Back when she was still with the Culinary Institute of America, Amy Myrdal Miller had been a speaker at the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, an event Co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference:
And she has been a columnist for Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS since she started her own consultancy:
Now we asked Amy to brainstorm what the future holds for the foodservice industry, and she reached out to many of the top thinkers in the field to give us some thoughts on this important issue:
Amy Myrdal Miller
Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc.
Nowadays the entire foodservice industry is obsessed with the future. When will we be able to resume “business as usual”, or will we never return to the old way of doing business? What will our customers want when they return to us, or will they return to us? Will they seek comfort and value, or will they strive to order more healthful offerings? I sought answers to these questions and more from a variety of sources and industry experts.
What has been the Employment Impact of COVID-19?
The restaurant industry employs 10% of the nationwide workforce, providing approximately 15.6 million jobs. In March, the industry lost 3 million jobs or a fifth of its workforce. As we move through spring and into summer, the industry will likely be forced to continue to shrink the size of its workforce. The largest economic impact will be with independent restaurants, many that may never open again.
How are foodservice operations changing how they do business?
Service models and safety measures are evolving quickly. Many in the industry have already pointed out that if you’ve never had a delivery or take-out business, it’s hard to develop one during a crisis. Fine dining restaurants have been hit the hardest in terms of traffic, while quick service restaurants (QSR) are doing best at maintaining some revenue, especially ones that responded quickly to consumer concerns about safety and offered new services like contactless drive thru, sealed pizza boxes and other delivery containers.
What will bring people back to restaurants?
Pew Research Center data show that nearly 50% of consumers expect the outbreak to be a major threat to their financial health, which has far-reaching implications for the recovery of hospitality, an industry dependent largely on disposable income. NPR reported on April 1 that President Trump is calling on Congress to restore tax deductions for business meals and entertainment to help support the recovery of the restaurant industry post-COVID-19. This may prompt businesses to support dining in restaurants, but how individuals will spend their money is unknown at this point as we navigate this crisis that is affecting financial health as much as personal health.
How will consumer eating habits change post COVID-19?
“My feeling is that there will be the same interest in healthful menu options as in the past,” says Ron DeSantis, Certified Master Chef and Principal Advisor at CulinaryNxt, a culinary services consulting firm. “There will be some initial talk about healthy, but habits are hard to break. My sense is that after a short period of hesitation to visit public foodservice operations, people will be ready to move on and celebrate. Celebration means eating favorite foods, drinking favorite beverages, and in many cases overindulging in both. Those individuals who normally choose healthy menu options will continue to do so, and those that don’t won’t.”
Colleen McClellan, Director of Client Solutions at Datassential believes that post COVID-19 a larger share of consumers may be interested in healthful eating. “Our tracking data suggest that consumers are currently turning to comfort foods, baking and snacking more, and stress eating. There might be some weight gain during this time that consumers will seek to lose,” says McClellan, thereby driving interest in ‘better-for-you’ menu options.
Ken Toong, Executive Director Auxiliary Enterprises for the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is confident interest in healthy eating from his students will continue to be strong. “We noticed during the current COVID-19 pandemic that our make-to-order salad concept is one of the most popular stations in our major retail outlet. Our students feel that greens, will nourish the body and further protect against disease and infection. They are driven to eat a delicious meal that provides a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and this has become a comfort food for the mind and body.”
Other industry leaders are also confident produce, especially leafy greens will grow in popularity post COVID-19. “We see a distinct possibility that longer term trends toward healthy, good-for-you, plant-forward dining will accelerate as a result of COVID-19,” says Ephi Eyal, president of Hinoman USA, which produces Mankai, the world’s smallest green leafy vegetable. “We believe that our super tiny, mighty green can support consumers’ transition from perceived health to real, science-backed, health benefits without sacrificing taste and convenience.”
Chef Dan Coudreaut, Managing Director at Coudreaut & Associates and former VP of Culinary Innovation at McDonald’s, asserts that healthful eating among the general public is a behavior with staying power. “I believe that eating in a more balanced and mindful way has becoming part of our culture and is a customer behavior,” says Chef Dan. “Freshness, food credibility, and clean label are all strengths for the produce industry.”
Maeve Webster, President of Menu Matters, is even more optimistic about the future of healthy eating in restaurants. “I believe the interest in healthy foods will continue and could even rise. I think there’s going to be an increased focus on functional foods, specifically those focused on immunity, stress reduction, sleep, and mood enhancement. After months of fear about catching a disease, I think it will significantly accelerate interest in food as medicine and a way to ensure you are as healthy as possible to withstand future issues.” This presents a powerful opportunity for produce marketers to play up the science-backed functional benefits of produce.
Deanne Brandstetter, the VP of Nutrition and Wellness for Compass Group, North America, offers sage advice on not taking claims too far. “I think post COVID-19 guests will be obsessed with staying healthy and maintaining a strong immune system. Of course, that means they may more easily fall prey to snake-oil type ‘immune-boosting’ claims for specific foods and menu items. There is an opportunity though to promote healthful menu offerings, as part of a package that also focuses on overt food safety and sanitation practices.” Restaurants will need to make safety and sanitation practices visible while produce industry leaders will need to ensure that foodservice operators as well as consumers know and trust that produce is safe.
Erin Kappelhof, Managing Partner at Eat Well Global, a nutrition communication firm agrees that food safety will be a priority for consumers. ‘I think the perception of ‘healthful’ will change, and some consumers will be more concerned with food safety, hygiene, and sourcing than pre-COVID-19.’ Erin’s prediction may mean the produce industry needs enhanced messaging to support the safety of produce grown outside of the U.S.
Jeff Miller, president of Cutting Edge Innovation, a foodservice sales, business development, and strategy firm, reminds all of us of the number one reason why we choose the foods we do. “At restaurants, diners will continue to be concerned primarily with taste. That doesn’t mean diners will only seek out indulgence and comfort food. It presents the challenge to restaurants that has always been the challenge —creating healthy options that are irresistible.” Fresh, colorful, crunchy, creamy, craveable, nutrient-rich produce can be part of the solution that challenge!
The big issue, of course, is that we are not actually sure there will be a Post-COVID-19 world… or when such a world might come about… or what it will look like. We do have flu shots, but millions die of the flu. We still do not have immunizations against AIDS, though we have very effective treatments.
The problem now is that though restaurants are opening up, it is not at all clear they can be profitable with patrons sitting at every other table or otherwise maintaining social distance.
So, the real question may be two-fold: First, will government accept that there is risk, and people have the right to make choices? So social spacing will be recommended, but not required. Second, will people who are not in high-risk age groups be willing to socialize as before, which might require them to self-isolate from their own parents or grandparents?
We can’t be sure of this yet, and the answers probably depend on things like the availability of free testing etc., so a teenager can go out and socialize and get a quick test before he or she goes to visit grandma.
Many thanks to Amy Myrdal Miller for brainstorming this with us.