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The art of the argument

After months of anticipation, MenuDirections, FSD’s annual culinary conference, finally kicks off this month (Feb. 28–March 1), and we couldn’t be more excited. On the first evening, just as attendees are boarding buses for the Dine Around tour of some of Jacksonville, Fla.’s hottest restaurants, Hollywood’s hottest celebrities will be walking the red carpet at The Oscars in California. Well, some celebrities, anyway. men yelling argument

As this issue of FoodService Director magazine goes to press, some big names in the movie industry are promising to boycott the Academy Awards, to protest the lack of diversity among this year’s nominees. It is the latest demonstration in what seems to be an extended season of protests on issues varying from racism to contaminated water.

The foodservice industry hasn’t been spared. But while restaurant chains have borne the brunt of the attention, particularly on issues of minimum wages, noncommercial operators got a piece of the negative publicity pie when student protests at Oberlin College in Ohio came to light late last year.

The students at Oberlin accused the college of insensitivity and a lack of real diversity on the dining hall menus. Outcries from African-American students took the school to task for not serving more culturally traditional dishes, while other protests labeled Oberlin’s attempt at certain global and ethnic dishes, such as its version of a banh mi sandwich, as cultural appropriation. While these protests drew the most recent headlines, there are countless examples happening every week on college campuses, in school communities and throughout noncommercial foodservice.

Much of the response in the media to the Oberlin uprising was cynical, with some questioning the appropriateness of the students’ outrage, with so many bigger, life-and-death issues swirling around. Others applauded the students for taking a stand—part of a larger resurgence of youthful empowerment. Whatever side of the debate you find yourself on, there’s no denying the impact such situations have on foodservice and the role of FSDs today.

Perhaps in less dramatic fashion, it’s consumers’ demands to know where their food comes from, what’s in it and even who’s preparing it that are shaping menus and facilities today. Transparency, open kitchens, local sourcing, allergy-friendly options—all are direct outgrowths of consumer engagement. And talking to FSDs about how their roles have changed in the past few years or picking the brains of the industry’s rising stars, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The challenge for FSDs is how to engage customers in return in a way that satisfies both sides of the equation.

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