I grew up in the restaurant business believing that the menu is the roadmap to profitability for any operation. And as my career transitioned from operator to broadline DSR this message was further reinforced time and again.

That's because the menu represents the operator's opportunity to determine the gross profit potential of a restaurant and defines the parameters for the diners' experience. If you accept this premise, then the significance of the tabletop becomes readily apparent.

With the menu serving as the roadmap, the tabletop quite literally becomes the starting point of the patrons' journey, signaling to the customers what they should expect from the forthcoming culinary adventure.

In Dana Tanyeri's terrific article last month, The Future of Casual Dining, she explored the changing landscape of the American dining experience. Dana described how trends such as more casual yet faster service, increased communal seating, larger numbers of small plates, flexible hours and additional a la carte options continue to shape operators' go-to market philosophies. In this instance, as is so often the case, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Whatever emerging trends we can identify, the requirement of the tabletop to help charter the course and set the expectations for the dining experience remains unchanged. But what makes the tabletop even more indicative of the entire foodservice industry is the simple fact that assembling these installations remains a collaborative process. Most tabletops draw out the creative element that attracts so many people to the foodservice industry. Assembling the proper tabletop requires pulling together the appropriate china, flatware, glassware and accessories that allow operators to put their best foot forward while allowing their culinary creation to take center stage.

With that in mind, I hope you will enjoy reading and seeing FE&S' 2012 Performance in Tabletop Awards. Joe and his trusty panel of judges, representing a cross section of operators, did a terrific job of wading through a record number of entries to come up with this year's winners.

And speaking of winners, don't forget to mark your calendar for this year's Dealer of the Year and Industry Awards Gala, which takes place on Saturday, May 5, 2012, at The Ritz Carlton in Chicago. Be on the look out for a special edition of FlashNews announcing this year's winners, which are going through the final vetting process prior to this issue's publication. With the change in this year's NRA date moving the show up a full three weeks it will be upon us sooner than later.