Restaurants face a host of challenges, from labor shortages and high employee turnover to rising costs and increasing competition. But today, one of the biggest challenges facing the foodservice industry is the expectations consumers bring with them when they eat away from home. Because today’s guests are more educated about nutrition, are more experienced with bold global flavors, and see innovative dishes on TV, they are not satisfied with food they think fits within the norm. They want to see innovative dishes that push boundaries at every restaurant.
“Everybody is watching TV to see what’s new and relevant, and you have to compete with their expectations from those shows that are driving customers to try something different,” says Bob Sewall, executive vice president of Sales and Marketing at Blount Fine Foods. “Customers used to go to restaurants to be introduced to new foods. Now TV is educating people about what is new and different, and restaurants have to keep up with those expectations, as well as the fact that customers have so many more choices.”
For example, as consumers have come to demand bigger, bolder flavors, restaurants have been tasked with creating new twists on old classics, as well as with bringing dishes from previously under-explored cuisines to the American restaurant landscape. Quality has been another major driver, creating even more demand for innovation. Another major factor has been the shift to healthier foods and those with ingredients that consumers perceive as “cleaner” and those that fit their unique dietary needs.
“People want to eat better-quality foods,” Sewall says. “They want healthy, clean ingredients, as well as vegan, organic, non-GMO, vegetarian, and gluten-free products. Other consumers want foods that have other certifications, such as halal. Offering and marketing these types of foods on a menu can greatly benefit a restaurant, as it helps draw in a variety of consumers.”
This means that stagnant menus are not likely to attract consumers. Sewall says these various nutritional designations will become even more important as the demographics of the nation change and as people become more educated about what they eat, making it imperative for brands to find new ways cater to their audiences. “It’s important for a restaurant to get its finger on the pulse of its customers and show it cares,” he says.
But keeping up with these demands in a continually shifting landscape means that restaurants must innovate constantly, not only to meet the needs of today’s consumers, but also to lead the industry and stay ahead of competition. However, as quickly as the industry changes, it’s difficult for restaurants to keep up amid all the other challenges they face. This puts restaurants in a hard spot, balancing the challenges of restaurant operations with new creative ideas.
“If you’re in an independent restaurant, you’re going to rely on the owner if the owner is on the culinary staff,” Sewall says. “But that person is busy getting food out, and time is the biggest issue with a single-store operator. If they are in the kitchen coming up with new dishes or researching trends, who is in charge of their restaurant?”
As a result of this pressure, many brands are turning to strong industry partners that can help them stay ahead of competition while reducing the burden of innovation on the restaurant staff. Not only do these partners have the resources to conduct research and create products that can help restaurants stay on top of trends, but they can also help brands find ways to offer these trendy items without creating more burden for the kitchen.
“Companies like ours that have restaurant-quality products are making it easier to serve high-quality food and have consistency at scale,” Sewall says. “In the 25 years I’ve been at Blount Fine Foods, we still have many of the same customers we did at the start, because we invest in educating them on new products. Our customers begin to rely on us and ask what is new and exciting in the industry.”
Even with the geographic diversity of Blount’s clients, the company has helped independent and chain restaurants across the country pinpoint the right food trends for each client’s concept and find ways to incorporate them into the brand effectively. For example, one university client was experiencing changes in demographics, so Blount created new halal-certified products to help the school provide dishes that fit the needs of its consumer base.
“We’re always trying to bring out bold new flavors, whether it’s Asian broth bowls or something that our customers can’t create on their own,” Sewall says. “Some customers make new dishes using our bases to get started, while others serve our products by themselves. We can serve from Asian or Italian to Irish, or American cuisine. We have something that tastes great for every type of diner, whether they want organic, gluten-free, or low-sodium.”
Though it can be daunting for a restaurant to undertake the research and development to bring new dishes to market, it’s crucial that brands continue innovating in today’s quickly changing market. Meeting the needs of the consumer is a crucial step in converting them to lifelong guests.
“Now more than ever, innovation is on the diners’ minds,” Sewall says. “Having the same old menu isn’t doing a restaurant any favors. To attract new customers, you’ve got to be diverse. It’s a challenge, but we’re here to help.”