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Last month, nearly 600 suppliers, operators, distributors, and industry partners gathered in Scottsdale, Ariz., at IFMA’s Presidents Conference.

Foodservice operators, suppliers tackle industry pain points

IFMA Presidents Conference in Scottsdale hosts collaborative brainstorming sessions discussing challenges

Last month, nearly 600 suppliers, operators, distributors, and industry partners gathered in Scottsdale, Ariz., at IFMA’s Presidents Conference — reconvening as a foodservice community for the first time in nearly two years.

In addition to the executive-level content, immersive experiences, and the celebration of the 2020 and 2021 Gold & Silver Plate classes — and a private concert by Alice Cooper — attendees participated in five collaborative workshops representing five foodservice segments, where stakeholders were encouraged to describe challenges followed by solutions and opportunities that would optimize the value chain and enhance business relationships.

The sessions began with a discussion of the purpose — or framework — developed by the Foodservice Leadership Councils (FLC). The strategic plan for each Foodservice Leadership Council is to provide thought leadership through insights with supply-chain members, which in turn helps to optimize the value chain (or ecosystem) and bring value to all trading partners.

The following is a summary of the output of the workshops by each of the five Foodservice Leadership Councils at the conference.

Elementary and Secondary Schools: The Challenges

The challenges discussed by this group were broad. What was inherent in the discussion with K-12 operators was the impact of supply chain disruptions and labor shortages. In addition to these two primary challenges facing all segments, complexities with the USDA, fragmented regional/local regulations and spotty communication issues were raised as barriers to a more seamless value chain.

  • Supply chain volatility: The segment has experienced everything from out-of-stocks to broadline driver shortages causing unwanted menu reductions.
  • Labor engagement: The shortage of labor impacts schools differently than other onsite foodservice segments in that vaccinations are mandatory in certain districts for staff, and the timeframe from interview to offer can stretch to six months.
  • USDA regulations: USDA regulations vary by each state, and within state regulations, district rules also exist. This is a barrier for manufacturers operating on a regional or national level.
  • Communication: Policies tend to change regularly on a district and state level in the public school system, and manufacturers would like to see a better way to communicate changes in real time.
  • Free meal programs: There is general uncertainty from both operators and manufacturers regarding which programs qualify as “free” depending on locales and dayparts.
  • USDA commodity programs: Schools are short of commodity suppliers and manufacturers, which limits procurement choices. Schools would like more commodity suppliers to enter the fray.

Elementary and Secondary Schools: The Opportunities

Unlike most segments, Elementary and Secondary Schools face a number of hurdles and bureaucracy due to the public nature of many schools that require government subsidies. The session’s solutions were limited, and the group agreed more time should be spent discussing broader solutions in the upcoming collaborative sessions. Still, there were a few notable solutions the group devised to enable smoother relationships.

  • Provide clear nutrition guidelines: The example of sodium was brought up on a number of occasions as an issue for manufacturers to determine. Both parties (operators and suppliers) want to find a way to provide transparency for foods that meet strict guidelines.
  • Segment playbook: From a manufacturer perspective, the segment is challenging to navigate. The group suggested creating a “how-to” playbook for suppliers to use when looking to penetrate or expand into this highly complex segment.
  • The two “Ps”: Product formulations and packaging are sometimes not clear from a sustainability and nutritional standpoint; playing off the segment guide, manufacturers proposed creating specific details on these attributes for operators to make informed decisions.
  • Simplify the bid process: As it stands now, bidding on business can be a drawn-out and time-consuming affair. With the help of IFMA as a facilitator, the group would like to develop a program in future conferences to streamline the bid process.
  • CLOC and CIL: The USDA investigated programs related to how money is distributed, and operators were not sure if CLOC’s interests were in line with schools. There was a general mystery around this and CIL - Cash in Lieu of Commodities that few in the roundtables could address.

Chain Restaurants: The Challenges

Chain Restaurant stakeholders pointed to limitations in sharing best-in-class information, operator barriers and competitive intensity as challenges to better serving the segment.

