Recreating the basics, redefining today’s customers, and rebuilding relationships with consumers through social media were among the topics on the table Monday at the 51st annual Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators conference in Orlando, Fla.
MORE: Catch all of the action at MUFSO at NRN.com/At-the-Show.
Following on the conference theme “Mission Possible,” speakers and panelists shared insight and best practices on cutting edge issues as the industry attempts to get a grip on the rapidly changing landscape.
“We must accept that things will not go back the way they were for the industry,” said Randall Friedman, publisher of Nation’s Restaurant News.
Looking forward is the job of futurist, author and lecturer Watts Wacker, who in his keynote speech posed the question: “It’s not about getting out of the box. It’s about asking the question, ‘Why a box?’”
Urging operators to “recreate the basics,” Wacker described a world where the dominant economic philosophy is based on intellectual property, or the ability to outthink other people.
Today’s baby boomers will be the first “techno geezers,” he said. “In less than 20 years, the definition of literacy will be the ability to read and write [computer] code.”
The technology of interest for the restaurant industry will be the place where pharmacology, neuroscience and behavioral science meet, creating what Wacker calls “psycho-ceuticals.”
And, he added, beauty is back, with more concepts evaluating their restaurant designs.
“Art is a window on the times and the No. 1 canvas today is architecture,” he said. “Even McDonald’s is figuring that out. Are you?”
In another keynote, Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics magazine and a demographic trends analyst for Ogilvy & Mather, recommended that restaurant operators keep their eyes on both millennials and aging baby boomers. And, because the restaurant audience is ever in flux, he added: “Keep asking customers what they want.”
MORE: Peter Francese on the restaurant customers of tomorrow
In a jam-packed panel on innovations in social networking, Stacey Kane, director of marketing for California Tortilla Group Inc., based in the Washington, D.C. area, shared how her 37-unit fast-casual chain launched a new menu with very little money spent on advertising.
Taking a cue from radio shock jock Howard Stern, Kane said the company first “pre-sold the heck out of it,” posting news of the launch on Facebook, Twitter and the website starting about a month before the launch.
Followers needed a password to get in on the conversation, she said, and the company openly discussed behind-the-scenes conversations. When the executive chef developed a vegetarian burrito, for example, he suggested calling it “The Veg-ito.”
Kane turned to social media and got a torrent of responses — some lewd, but others offering better suggestions In the end, followers were polled and the burrito got a better name: The No Meat-o Burrito.
With restaurants potentially facing increased costs because of health-care reform, many attendees asked panelists what they expected those costs to be.
Executives on the “Next Practices for Growth” panel on Monday said the higher costs would force them to “try to be smarter about the business,” said Russ Bendel, chief executive of The Habit Burger Grill.
“Most of our businesses have become pretty darned efficient,” Bendel said, urging attendees to get involved in industry associations to lobby on their behalf. “Almost all of the fat has been cut.”
Winners of the SPIRIT Awards, which recognize excellence in staff recruitment and retention, discussed their best practices in a panel moderated by human resources expert Jim Sullivan, chief executive of Sullivision.
This year's SPIRIT Awards winners are Janet Potts, director of food nutrition services at St John's Medical Center in Tulsa, Okla.; Diana Psaras, senior vice president of human resources for Red Lobster in Orlando; Marcus Garner, general manager at B&O American Brasserie in Baltimore; and Patrick Yearout, director of training for Seattle-based Ivar's Seafood Bar.
Summarizing the observations of the winners, Sullivan surmised that hiring correctly in the first place is the key to having good staff. “Hire easy, manage hard,” he said.
However, the economic downturn has resulted in the lowest turnover in years, and operators have the opportunity to make working for their company a privilege.
”Hire tough, manage easy,” Sullivan said.
Ron Ruggless, Bret Thorn and Pamela Parseghian contributed to this report.
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]