By Jason Menke

Keeping pace with the constantly evolving foodservice industry is no easy task. To get the pulse on trends and challenges, the Pork Checkoff went straight to the source earlier this year, partnering with Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN) to host a roundtable with key industry executives.

The roundtable held prior to the National Restaurant Association’s annual Chicago conference, engaged restaurant industry representatives as the All About Dining Out research report was released. NRN senior editor Ron Ruggless moderated, with Tara Dugan, the Checkoff’s director of consumer and marketplace insights, sitting down with leaders representing large national chains and more regional, multi-unit operators.

During the two-hour discussion, insights were gathered from

  • Frances Allen, CEO, Boston Market
  • Mario Del Pero, co-founder, and CEO, Mendocino Farms
  • Laura Rea Dickey, CEO, Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants
  • Brian Ingram, chief development officer, Williston Holding Company
  • James Park, CEO, Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh
  • Cammie Spillyards-Schaefer, vice president of culinary and menu strategy, Cracker Barrel
  • Scott Uehlein, vice president of product development and innovation, Sonic Drive-Ins
Participants in the recent roundtable discussion shared foodservice trends. Bottom (from left): Laura Rea Dickey, Tara Dugan, Frances Allen and Brian Ingram. Top: James Park, Scott Uehlein, Mario Del Pero and Cammie Spillyards-Schaefer.

How have consumer expectations changed the last five years?

Laura Rae Dickey, Dickey’s: Our largest change is…we have so many different customer segments. [Today], our third-party delivery business is a huge component to the business that didn’t exist 45 years ago. We’re seeing folks that want an experience. We’ve opened our kitchens so they can see the pits. They can see the food being prepared, and that’s become an expectation.

Folks that have a Dickey’s they had always gone to [are] driving a little further just to get to one of the newer open kitchen concepts. They are wanting to see how it’s prepared. They want to ask questions…to talk about our nitrate-free sausage. It’s a just more engaged, informed guest.

Cammie Spillyards-Schaefer, Cracker Barrel: I would agree that the need for convenience is absolutely shaping the industry and what’s changing in terms of consumer expectation. But I would say… it’s the desire to tailor their in-restaurant experience. The same consumer

will use you for different occasions and different needs, and they expect that you can read that experience for them and adjust to what they need. Whether that’s “I’m just here to fill up at the Cracker Barrel as I’m traveling down the road,” or whether, “I’m there to connect with my family, and I want a more experiential kind of visit.”

The other thing that is big for Cracker Barrel, is the need for convenience at holidays. People aren’t even cooking on those occasions that they really used to hold sacred and cook.

We’re seeing a real demand for, “Help me make this easier, but I still want to feel good about what I’m serving my family.” That’s been a big change for us, as well. – Cammie Spillyards-Schaefer

Brian Ingram, Williston Holdings: Well, for us, consumers are so much more educated now.

Everybody watches Food Network. Everybody watches a cooking show. Your kids are on Top Chef Kids now, so the consumer is just so much more educated. What are you doing that’s going to make you relevant? – Brian Ingram

What are you doing that this consumer that’s on their phone constantly…how are you relevant to them? We see [our brands] as legacy restaurants that we’re trying to help in new concepts. How do we stay relevant in today’s climate?

Everything in Cargo (a Williston restaurant concept) is experience-related. Cargo Minneapolis brought in a New York graffiti artist [to paint] graffiti on the inside. Our average stay is two hours instead of 40 minutes.  How do you get the guests to stay longer and spend more money while they’re there, as they’re coming less and less frequently? For us, it’s how do you create the experience to go along with the food.

Scott Uehlein, Sonic Drive-Ins: Digital has been a huge unlock for us. It’s about knowing our customer a lot more than we did five years ago and…understanding why they’re coming to us, when they’re coming to us on different occasions and why. We’re sort of this nostalgic brand that you’d drive up and you’d push the button and you’d order, and the food would come out to you.

Now you push the button on your phone, you drive up and you get your food immediately and you drive away. So we’ve gone from potential obsolescence to sort of the forefront of convenience.

James Park, Garbanzo: Mediterranean food is a very interesting space. Here I am with probably the oldest food in the world, [and] I have to create a demand. But once they understand that it serves a purpose beyond just flavorful food… people connect with our food not just because it tastes good, but they know it’s nutrient-dense.

But at the end of the day, it’s all about three things:

I’d say this business is about PIE: People, innovation, execution. You do those three things, you can sell {anything] on a stick and do really well. – James Park

Frances Allen, Boston Market: We were the original home-meal replacement, and that’s really where we started and became incredibly successful as a result. We’ve seen a huge uptake in delivery sales and have gone with every third party that is worth our time.

Mario Del Pero, Mendocino Farms: Our tag is sandwich market, and we sell more salads than we sell sandwiches. So, the evolution of people eating more vegetables and more plant-based is incredible.

This is by far the most interesting time in the restaurant space with the advent of technology, with consumers being more informed and caring and actually willing to pay. Our dining rooms are massively changing, which is tough when you’re a growing brand. We’ve started to look at grab-and-go. Can we make it even more convenient?

How has social media impacted dining?

Dickey: Our kind of new inside-baseball rule that we talk about is that:

“…The phone eats first.” People come in, and if they’re going to Instagram their food or their plate, then we’ve done something right.” – Laura Rea Dickey

And it’s a training tool because then we can take that back and challenge the pitmaster: “Have you highlighted the smoke ring? Are the burnt ends really plated well?” It really does drive its own customer transaction piece.