  • Lack of conduit for sharing information: Covid-19 forced companies to react instead of plan, which has had a negative impact on strategic planning.
  • Providing solutions to operators: Collaboration among manufacturers, distributors and operators is an ongoing challenge. There are several layers that can be a hindrance to delivering relevant innovations to specific concepts.
  • Penetrating stores: Chains are among the hardest of the segments to penetrate because the competitive intensity and gatekeepers are prevalent.
  • Identifying operator needs: Carryout and delivery are top-of-mind and major opportunities at the moment, yet manufacturers and operators have not been aligned with the complexities of concepts (FSR and QSR) and unique needs.
  • Labor and supply chain: The councils would be remiss if the issues with supply and labor were not mentioned. These are viewed as indefinite issues.

Chain Restaurants: The Opportunities and Solutions

Once conference attendees collectively voiced challenges facing chain restaurants, the next step was to jointly collaborate on solutions. Some of the proposed solutions were to make the ecosystem and its trading partners operate more smoothly, including more proactive manufacturer communication on new products and out-of-stocks, the continued need for social consciousness and sustainability messaging/products and best-practices guidance from manufacturer experience.

  • Manufacturer communication: Instead of relying solely on distributors and brokers for information, manufacturers would serve chains well with proactive information and insights and more frequent presence in account management.
  • Supply rate communication: Instead of informing of product shortages after the fact, chains believe technology and “data transparency” could be better utilized to offset this major issue.
  • Sustainability: While supply and labor have been at the forefront, social consciousness remains critical to chain patrons - particularly Millennials and Gen Z. Chains would like to see manufacturers share more information on practices and responsible sourcing, etc., to better inform their own patrons.
  • Innovation best practices: Manufacturers should share best practices from larger, more established chains to help with various innovations — POS, operations and HR.

C&U Foodservice: The Challenges

While supply and labor shortages are also an ongoing challenge for college and university foodservice operators, participants steered clear of rehashing these indefinite issues. Instead, the challenges identified by participants included handling steep price increases, the need for pre-cooked/value-added foods, consumer insights and segment education for manufacturers and distributors.

  • Price increases: Operators have been told to expect an increase of 8-10% in prices from broadline distributors.
  • Labor supply and engagement: A need for quick-scratch or pre-cooked foods on a larger scale.
  • Communication: Expand communication with all stakeholders through IFMA collaboration.
  • Diner insights: Additional insights from manufacturers would help with purchasing efficiency and reduce waste.
  • Supplier understanding of C&U long-term vision: Students are a fickle group; the need for sustainable practices, food transparency and changing habits as new generations enroll are an ongoing effort.

C&U Foodservice: The Opportunities

Some of the opportunities proposed by the College and University stakeholder group included a trading partner “portal,” a segment-specific playbook, facilitation from IFMA and a showcase of new products to students.

  • IFMA engagement: IFMA would take the lead in connecting campuses with a number of initiatives that would speed up the learning across institutions. This might include shared R&D testing results, “living labs,” white papers on best practices across the FLCs and other IFMA-led initiatives.
  • Product awareness: A collaboration with universities and manufacturers to showcase new products and solutions with students and staff, whether by food shows, campus testing or at IFMA events.

The B&I Segment: Challenges

In addition to the major barriers such as supply and labor, the B&I group pointed to sustainability, a convoluted set of middlemen, trade spending, technology, price disparities and distribution as challenges.

  • Sustainability: Reducing plastics and bulk packaging were very important but then Covid-19 happened. “We’re constantly having the conversation that eco-friendliness is not going away. We’re always looking at what our younger employees want.”
  • Too many intermediaries: One of the biggest challenges to B&I is the number of intermediaries involved in the ecosystem: FMCs, GPOs, brokers, distributors, and central kitchens/commissaries. FMCs are in more than 90 percent of B&I accounts, which makes direct communication with client liaisons difficult.
  • Pricing transparency: This particularly relates to trade spending and promotions. Operators may use two distributors and find that the prices for the same items are markedly different. GPOs are a roadblock.
  • Technology: There are challenges with point-of-sale systems that seem “arcane.” “We are relying on Aramark and Compass for technology, but they are only good at food. Is there something better to use?”
  • Distribution timeframe: Distribution is taking too long to reach B&I. “The distribution system in foodservice is one of our biggest issues — it takes a long time for a new product to get through distribution.”

