Some noticeable trends seem to be emerging as the foodservice sector gears up for the summer dining season.
Consumers are dining out more than they did during the recession, and they seem to be choosing more healthful options. But still, they’re holding onto many of the frugal habits they adopted during the economic downturn, and most foodservice operators have redoubled their efforts to control costs.
The overall health of the restaurant industry remains strong, according to the 24th edition of the “Chain Restaurant Industry Review” published by GE Capital, Fairfield, Conn. But the competitive environment is heating up.
“Dining out certainly seems to have come back,” said Tim York, president of Markon, a Salinas, Calif.-based cooperative of broadline foodservice companies. But some dining patterns have shifted.
“Consumers are looking for interesting menus for things they perceive as healthier,” York said, which is why eateries that create customized meals, like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread, are popular.
Spending in restaurants was up last year, and even though consumer traffic declined slightly, it “has certainly rebounded from its low of four or five years ago,” said Bryan Silbermann, chief executive officer of the Produce Marketing Association.
But the fragile economy has foodservice operators continuing to focus on watching costs and squeezing margins, Silbermann said.
Many foodservice operators are trying to keep costs under control by negotiating contracts with suppliers, said Ernst Van Eeghen, director of marketing and product development for Church Bros. LLC, Salinas, Calif.
“Our total contract business is up considerably compared to last year,” he said.
Operators also are looking for one-stop shopping.
“If you can pick up in one location, you can optimize your freight and get cost savings there,” he said.
With operators and consumers watching their spending, Silbermann said, “Everybody is being challenged to show value.”
That opens an opportunity for the produce industry to step up and help operators address costs by encouraging them to use produce “to show value to the consumer,” he said.
Operators are finding that promoting produce consumption can help reduce overall plate cost.
“They’re especially finding it in light of the greater demand for vegetarian, vegan and overall more healthful food options on menus,” Silbermann said.