The foodservice professionals who packed the meeting rooms of FoodService Director’s MenuDirections conference this week took home far more than a full belly and a stack of business cards from the ideas and networking fest. For three days, attendees of the New Orleans events were fed—literally—dozens of menu suggestions (emcee and FSD Publisher Bill Anderson said he lost count at 62 samplings), but also insights on the larger world of noncommercial foodservice.
Here’s a sampler of what attendees learned.
1. Menus are the easy part—labor is the killer
The on-site community’s difficulties in finding and affording labor crept into sessions that would seemingly have more to do with buns and beans. Blended burgers, wraps and tacos—items that blended chopped mushrooms with beef or quinoa for a more healthful take—were a major topic of discussion at MenuDirections, and figured large in the nonstop sampling. The first question asked by an attendee during a breakout session devoted to the topic of blending: Do blends come premixed, or does a kitchen have to incur the labor of chopping the mushrooms and manually mixing the minced fungi with beef or quinoa?
A session on K-12 menu trends quickly morphed into a spirited discussion within the audience of how to recruit and hire employees, and how to serve top-quality fare when the caliber of talent isn’t at a high point. The 45-minute session had to be extended by 10 minutes to accommodate the spontaneous discussion.
2. Another setback on the labor front …
The underlying reason for noncommercial’s labor problem is a shrinking pool of potential hires. Economists blame a low unemployment rate, but MenuDirections attendees learned of another factor that’s drying up the well: the surprisingly high number of people who are taking themselves out of the job market because they’re part of the opioid epidemic.
3. … And a little-known negative driver of food costs
The widespread abuse of opioids is also figuring into food costs, in a way that seemed to be a surprise to many attendees. One shared an observation during a general session that transportation costs are being driven up by the severe difficulties distributors and other haulers are having finding enough truck drivers.
A presenter put that challenge in perspective by recounting the recent recruitment experiences of an unidentified distributor. The company held a job fair that drew 200 participants. Yet only one could be hired because no one else could pass a drug test.
4. Think you know New Orleans food?
Labor concerns figured often into the content of MenuDirections, but the main focus was clearly on food and menu innovation. Even a group as knowledgeable about food as the conference’s attendees were taken aback by some of the insights that were delivered from the stage.
For instance, New Orleans cuisine expert and preservationist Poppy Tooker caused many in the audience to look up in surprise during her presentation on local fare. New Orleans’ cuisine abounds in Spanish and French influences, but often overlooked is the fare’s Italian roots, Tooker said. She noted that New Orleans once rivaled New York as a destination for Italian immigrants, and the city once boasted more Sicilian residents than anywhere in the world except Sicily.
A prime example, she said: one of the city’s signature sandwiches, the muffaletta, is squarely Italian in origin.
5. ‘Uh, how many did you say?’
For a crowd seemingly more comfortable with a whisk than a calculator, the MenuDirections audience ate up some of the stats that were shared from the stage.
They learned, for instance, that there are 92 different sorts of flatbreads, according to breakfast expert Ina Pinkney.
A discussion of automation brought to light the factoid that a machine under development by a team of hardcore tech geeks is expected to automatically form, cook, garnish and serve 400 hamburgers per hour.
And college and university feeders learned that University of Massachusetts at Amherst enjoys a renewal rate for its meal plan of 77%, meaning three-fourths of students tend to remain on the plan for all four years.
UMass-Amherst also shared the statistic that 83% of its graduates say they intend to follow the dining habits they learned at school after they head out into the larger world. “Isn’t that what it’s all about?” asked Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises for the university.
The foodservice facilities at USAA, the insurance company for servicemen and servicewomen, divulged a key statistic on its program to promote healthier dining. The operation cuts the price of those options at lunch by 50%, explained FSD William Garner. He did not share how many people now stand in line for the deals, but he did divulge how much the tactic has cost his charge in lost sales: zero. The volume more than makes up for the lower check, he said.