The B&I Segment: Solutions and Opportunities

Most of the solutions suggested in the B&I collaboration session centered around improved communication with all intermediaries, fostered/sanctioned by IFMA. Participants believe IFMA has a solid reputation of trust and can help enhance regular communication with trading partners to share best practices.

Another solution to developing menu ideas included regular innovation “stations” in B&I accounts where manufacturers can impress new innovations and products on client staff and employees.

  • IFMA Sanctioned Quarterly Meetings: To stay on trend and to learn the segment complexities, the B&I FLC believes quarterly sessions with manufacturers would benefit both parties in the long run.
  • Direct communication: With FMCs highly penetrated into B&I accounts, operators want manufacturers to directly connect to client liaisons to keep accounts up to date on product introductions and status.
  • Segment best practices: Operators believe there are strong learnings from other segments that collaboration with other FLCs on a periodic basis will enhance success and avoid costly mistakes.
  • Pop-up innovation sites: Use regular onsite “innovation stations” to showcase new manufacturer products and ideas to the host accounts and self-ops.

Healthcare Foodservice: The Challenges

While supply chain shortages and labor scarcity are ever-present, the Healthcare roundtable pointed to delayed deliveries, SKU “overload,” GPO value and legislation as headwinds.

  • On-time deliveries: This is related to supply-chain shortages, but operators indicated that timing could be better communicated by manufacturers, FMCs and distributors.
  • SKU overload: There are “massive” numbers of SKUs, and operators would like to see manufacturers and distributors streamline them.
  • Labor: The need for skilled labor. A method to garner interest in working in the segment.
  • GPOs: The question of the value GPOs bring to the segment. Other than pricing advantages, there is a question whether GPOs offer other benefits or are simply another layer of complexity.
  • Foodservice area relevance post-COVID: Execution of salad bars, grab-and-go and self-scan marketplaces are unclear across the segment. How will foodservice be positioned post-Covid?
  • Local and regional regulations: State, county and local regulations have tightened due to Covid, adding to an already complex regulatory environment.

Healthcare Foodservice: The Opportunities

Some of the proposed solutions in Healthcare — such as the “bowl” program to help with standardization — have already been executed, menu (or SKU) reductions, manufacturer segment training and supply flexibility were discussed as opportunities to enhance the foodservice experience.

  • Continuity among channels: Healthcare operators believe manufacturers can bring best-practices solutions to them in the same way they target national chain customers.
  • Menu reductions: Manufacturers can collaborate earlier in the product-development process to help healthcare operators with menu success.
  • Build for flexibility: Operators acknowledge product shortages are likely to continue into the future, but healthcare has strict guidelines where substitutes will not suffice. Operators are looking to collaborate with distributors and manufacturers earlier and often to prepare for the specific needs of the healthcare segment, which is complex and “strict” in one manufacturer’s words.
  • Product standardization across channels: One of the initiatives the healthcare FLC has been working on is the “bowl program,” which in effect, provides parameters to manufacturers who can then deliver standardized “turn key” products. This initiative is already underway.
  • Training for manufacturers: An introduction to healthcare foodservice is in the works for staff new to the industry, in conjunction with IFMA. It will model Foodservice Fundamentals, which is offered today by IFMA.

In January 2022, the five Foodservice Leadership Councils will reconvene in a live conversation, open to all FLC members, and report on the status of the solutions shared in each session.

About the Foodservice Leadership Councils: In the fall of 2018, several leading operators across different industry segments approached IFMA looking for help. They felt their communities were underserved in the areas of insights, business best practices and more effective connectivity with manufacturers.  They also recognized the opportunity to learn from each other and the broader industry to better serve their customers. For operators interested in learning more about the ongoing council work and access to upcoming resources, visit, or contact Jim Green at [email protected]. You will receive updates on council activities and have complimentary access to whitepapers, webinars and conferences.

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