Back to the Future

A ground swell of hot new and innovative products helped generate a cool wave of optimism that washed over the roughly 20,000 foodservice professionals that attended The NAFEM Show. And the good news is that it appears as if the foodservice industry is ready to ride this wave of optimism toward its first year of real growth in quite some time, writes editor Joe Carbonara.

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Like bleary-eyed bears emerging from their caves following a long winter's nap, which in this case lasted roughly two years, members of the foodservice operator, consultant, dealer and service agent communities trudged to The NAFEM Show aisles in search of sustenance. They found it in the new products manufacturers were displaying, warm interactions with their peers and the generally strong sense of community The NAFEM Show provided.

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When The NAFEM Show last opened the flaps to its big top event and invited the industry in for a visit, the mood was much more apprehensive. No company wanted to publicly state they were worried about their business at the time but, almost to a person, everyone was. The beating drums of the forthcoming recession were reverberating louder by the day and the industry kicked into an unprecedented free fall shortly after the show ended.

This time, though, the optimism and sense of relief among all channel partners was palpable and that leads me to believe the momentum the show generated is sustainable. The National Restaurant Association is projecting 2011 will mark the first time in four years that the industry will experience real growth. Along those lines, in the days leading up to the show The MAFSI Business Barometer reported its first quarterly sales increase in three years. Even more telling, the reps report they are seeing their quoting activity increase significantly. Further supporting this is the fact that many manufacturers I spoke with during the show reported that they are experiencing a growing number of requests for quotes, too.

For their part, the mood among consultants seems surprisingly optimistic. Many that I spoke with during a FCSI event prior to the show reported that jobs are slowly but steadily starting to surface. While the big casino or hospital job tends to be more the exception than the norm, the small- and medium-sized jobs are helping consultants get back on their feet and open the door to other opportunities.

In addition, chain restaurant operators continue to introduce new and improved prototype units to the foodservice industry.

What encouraged me most about everyone's optimistic outlook is that most people seemed realistic about what comes next. Generally speaking, people seem to understand that it will take the industry some time to return to the volume levels of previous years. They acknowledged that the industry bottomed out a while ago and is now on the rebound. And that's enough to sustain their hunger for growth for the time being.

Despite these improved operating conditions, the industry still has some big issues to hash out. As was discussed at the CFESA pre-show meeting manufacturers and their service agents need to come to a better agreement about all things parts related — from mandatory stocking levels to distribution strategies. And the consultant community needs to become more cohesive. In the background, spoken only hushed tones, many foodservice professionals wonder if the industry landscape is about to change once again due to a potential spate of mergers and acquisitions.

In the interim, it is probably wise for foodservice operators to begin collaborating with their supply chain partners to develop a postrecession game plan. As part of this process operators should revisit their value proposition and look for ways to engage their most valuable asset: their people. Strategic and functional investments in foodservice technology can help foodservice operators enhance the customer experience and drive sales but it is important to remember that these tools are only as good as the people implementing them.
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