The price of beef, the burdens of government regulation and consumer demand for information about where food comes from were among the hot topics at the 54th annual MUFSO SuperShow, which wrapped up on Tuesday in Dallas.
The event, produced by Nation’s Restaurant News in partnership with sister publications Food Management and Restaurant Hospitality, attracted around 1,000 attendees who spent three days sharing best practices and networking.
The conference’s three keynote addresses offered insight into the key areas of consumer behavior, leadership and food trends. New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg explained what’s behind the formation of habits and how restaurant operators can use that knowledge to teach employees willpower or influence consumer buying patterns . In her annual State of the Plate address , Nancy Kruse declared avocado the ingredient of the year and revealed other foods to watch. And basketball coach Rick Pitino  spoke about the importance of humility and mastering the art of listening more than speaking.
In addition, Philip J. Hickey Jr., president and chairman of the National Restaurant Association and chairman of Miller’s Ale House, spoke of an industry under fire from special interest groups. In the end, he said, the best defense may be better communicating the message that those in foodservice are simply “hard working people trying to do the right thing.”
Hot issues were also discussed in panels throughout the event, with topics including “Strategies for Competing with the Big Guys;” “Leveraging the ACA to Benefit Your Business;” and “Addressing Hispanic Tastes and Trends,” sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company.
Facing regulatory challenges
In the panel “Managing Political, Economic and Commodity Headwinds,” Joe Taylor, vice president of corporate affairs for Brinker International Inc., said, “We are now a regulated industry.”
Federal, state and local regulatory moves, such as menu labeling, portion sizes, insurance, paid sick leave, the minimum wage and other developments, have all impacted foodservice, he said. To remain viable, operators must start connecting such policy issues to their profit-and-loss statements to determine the appropriate response.
That response might range from simply better monitoring of public policy, to more involvement with lobbying groups or better communication about the industry’s role in creating jobs and opportunity, he said.
Taylor said the industry is close to the cost-saving “tipping point” where technology may increasingly be used to replace jobs. The potential loss of employment in the restaurant industry and beyond could also negatively impact consumer spending at restaurants.
Malcolm Knapp, an industry and economic analyst as president of Malcolm M. Knapp Inc., said 2.3 million jobs were lost in the U.S. since 2007 because of uncertainty about the economy. More uncertainty will continue to thwart economic growth, he added.
“What is going on in Washington is really, really hurting,” said Knapp.
Sourcing at the forefront
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The farm-to-table movement was spotlighted in a panel titled “Behind the Menu: A Candid Food Dialogue with Farmers, Ranchers and Restaurant Operators,” sponsored by the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
Panelists noted that consumer interest in the source of food on restaurant menus is increasing, especially with chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill taking a stand on the labeling of genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs, and criticizing practices like the use of growth hormones and antibiotics in meat production.
Marley Hodgson, founder of the healthful concept Mad Greens, based in Denver, said Chipotle’s recent video, titled “The Scarecrow,”  prompted some soul searching. “As operators, it’s difficult to know which trends to respond to. I think GMOs will be a big one,” he said.
“What’s exciting is that the public actually cares again,” Hodgson added. “We need to do our part in educating and not washing.”
However, Katie Pratt, an Illinois farmer, said the GMO issue is not top of mind among farmers. She has opposed GMO-labeling legislation in Illinois and — as a mother and a farmer — feels comfortable with the use of genetically modified seeds and technology on her farm because they’ve been able to cut the use of pesticides in half.
What’s next for beef
In a panel called “Beef Economic Forecast & Outlook: What’s Ahead,” Mike Miller, senior vice president, global marketing and research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, predicted that corn prices in 2014 will be about half of what they were last year, and that trend will translate to lower prices for beef. By 2015 or 2016, restaurant operators will start seeing more favorable beef pricing, he said during the session sponsored by The Beef Checkoff.
Meanwhile, the beef industry is working hard to capture Millennials with marketing that includes bolder flavor profiles and innovative cuts, Miller said. One example appeared later at MUFSO at a dinner reception, where the The Beef Checkoff booth featured a “beef sundae” with chunks of barbecued flatiron, mashed potatoes, cherry tomatoes, green onions and Pop Rocks candy.
Conference attendees also took time out to celebrate brands that are achieving success during this period of slow economic recovery during events such as the Hot Concepts celebration  and the Industry Awards Gala .
MUFSO also helped raise money for a charitable cause and sparked some friendly competition during the Texas Pete Kitchen Hero Cook Off. For the competition, chefs were challenged to create dishes using Texas Pete hot sauces.
The winner of this year’s Texas Pete Kitchen Hero Cook Off was Jim Doak, vice president, menu innovation and corporate chef for Ignite Restaurant Group, who created an appetizer with pimiento cheese toast with crispy black-eyed peas and pickled kale. He used Texas Pete Garlic Hot Sauce and Texas Pete Chipotle Hot Sauce.
Doak’s prize was a $10,000 donation made in his name to Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign.
Next year’s MUFSO SuperShow is scheduled for Sept. 28–30 at the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower in Dallas.