Earlier this year, many of the professionals in our industry attended The NAFEM Show, an exciting event featuring countless new products, focused educational opportunities and lots of networking. Indeed, many of us were out glad-handing and renewing old relationships.

Chip Evans
Chip Evans

As a business consultant my largest concern in attending NAFEM was simply how old our industry looks. And that really is indicative of the most pressing issue our industry faces: we simply do not attract new and young people to the foodservice equipment and supplies segment as it exists. This leads me to conclude that unless we change foodservice equipment and supplies will become a fully Internet driven, social networking industry. The youth will eventually take over.

We've all heard and probably said, "Internet marketing does not design a kitchen, and Internet salespeople do not do the hand holding, installation, change orders, or even take the franchisee's call at 10 p.m. on Friday night when the operator suddenly realizes a need for more rocks glasses the next morning." OK, perhaps Internet marketers are not poised to take over the equipment and supplies industry now, but they eventually will be.

It's not just enough to attract young people to adjust our way of thinking. Rather, we have to adjust to the new economy of buying. How we address these issues are the prime challenges our industry faces, in my opinion.

The old way of doing business — namely dealing with the RFP whether it comes from the operator, dealer or manufacturer — is still the main way the industry handles its affairs. Buying groups have negotiated price programs, and manufacturers have led or followed along, to allow the lowest possible margins, even lower than what FEDA analysts tell us is not worth investing in. We can argue the need for the manufacturers' rep, the buying groups or even the bidding process. In the end we have created an industry in which only the customer really benefits, unless we cultivate relationships based on loyalty to service, or find ways to do only work that is truly profitable.

Relationship building is still part of the equation but how we go about doing that is changing and will continue to do so. Just as old-school book distributors did not see Jeff Bezos and Amazon coming or service agents did not see parts distributors changing the landscape of their business, the same thing will happen here. A younger person unburdened by the past will come up with a concept that will change the way the foodservice equipment and supplies industry does its business, thus making this segment appealing to future generations.

This struck me during a dinner with a longtime friend, a 30-year veteran of the industry that lives overseas and handles international business. This gent has already integrated the worldview of Internet buying with the U.S. factories he represents. Unfortunately, what would normally be an evening of two cronies bragging was instead somewhat somber, as it was only a rehash of disciplines, former contacts and hope of certain things opening up.

If anything is different in the industry today compared to years past it is that prices are lower, margins slimmer, and business limited so all of us act as striking birds. But the vulture may be us.

The industry will not end. It will evolve because all businesses must change or die. What will define our success is how we, as the industry elders, learn from our young, become influenced by them and learn how to attract them.