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Foodservice Design Consultants: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

What made foodservice design consultants successful yesterday does not necessarily guarantee them a place at the table today or tomorrow. No other members of the foodservice supply chain have had to evolve their business practices more in order to remain relevant. From forming partnerships to expanding their knowledge base to occasionally walking away from business, foodservice design consultants continue to roll with the changes.

When the economy tanked a few years ago, each segment of the foodservice industry dealt with it by seeking out ways to uncover new revenue streams and operate more efficiently. In doing so, many foodservice companies were able to ride out the storm and, in some cases, emerge energized and recommitted to their core business.

But for foodservice design consultants, taking these steps may have helped a little, but they could not come close to making up for the revenue that dried up when operators stopped building new facilities. "On the consulting side of the industry, we rely on new build or major renovation projects. During the economic downturn, dealers and manufacturers were able to weather the storm through replacement sales or other similar initiatives," says Christopher Brady, principal at foodservice consulting firm Romano Gatland. "But you don't bring in a consultant if you are simply replacing a trayline."

So as the design consultant community begins to pick itself up off the ground and shake off the dust from the past few years, many foodservice observers are watching to see if this industry segment has lost any key players and to determine how those left standing are responding. "I don't know that we lost many design consultants, but some are not in the position they were. Some firms have reduced the number of employees, but whether those people left the industry is tough to say," says Rod Collins, principal of Rod Collins Associates, a fee-based national marketing firm specializing in the commercial foodservice equipment markets. Collins also serves as an allied trustee for FCSI-The Americas. "Some have started their own businesses and are providing a service to the consultants too. They have had to because of economies of scale, and it's just good business."

Of course, design consultants have not cornered the market on downsizing. "Manufacturers have done the same. They just don't have as many people out there," Collins adds.

The good news is that 2012 got off to a pretty strong start for consultants, with many companies reporting increased workloads and revenues compared to last year. "I know consultants whose offices are working through the night and over the weekends because of the demand," Collins says. "Right now there seems to be a period of feast or famine."

Despite this growth spurt, most consultants — and the entire foodservice industry, for that matter — continue to be down considerably from the levels reached in 2007 and 2008. "I don't know if we will ever get to that level again," says John Egnor, principal at JEM Associates, a foodservice consulting firm. Further, the bounce that consultants got at the start of the year may be short lived. "The past two months have gotten a little scary," he adds.

Of course, not every consulting firm has seen a decline in business. Take, for example, S2O Consultants, a design firm that does a lot of stadium work. Many municipalities throughout the country continue to see stadiums as a way to generate revenues, and it seems that these venues don't have the shelf life they once had. "Every new stadium raises the bar, and all of the other stadium owners want to match or exceed that level of services and amenities for the fans. For example, when the Metrodome was built in Minneapolis in the '80s it was state of the art. Now they are getting ready to tear that down and build a new stadium there," says Harry Schildkraut, FCSI, principal and owner of S2O Consultants. "So we have been fortunate that, despite the economic downturn, we have kept busy."

Individual responses to market conditions may have varied, but there's no denying that the community of foodservice design consultants has changed. "First and foremost, around us the rest of the foodservice industry has changed," says Scott Reitano, principal at Foodservice Solution Group, a design consulting firm. "We've watched manufacturers become conglomerates. We've watched the dealer rollups and other consolidation. And we've seen significant change in our clients — the architects. According to some estimates, there are 66,000 architects out of work right now, and there's no way that has not filtered down to design consultants like us who support them. In my area, they are not building schools like they once did, and they are not spending the money on them, in the form of finishes and other details, like they once did."

Given this unique set of circumstances and the diverse nature of this foodservice demographic, trying to pinpoint the exact ways design consultants have changed in recent years is pretty challenging. "It's all over the place. You have people who continue on and don't change. They won't get any bigger and [they] stay within their own niche, even if that niche is shrinking," Collins says. "Then you have the ones that have always been progressive and have always been raising the bar. They are the ones who have invested in BIM and are getting as much education as they can. There are those that are just going to plow ahead, and they will give the best product to the client and use the best tools."