Tag Archives: Food industry

Searching For Answers

Happy Foodie Friday! It’s the time of year when many entities try to sum up what’s been going on throughout the year from their perspective. Google is one of those companies, and they issue their “Year In Search” annually around this time. I thought it might be instructive to look at what were the top food-related searches in 2018 according to Google. They were:

1) Unicorn cake
2) Romaine lettuce
3) CBD gummies
4) Keto pancakes
5) Keto cheesecake
6) Necco Wafers
7) Keto cookies
8) Keto chili
9) Keto brownies
10) Gochujang

The obvious question is what can we learn, both about what’s going on in the food world as well as what we can take away from our own businesses, from this list. Here are a few observations from me.

First, half of the searches were related to “keto.” For those of you somehow unaware, keto refers to a ketogenic diet.  That’s a very low-carb diet, which can help you burn fat more effectively. Many people have already experienced its many proven benefits for weight loss, health, and performance. It’s not without problems but clearly, it’s gone front and center with a lot of people this year. I try to follow a modified keto diet myself, limiting carbs and trying to eat only low-glycemic foods. What can that tell us that might help our business? If you’re in the food business it’s pretty obvious, but even if you’re not it demonstrates that consumers are paying a lot more attention to their health and their diets. Movie theaters, airlines, and other transportation companies sell food. Your company or your building may have a cafeteria that does the same. Understanding that consumer eating habits are changing is critical to maintaining those bottom lines.

“CBD Gummies” point to the changing way we’re looking at weed. These are gummies made with cannabidiol, just one of the hundreds of compounds hiding within the cannabis plant. Some have no THC, others very much do. The point I want to make is that the weed business is exploding, so much so that tobacco and drug companies are trying to figure out how they can become involved. Is CBD a fad? Maybe, but once again, we can’t ignore trends in the marketplace and we need to think through if there is an opportunity or how our business might be impacted.

The “Romaine” search term clearly derives from the e-coli scares with that green this year. A great reminder that we all need disaster plans in place.

If you’re not familiar with it, “Gochujang” is a red chile paste that also contains glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, salt, and sometimes sweeteners. It’s a thick, sticky condiment that’s spicy and very concentrated and pungent in flavor. Another reminder that not only are tastes changing but as our population base is changing, our eating, media, shopping, and other habits are changing as well. We need to pay attention.

Finally, “unicorn cakes” are just silly. They’re multi-colored layer cakes generally covered in a highly-decorated white icing. They’re a great reminder that we all need to take a little time to have fun and enjoy ourselves by indulging in something that’s totally unrelated to our work lives.

Those are the insights I take away from the list. What are yours?

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Filed under food, What's Going On

Put It Away!

It’s Foodie Friday and today’s topic is an article I came across about something a restaurant chain is doing that I think is a fantastic idea. I’ll admit that I’m an old-school kind of a guy. When I go out to eat with family, friends, or business associates, I like to interact with them. You know: eye contact, conversation, a few laughs, that sort of thing.

That was the norm until about a dozen years ago when suddenly, everyone got smartphones. All of a sudden the table looked like the reading room at a library. Not a lot of talk and everyone with their heads down reading their phones. I hate it, especially since I generally keep my phone off the table and in a pocket when I’m drinking or dining with others. I figure if it’s an emergency, someone will call me. Responding to an email can wait a few minutes while I finish my meal and my conversation. And trust me – the intense argument on Facebook isn’t worth your time or attention.

What this restaurant chain is doing is simple and smart:

The lack of communication among its diners has prompted British restaurant chain Frankie & Benny’s to offer free meals for kids if families give up their phones when they enter the restaurant. The Italian-American restaurant…came up with the idea after examining the results of a survey it conducted about the way adults use their smartphones. After questioning 1,500 parents and children, the results revealed that around 10 percent of kids had at some point hidden their mom or dad’s handset in a bid to get their full attention. More than 70 percent of the children surveyed said they wished their parents would spend less time fiddling about on their phone, while about the same figure said it felt as if their parents preferred to be on their phone than with them.

Sad that it’s come to that but I often feel just like one of those kids. There is a broader point to be made as well. Walk into most meetings these days and one or more of the “participants” isn’t really participating because they’re preoccupied with their phone. Frankly, I’m a fan of turning phones to silent during a meeting and keeping them out of sight. If what’s going on in the room isn’t more important than what’s happening on your phone then either the meeting never should have happened or you shouldn’t be there.

I guess I have a love/hate relationship with my smartphone. I love that almost all the world’s information is right there and that I can communicate no matter where I am (I still remember running around NYC trying to find a working pay phone during a business emergency). I hate the fact that we respond like Pavlov’s dog to a beep or a buzz. I despise that we’re far less connected during our interactions even as we have the ability to be constantly connected. I didn’t like the fact that as the host I had to ask all the kids to put their phones away while the family was eating, at least for 10 or 15 minutes. You would have thought I had asked them to eat turnips.

Try putting down the phone in social situations and see if the quality of those situations doesn’t improve. Try it in meetings too. What do you have to lose?

