of some customer facing equipment; also of kitchen technologies such as air sterilization equipment.”

While foodservice is a leader in hygiene, Bircham says it will have to be more obvious in the future. “The nature of food displays is reverting to more enclosed styles with a move back to fully enclosed sneeze screens rather than open displays with suspended decorative heat lamps that were becoming more prevalent to achieve more residential feel, less institutional solutions,” he says, but adds there are benefits to be gained from this too. “The positive is that these solutions by necessity will be assisted service, offering operators an opportunity to improve guest experience through engagement with customers, albeit at an increased labor cost.”

Digital and diversified

The wisdom of adopting a multichannel approach to any operation is beyond any doubt now. When the pandemic hit and foodservice operations were forced to close across the world, new sales channels including take-out and delivery made the difference between permanent closure and survival.

“Mastering off-premise channels and having a solid digital platform have risen to the top of the priority list,” says Fox. “This was a trend that was in play well before Covid-19, but the pandemic greatly accelerated it.”

Sam Ward, managing director of Umbel Restaurant Group in the UK, says diversification has been key to the group of restaurants, headed by chef Simon Rogan. “We launched Rogan at Home from day one, starting off with £5 lunches and then we built it from there and now we are doing £95 Christmas lunches with five courses nationwide,” he says.

There are extensive plans to keep this new business channel open and expand it after the pandemic. “We are only just getting started,” he adds.

This means embracing technology, according to Juan Matamoros FCSI, CEO of Food Gurus in El Salvador. “Customers use more apps, order online and look on the web for information from restaurants. Technology helps foodservice teams work faster in kitchens and decrease the cost of labor,” he says. “The profitability of a business is now focused on a new reality with fewer customers and fewer locations available. My advice is to focus on innovation in packaging and technology. Right now it is important to make decisions quickly and strategically.”

In the drive to put out an appealing offer Ward adds it’s crucial to keep brand values top of mind. “Diversify, but at no point sacrifice brand values,” he says. “I have seen a lot of places that in normal times send out world-class products and then all of the sudden you are doing something very basic and you are not representing yourself truly. You still have to do something that you would stand by whether it is during a pandemic or not.”

This means looking for smart and sustainable solutions for packaging too. “We can use plastic to pack things up, but there are so many great businesses out there who have come up with great sustainable solutions to stop the sector using the plastic. I have seen amazing businesses with great brand names sending stuff out in polystyrene and plastic and I think ‘you can do better than this’,” he concludes. “A little bit of thought is important; you can come up with ideas and still represent yourself well.”

Thriving long-term

Inevitably a seismic event such as the Covid pandemic will leave lasting change on society and the foodservice sector. Things will have to evolve. Being at the mercy of a variety of dining restrictions, has thrown into sharp relief  restaurants’ need for agility and adaptability and this will be of great benefit, says Chaneton. “We’ve had to take a magnifying glass to every aspect of our restaurant, from menu, guest relations and what we put into the takeaway bag to how we behave as employers and employee welfare etc. It has provided a time for introspection, as we’ve had to examine and be considered about every cog in the restaurant, because it will affect the end result in a tangible way. The silver lining is that we’ve learned to always look forward and appreciate life a bit more. We are in a moment of humanity that will make history.”

“The biggest long-term issue is the impact the pandemic has had on the operator’s view of restaurant size. Conventional wisdom has been that operators can downsize, or even eliminate dining rooms all together,” says Fox. “The wisdom of this decision remains to be seen. It could be that over the longer term, pent up demand creates greater use of dining rooms once permitted by the government. Brands that over-reacted to Covid-19 by greatly reduced dining rooms may end up regretting it in as little as 18-24 months.”

This adaptability will be crucial to everybody across the sector, according to FEA’s Hobbs. “Wherever you are in the supply chain, manufacturer, consultant, reseller or operator, adaptability is key. There may be difficult decisions to make for the long-term benefit of your business and the colleagues who work with you,” he says. “Analyze your operations and shed the elements that don’t add value. Take a strategic view of your position in the industry and think disruptively – as we’ve seen over many years, disruptive ideas and unconventional strategies lead to innovation and opportunity.”

Onwards and upwards

For all the challenges Covid-19 has brought the foodservice sector, it also offers restaurateurs an opportunity to stay competitive and capitalize on new opportunities. “In the future, the delivery service sector will play an even greater role for restaurants, and it will have to be expanded and further developed in order to retain existing customers and appeal to new ones,” says Johannsen. “The focus should also move to a well-functioning database and communication with guests – that means customer loyalty programs.”

Will foodservice as we knew it before Covid return? Daveine believes so. “If different models – take-away and delivery – have progressed, I think that catering where the customer comes to live a culinary experience is going to last. Health issues will not last forever,” he says.

This, after all, is a sector that is propelled by collaboration and collegial support.

“This is a hard time, but the bottom line is that it will make us stronger,” says Hofer. “Stay true to yourself, persevere and retain your team as much as possible. The time will come when things will get better, at least that’s what I wish everyone in our sector.”

His words of advice for colleagues is to stay positive and agile. “Remain optimistic so that you can respond flexibly to the challenges of these times. And don’t be afraid to stray from the paths you have become familiar with, rethink things and find creative solutions for your business,” he adds.

Above all, says Bircham, don’t lose sight of the purpose of what you do and how to achieve this: “The key requirement is unchanged – to remain focused on customer experience. The experience requirements may have changed slightly to ensure comfort of guests, but ultimately repeat business and strong recommendation levels will be led by this.”

Tina Nielsen