After starting her foodservice career as a server and working her way up to overseeing new restaurant openings, Debbie Burke switched gears and tried something new. “I went into training and recruiting, writing management training manuals for several years,” she says.

Debbie BurkeDebbie BurkeBurke switched gears again when the recession hit. That’s what prompted her to reach out to The Wasserstrom Company. She joined the company as an account manager and continues in that role today, nine years later. Burke’s book of business consists of a couple of large multiconcept operators with locations across the country as well as a variety of smaller operators. Operation styles range from fine dining to fast casual.

FE&S: What trends are shaping fine dining these days?

DB: I think our customers are definitely looking for quality and something that sets them apart. There is so much competition right next door, and operators need nice tableware that matches their customer service. With today’s meal prices, restaurants have to go above and beyond with the table setting. Not everything has to match, but it’s about building an experience around tabletop items.

FE&S: Why is the tabletop so important to full-service restaurant operators?

DB: People go to restaurants to eat the food, but many times their first impression is what the table looks like. It’s a curb appeal type of thing. You can have the best food in the world, but if you’re serving it on paper plates, guests won’t have the best experience possible. It’s your pregame and a chance to set a standard, while also serving great food.

FE&S: How do you see fast-casual operations evolving?

DB: I have a couple of these concepts and they are definitely on the upswing due to labor costs and other factors. Much of fast casual is about choosing the right menu, plates and smallwares to go along with that experience. Fast casual has to be a good experience that’s worth the guests’ time and money.

FE&S: How is digital ordering, such as apps and third-party delivery companies like Uber Eats, impacting operators today?

DB: There is definitely concern with operators. What they’re trying to do is combat this by having menus available for all digital delivery services. We’ve also seen a big upswing in our disposable packaging orders. Customers want packaging that can be taken home and used for reheating, such as for soup to go. Third-party delivery is a big segment for operators and isn’t going away. We need to look at the business in a different way to accommodate those ordering online who want food delivered.

FE&S: What goes into developing a good smallwares package?

DB: Number one is communication with the operator, what they are looking for, what their vision is for their guests and go from there. Everyone works within a budget, and we need to take that into consideration. We can have the best ideas in the world, but it doesn’t matter if we can’t bring our customer’s vision to reality. Many operators are utilizing Pinterest, Instagram and other social media to help develop their ideas.

FE&S: What makes you want to get up and come to work in the morning?

DB: It’s the relationships I have with my customers and the people I work with that I enjoy most.