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The $2 Difference

This Foodie Friday sees us trying to answer the all-important question about whether to tip on the pre- or post-tax amount of the check. I suppose in some ways this falls into the category of “is a hot dog a sandwich?” but it has practical implications for the people on the receiving end of those tips, your waitstaff.

The thought for this was put in my head by an ongoing column on The Takeout, called Ask The Salty Waitress. Rather than getting caught up in the philosophical arguments for and against tipping off the taxed amount, she does something that I have often urged people in business to do: look at the practical and not at the hypothetical. She takes us through the math of the financial implications of tipping each way. In the end, it amount s to a $2 difference in a high tax area on a $100 check. Her feeling – and mine – is that the $2 probably means a lot more to the tippee that to the person eating out in a nice place.

This happens in business all the time. I’ve seen dozens of times when a meeting devolves into a heated argument over something in a contract. Everyone is standing on their principles but neglecting the real world. Often, when you can get the meeting to focus on the actual differences of conceding a point and getting something done vs. standing on principle and prolonging the discussion, the actual differences are actually pretty insubstantial, like the $2 tip.

Call me a pragmatist or call me someone who prefers to spend his time on things that warrant it, but my first instinct is always to figure out what the real outcomes are. If the result of taking either path is to have you end up in pretty much the same place then I’m taking the path of least resistance. You?

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Learning To Make What You Can’t Eat

It’s Foodie Friday and the topic this week is allergies, specifically food allergies.  Milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybean account for 90 percent of all food allergies in the United States. Think for a minute about how many people are employed making food in the restaurant business. As with any large population, there is a percentage of those people with food allergies. Now, look at the previous list of the top things that cause those allergies. It’s pretty clear that if you have a food allergy and want to cook professionally that you’re going have to have a plan for dealing with it since the thing that causes it is probably going to be nearby quite a bit.

There is an article on Eater that discusses this topic. Called How Chefs With Food Allergies Make It Work, it’s an interesting look at how gluten intolerance affects a pasta chef and how other chefs deal with an inability to taste – or in some cases even to touch – an ingredient that sets off a bad reaction. I’d go beyond allergies, actually. Say you’re a vegetarian and you’re assigned to the meat station. How do you taste? What about a vegan who is assigned to make a stew or chili, where seasoning is paramount and tasting required? If you can’t touch fish, how can you tell when it’s properly cooked?

There’s a lesson in there for any of us in business. I used to supervise technical people and I’m not a highly technical person myself. I couldn’t see if lines of code were messed up nor could I grasp the intricacies of a network beyond a certain point. I was like a chef with an allergy – I couldn’t personally taste and instead I had to rely on others. What I could do – and what you can do when you find yourself in a similar situation – is to learn to ask the right questions. A chef that can’t taste a dish can ask if there is a balance between salt and acid. He can ask what flavors are dominant and if the ingredient that’s being highlighted is predominant enough. You may not be able to “taste” your accounting but you can ask the right questions about how things are being done. You’re not a lawyer (no allergic jokes please) so you can’t “taste” the various indemnifications and liabilities, but you can ask the lawyer the right questions about specific concerns you might have.

Learning to ask the right questions and learning how to listen carefully to answers is part of being a great businessperson. You may be unable to taste or touch a particular area of the business but you can always use others to fill in your understanding just as a chef with allergies uses others to help them. In fact, that “liability” is actually an asset in a time when more customers suffer from the same issues. As one chef is quoted, “Someone with allergies is going to be a lot more cognizant and proactive in the kitchen space.” I take that to mean someone who has learned to work with others toward a common goal that’s customer-focused. Isn’t that why we’re all in business?

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By The Numbers

Foodie Friday at last! I went out for breakfast this morning and as I watched my server typing my order into the Point Of Sale system, I wondered what was coming out the other end. No, not if my order had been captured correctly or if the ticket would print out correctly. I wondered if the owners of the place actually used the data that had just been gathered. Restaurants generate a phenomenal amount of data although I’d be willing to wager that a minority of them actually look at, analyze, and employ it to improve their business. Then again, I’d be willing to bet that many non-food businesses suffer from the same omission.

Think about it. A restaurant gets information from their POS system – what’s selling and how much does it cost. They see if something is more popular at lunch than at dinner. They can look at their reservation system to know when they’ll be busy and their seating record to know how many covers they’re selling. Smart ones look at how many parties of which size were kept waiting (maybe we should turn the 6-top into a 4- and a 2?). They know what drinks have been ordered. Their suppliers have data for them – what’s available and what does it cost? Then they have their own internal accounting – labor costs, etc. Each of those things relates to the other. But there’s more.

What’s posted on social media? Whats the most-photographed dish? What’s liked and shared? How many reviews and are they positive? What are they about? There’s a lot of data to collect from a multitude of sources – OpenTable, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Urbanspoon or Instagram. All of the former data is very structured and it tells you “what.” The social stuff, along with any loyalty data you might have is unstructured and it can help you to understand “why”.

