Another key trend emerging from the economic slowdown is more consulting firms — both design and management advisory services— partnering with one another to fill in any gaps in their expertise or skill sets and to better handle the ebb and flow of the work. "Sometimes partnering is the best thing to do. We have brought other consultants into projects, and they have brought us into projects," Egnor says. "So it has worked well. But when the market tanked, it forced us all to learn how to sink or swim. And when you spread yourself thin, the work becomes difficult to handle."

For many in the foodservice industry, the partnering trend is a good one. "I like that there is now a certain level of ability and agility in the market today. If I need to ramp up on production capabilities or other expertise, I know where to find those partners to help me take care of our customers," Reitano says. "Architects partner all the time, and you will see that more and more in our marketplace."

The ever-changing nature of the foodservice industry and the detailed nature of design only serve to further enhance the need for partnering. "You can't master everything but need to know who does know certain things and how they complement you," Collins says. "That's because they each bring different skill sets to a project."

But that collaboration is not limited to just project work. "For the manufacturer, the consultant is a perfect sounding board for discovering new products and ideas. Getting down to the nitty-gritty and talking really helps. That's how things get created," Collins says. "The consultant will tell you what their client needs and then work with you to find out how the piece supports the foodservice operator."

Increased Competition

As the market softened, foodservice designers looked anywhere they could to find new business opportunities. "Years ago, consultants would be less involved in restaurant work, for example, than they are now," Posternak says. "As larger projects have become less available and high-end, independent restaurant projects have become more complex, there are now some consultants that really specialize in the high-end restaurant market."

Fewer available design jobs meant there was more potential competition when it came down to winning the business. "Larger firms are going after smaller projects they would not have taken the time to interview for eight to ten years ago," Reitano says. "So with the tightening of the marketplace, you have to ask if your company is built to survive, and if it is, what will it take to survive?"

One way to develop survival skills is to apply the lessons learned from previous economic downturns, as firms like JEM and Romano Gatland did. "Knowing the economy will always cycle, we used the lessons learned in the late 1990s to position our company to weather these storms," Brady says. "Certainly, the past four years have been painful, but without that preplanning, it would have been much worse."

Diversity is a critical factor that allows some firms to survive economic downturns. In the case of Romano Gatland, the firm shifted its focus to more operations-oriented issues. "We still had clients coming to us, but instead of asking us to design new facilities, they were asking us to help them develop new concepts, downsize existing operations and the like," Brady says. "So we got through on helping companies identify ways to lower their overall foodservice operating budgets. A lot of those companies don't know how to get there because food and beverage is not their core competency. So as our equipment specification and design fees went down, our management fees went up. And the fact that we are spread out over multiple markets helped us."

According to many consultants, the increased competition also came in the form of foodservice equipment and supplies dealers beefing up their design capacity, offering design services as a way to enhance their chances of winning equipment package bids. "Operators like to hear they can get the same product for less money but don't realize they are not getting the same type of expertise a foodservice consultant would provide," Reitano says.