This is part of Nation Restaurant News' special coverage of the 2012 MUFSO conference, taking place Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas. Follow coverage of the event on NRN.com's ‘At the Show’ section, read onsite blogs from NRN editors at Reporter’s Notebook, and Tweet with us using #MUFSO.
Educating consumers on the health and safety of the U.S. food supply, whether derived through traditional or organic farming practices, needs to be a foodservice industry priority as misinformation on food supply chain issues and food origin spreads, said a group of farmers and restaurant operators.
Speaking at MUFSO on Monday, the group discussed the growing importance of sourcing, animal welfare, the effects of the recent drought in the United States on farms and food, and most importantly, the need to find a unified consumer message. Moderated by Penton Group Publisher, Randall Friedman, the panel included: Kerry Kramp, president and chief executive of Sizzler International; Randy Spronk, a pig and grain farmer from Minnesota; Phil Friedman, chairman and chief executive of Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina; Jim Doak, vice president of menu innovation and corporate executive chef at Ignite Restaurant Group; and Laura Foell, a corn and soybean farmer from Iowa.
The session was sponsored by U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.
“It’s a dilemma. How do we truly educate [the consumer]?” Kramp said. “Any messages shouldn’t be a marketing ploy. Collectively as an industry we need to do that.”
The discussion centered on a needed direct-to-consumer message from farmers, distributors and restaurants focused on the perceived versus real differences in food labeled with terms like organic, local, sustainable or free-range. While consumers are increasingly demanding such food items, restaurants and suppliers would be best served by educating consumers on what sustainable really means, the panelists contended.
“When you talk about sustainability you need to talk about the three E’s,” Spronk said. “Is it ethical; is it environmental; is it economical?
“We need to rebuild trust and confidence with the consumer,” he continued. “I provide for the nutrition and health of my animals … and decisions need to be made to encourage sustainability.”
Consumers are often requesting items they know are local or sustainable, the panel said, without real knowledge of what that entails or the true costs to both the food suppliers and the restaurants supporting these efforts. There also seems to be a perception that farming is built on large corporations, the panelists noted.
“Most farmers are trying to do the right thing as stewards of our land,” Foell said. “Ninety-five percent of us are family farmers trying to do the right thing.”
Only one of the three restaurant operators on the panel at MUFSO said a restaurant operation could increase menu prices for items produced locally or for ingredients from cage-free or free-range farms.
“We believe [those efforts] can help build overall perceived value,” Kramp said. “But I don’t think you can charge more.”
At the quick-service restaurant chain Culver’s, where Doak worked prior to joining Ignite Restaurant Group in September, new antibiotic-free chicken was added to the menu, and chicken sandwich prices were raised 50 cents.
Not only are consumers demanding more items with what are viewed as sustainable backgrounds, inquiries on food ingredients and sourcing, from both health and ethical standpoints, are increasing, the panelists noted. Doak said looking back five or 10 years most restaurant chains would receive, on average, one or two inquires a day from customers seeking information on food and ingredient sourcing. Today, restaurants should expect as many as 10 to 12 inquires a day.
Operators diverged on how to address those questions, with some relying on the culinary department to provide answers, others looking to their suppliers, and still some the marketing department. Doak said the efforts at Culver’s included the creation of a collective database of ingredient and food information that numerous departments can access.
“It makes it easier, and empowers numerous people to be able to respond to consumers when they want [information] — immediately,” he said.