Maybe if you overlay the daily weather during service hours you can infer a causal effect on any of the above. You can adjust what’s displaying on your drive-thru board when it’s busy to show the menu items that may be lower-margin but quicker to prepare in order to speed the line. If you collect emails (your reservation system does!), you can use Facebook or some other data provider to build out profiles so you can know your customer and better target your marketing.

My point is that every business has a similar capability these days. We might not have reservation systems but we do have online commerce or websites or apps. We need to be less intimidated by big data and more proactive with respect to learning about our customers and how they interact with our offerings. Does that make sense?

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It’s Not Fair

This Foodie Friday sees the opening of the North Carolina State Fair. Until I moved here, I had no idea that state fairs were such a big deal. I mean, I knew that we had them up north, but they always seemed to take place in some remote part of the state and I don’t recall ever having attended one.

Image courtesy NC St. Fair/Facebook

That changed when I headed south. This fair is a big deal and it’s right here in the middle of the state. Last year, over a million people attended and the day I went, it was jammed. While some of the folks there are interested in the giant vegetables on display or the prize hogs being shown, many more are there for the food, and that’s our topic today.

The NC fair seems to be a coming out party for many foods that I can only classify as lab experiments. Many of the foods for sale are normal things such as Cuban Sandwiches that have been “enhanced” by deep frying. Deep-fried Key Lime Pie? You bet! Others are the sorts of things one might dream up in college while in altered states of consciousness. Unicorn Bacon, which is Bacon-on-a-Stick dipped in glaze and rolled in Fruity Pebbles cereal. Then there’s Jalapeno Cheetos Bacon: Bacon-on-a-Stick dipped in jalapeno nacho cheese and rolled in Cheetos. You catch my drift.

Here’s my issue. We have an obesity problem in this country along with an epidemic of diabetes. I don’t think people would have a heck of a lot of fun eating salads as they stroll the midway, but there’s also no limit on how much of the nutritionally horrible stuff one can consume. Before you jump on me, let me point out there the fair does limit how much beer or wine you can buy. In fact, they only started selling beer and wine last year, and you can buy 6oz of wine OR 16oz of beer or cider. Period. One time only, and it’s sold in only one place. In part, it’s to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere but it’s also because the powers that be think alcohol isn’t good for you. Is limiting unhealthy food consumption that different?

There’s a lot of education at the fair. There are demonstrations and exhibits of just about everything represented there. There isn’t, however, any education about healthy eating nor about what a burger held between two Krispy Kreme donuts does to your system when it’s consumed after Candied Bacon S’mores and a Shrimp and Cheddar Cheese Grits Eggroll (that sounds pretty good, by the way). Throw in a sugary soda or two and it’s pretty easy to see why there’s an obesity issue. I know people don’t eat this way all the time and every so often, it’s fun to treat yourself. The problem is that many folks really do eat this way much of the time.

None of us in business can afford to kill our customers. In this case, educating the customers about what they’re putting in their bodies might help keep a few of them around a little longer so they can indulge for many years to come. Do I think the vendors are being malicious or deceptive about what they’re selling? Not a bit. I just wish they, like all of us in business, thought about what impact their products have on their customers and the environment before they pushed them on the public. The rides at the fair have signs explaining that some people shouldn’t ride and that the ride is a health risk to others with back conditions, high blood pressure, etc. Maybe the food stalls need something similar?

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Your Best Steak Forward

It’s Foodie Friday and we’re back to our regular nonsense here on the screed. Today I want you to think back to that time when you ordered takeout and it was not very good. I’m sure you’ve had such an instance: we all have. Maybe you ordered some fried dumplings that showed up as soggy as your recently washed laundry. Maybe the pasta dish you ordered had aggregated itself into a small object better suited for football than eating. Maybe you ordered a steak frites to go and it didn’t travel well. No one likes soggy fries and a cool steak doused in cooling, congealing butter.

For many restaurants, takeout has become a critical part of their business. Life today often leaves little time for cooking at home, especially during the week. Think about how many places you know that have only a few tables but do a ton of takeout. The growth of delivery services and apps has accelerated the trend while actually decreasing profitability (the services take a cut of the bill and in many cases, it’s close to the entire margin on the order). I’m not sure, however, that many restaurateurs put enough thought into putting their best products out there for takeout. Why sell something that you know won’t travel well?

Putting your best steak forward, so to speak, is something that every business should do. The most customer-friendly takeout situations have a separate counter to speed customer service. They might have a menu that’s priced a little differently since the costs of servicing a customer are different. They pack hot foods apart from cold foods and they take care to make sure that condensation in the hot food doesn’t make it soggy (vent holes, people). As with any customer encounter, how you present your brand matters. I wouldn’t even offer to sell a customer a product that I know won’t travel well. If they’ve enjoyed it before in my place, they’ll be disappointed. If it’s their first time, they won’t be back. We see this in businesses that take on jobs for which they’re ill-suited. I’ve turned down many opportunities over the years to build people websites since my ability to design and to code is not up to my ability to perform other tasks. That’s not my best steak.

Is that something your business is doing? Are you gathering data and keeping records of every customer interaction? Are you constantly looking for feedback so you can adjust your menu? Are you putting your best steak forward each and every time?

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