There’s been plenty of twists and turns since the COVID-19 pandemic first took the world by storm in early 2020, and few segments have felt the brunt of all this uncertainty more than foodservice.
From the quick closing of dining rooms to the reopening of some with plenty of social distancing to supply-chain challenges to the steepest labor challenges the industry has ever seen; myriad issues have forced all members of the foodservice industry to constantly recalibrate and reevaluate their approach to, well, everything. That includes foodservice design and equipment specification.
Eric Norman, FCSI, is vice president, Midwest Division for Clevenger Associates, and is based in Dubuque, Iowa. In addition to his role as a foodservice designer, Norman serves as chair of the Foodservice Consultants Society International — The Americas. Here, Norman explores how project timelines have evolved in recent years, the impact of supply-chain challenges on projects and more.
Q: Prior to the pandemic, one of the biggest and most consistent challenges foodservice designers faced was projects coming to the table either with too little time or too little money. Is that still the case?
A: It’s actually gotten worse. In terms of project timelines, at the start of the pandemic, people had projects ready to go but they held off on starting. But since then, they are pushing forward with those projects with insane timelines in terms of getting them out to bid. We had one project that came to us where we had three weeks to take it from concept to design. That’s an extreme case. But more and more, we are seeing projects where we have a month to take it from schematic design to construction documents. One of the main differences and it was a trend prior to the pandemic is we used to be able to plan a pipeline for our business because we knew of projects prior to their start. We can’t forecast anymore, however. We get a call saying the project is ready to go and we need you to start. So that’s been a big shift, too.
Q: Looking at the projects you are working on at the moment, how has what your clients want from a design or piece of equipment evolved since prior to the pandemic?
A: The trend we are seeing a lot of now is more ventless equipment. There are lots more requests for that. Also speed equipment — combi ovens, speed ovens and so forth. The biggest trend is putting out food faster with less labor. Pieces of equipment that are intuitive and easier to use, given the labor pool is not as deep or skilled, are important, too. With easier-to-use items, operators can bring in employees without a lot of experience and train them to use the equipment easily because it’s pretty self-explanatory.
Q: Labor is a big issue for operators from all segments. How are you adapting your designs to help operators make more effective and efficient use of their labor?
A: We really have to think about workstations and the flexibility in those workstations so one person can handle multiple tasks at a time. So adjacencies become important so you are not taking a lot of space and staff is not taking a lot of steps. Equipment specifications and efficient design can help one person do the work of two, but that comes back to the ease of use and ease of control with that equipment.
Q: Labor challenges are not the unique domain of operators. Are foodservice consulting firms encountering labor challenges, too? If so, how are consulting firms dealing with these challenges?
A: At Clevenger Associates, we are pretty flexible in terms of our labor. But finding the right person can be a challenge given how challenging the job market is at the moment.
Q: Supply-chain issues seem to make headlines almost daily. How are you dealing with them?
A: Supply chain is probably our number one pain point as consultants. It’s more difficult to plan how a project will flow based on a single source specification. We have to be even more mindful of what we are specifying and be even more flexible because some companies just can’t keep up with demand. On a project we did here in Dubuque, for example, we specified a certain walk-in eight months before the project was complete. Even after cutting the purchase order, we were told we don’t know when it will be there. So we had to pivot. When you have to transition from brand A to brand B, you might find that second company is behind, too. So as designers, we have to be more flexible and open to substitutions if the manufacturer can’t meet the specified timeline. I don’t see it getting better anytime soon. It’s just the reality of where we are at. And we have to make sure our customers are happy. Every day a business isn’t open, it’s a day of lost revenue for them.
Q: What are two foodservice trends that you are really excited about at the moment?
A: The trends that I think are exciting are almost opposites of each other. One is ghost kitchens. With the shift to more off-premises consumption, ghost kitchens have really taken off. If it’s designed correctly, you can have multiple concepts operating out of one location. Ghost kitchens are not customer-facing, but they are having a big impact in our industry. A lot of this may be due to the industry’s labor issues. With a ghost kitchen, you don’t need a front-of-the-house staff. Instead, you can focus on food production. I went to a casual-dining place in town on a Saturday and found the doors locked. They did not have the labor to run the dining room, so they switched to a to-go model. The labor shortage may have some companies decide to go only with a ghost kitchen model because it may be cheaper for them in certain markets. I have to imagine this operator made up for the lack of revenue due to the dining room being closed by the volume of takeout and delivery they did that day.
The second trend is the opposite of a ghost kitchen because it’s so open and transparent. I am talking about open and display kitchens. For an operator, it’s great to have your work on display. Customers want to see where their food is coming from and that safety and hygiene standards are being upheld. Plus, open kitchens can add some flair to the dining experience.
That said, I don’t think our industry has a clear vision for where these trends are going due to a variety of factors that can vary by market, including labor, COVID and more. Everything is in so much flux right now that we are unsure what the trends will be one or two years from now. For example, how will future COVID variants impact the foodservice industry?
Q: The pandemic is about to reach its second anniversary, and nobody’s celebrating. That said, there are no absolutes in life. Can you share one good thing that’s come out of all of this?
A: The pandemic allowed me to slow down both in my personal and professional life. We were traveling so much that you could miss out on things at home. I went from traveling every couple of weeks to not getting on an airplane for a year and half. So this has allowed me to spend more time with my family, attend my son’s sporting and school events, and more. So that was a great benefit that came from this whole ordeal. Unfortunately, as FCSI chair, that also meant I was not able to go out and visit as much with members as I would have liked and so many of the industry networking events were cancelled. So that was a downside.