Allen: There’s a trend in design right now to make sure that the right lighting is over the table so that people can actually create that [experience].

Del Pero: We’ve called out walls where people can hold up their sandwiches [for social media photos.] It’s in our design, our Instagrammable wall.

Dickey: And we’ve gone back and added it to change [our original] store. This tattoo artist did a beautiful outdoor mural for us, because we needed an Instagram space. We made it seem cooler and more relevant. It generated its own traffic, which is interesting.

What about menu innovation?

Park: We used to be 72% [plated entrees]. Now we’re at 60%. And, in fact, in our new markets, we’re 65% handheld (sandwiches and wraps). In our new markets, we actually flipped the menu mix around. We sell more pitas, drive higher sales, have higher attachment rates, better profitability.

Allen: We completely upgraded our lunch program. We start with a good protein, and, for us, it is the ingredients, some more modern flavors. We’re adding salads. We are testing bowls right now. James is right, that’s the way in which the market is going.

The bowls we are testing are more interesting, more diverse in flavors, and we actually see more bowls being delivered, because it’s a different target audience, and they tend to be looking for something that’s more convenient…I want to be more about sandwiches, build your own sandwich bars and bowls and those kinds of things.

A lot of innovation is coming to go along with the more digital, data-driven market. – Francis Allen

Ingram: People want bold flavors. They want new, they want unique, they want stuff that they’re seeing on TV. So, for us, on really everything, that Instagrammable space, kind of what we build our brands on. It has to be craveable.

If we have this great craft cocktail on, we have to be the only place they can get it, and they have to tell their friends, “[You] have to go there and get it.” We just created this mac and cheese truck inside of our space. How do we make mac and cheese different than everybody else that’s out there?

What are the biggest challenges?

Dickey: Labor is probably our biggest challenge, coupled a little bit with continuing the delivery puzzle for us. We do direct delivery and third party.

Spillyards-Schaefer: Certainly agree with labor. I can’t imagine any of us wouldn’t. One of the things that we work on a lot at Cracker Barrel and will continue to work on over the next year is training. We find that our turnover is significantly lower the higher your [training] level. The more you’re engaged with the brand, the better employee you are, the better your guest experience is.

I think also how we deliver outside of the restaurant while we’re also delivering a great experience inside the four walls of the restaurant and doing it all out of the same physical plant is really challenging. I think the last one is how we can continue to deliver quality innovation in a way that doesn’t let the guest experience suffer. So we’re still able to keep our high level of execution but deliver new news in a way that’s really meaningful to business.

Ingram: For sure, labor. When I kept looking at forecasting when our full-service restaurants go to a $15 an hour minimum wage, they’re irrelevant. [Our restaurants] go from [making] 400 grand a year to losing money.

How are we going to adapt in that world? And how are restaurants going to adapt in that?  We started walking away from a lot of the full-service restaurants because we just weren’t sure that they were going to stay profitable for us.

In the old days when I came up in the restaurant world, you were willing to work a hundred hours a week. We didn’t care. You just put your head down, you made no money, and you wanted to have the general manager title and you did whatever it took to get there.

It’s a different world now. Quality of life matters, having time with your family matters, and it matters to the younger generation. So how do we create a space that we can still make money but also meet their demands? Then it’s relevancy, how do you stay relevant and not gimmicky and how do you stay timeless in this space? The world is changing every day.

Del Pero: Yeah. Probably one of the largest [challenges] we’re now seeing as we’re entering new markets is that there have been very few national brands with this new movement of higher quality proteins. Pork has done a pretty great job between Duroc, Kurobuta [breeds]. We have been able to find really high-quality pork. Our biggest challenge is a sustainable supply chain. It’s really going to be a new paradigm. We don’t think antibiotic, hormone-free is meeting the threshold that our guest is looking for.

They’re looking for far better. And what is that going to be, and do we have to establish that, or can we have some of these industries help us establish it? Most of the proteins are very old businesses, and we’re asking them as kind of this new generation to think differently and we’re willing to help them think differently.

What excites you most about foodservice?

Dickey: Specialization. [Customers] really want you to master what you do well. Whether that’s the right spice, the right sauce, it comes from the foodie culture.

Spillyards-Schaefer: Evolution. I’ve read articles over the years all the time saying “Is this segment of the industry dead? Are we ever going to see it?” Of course it’s not dead. Things have all moved and changed. Some areas [of the industry] are a little slow and some areas are doing a good job, but certainly evolution.

Ingram: Innovation. The food world has changed so much in the last five years when the Brinkers and the Applebees and the Dardens were the kings. And now it’s just so crazy to see all of this growth and all the new players that are coming on doing really cool things.

Uehlein: I look at innovation in a different way, in that when you sort of peel back, you look behind the curtain, there is technology stuff, there’s robotics. There’s stuff that I saw at Harvard and MIT and some of these places. You’re not even aware of this stuff going on.

But there is an evolution. There is innovation. There is automation. All these things that are happening on all kinds of different levels, from robotics, to processing and purity of ingredients. They’re break-through concepts. It feels like the industry is on the cusp of this massive change.

And I think in a good way, and it’s happening everywhere. It’s happening front of the house. It’s happening back of the house. It’s happening in food and ingredients. Outside of the building, there’s innovation happening in farming, and there’s a movement towards less antibiotics and purer ingredients.

Del Pero: With all of the data now, we’re able to have this deep, deep relationship with our guests and to continue to deepen that connection.

Jason Menke

Jason Menke

Director of Marketing Communications