Attention to the Details

I was in Chicago last week for the National Restaurant Association (NRA) trade show. It was my first time there. We are regulars at the retail-focused shows (Expo West, Sweets and Snacks, Supply Side, etc,) but we had not attended a show geared towards food service. A few of our clients have pivoted into food service, and it’s something investors are now coaching brands to do. Between slotting fees, marketing, chargebacks, and resets, retail is TOUGH. Food service is tough in a different way. 

My objectives were simple. I wanted to understand if this show was worth attending next year, and in what capacity. How many days should we be there? How many people should we send? What areas of the show floor are our target customers? If we host a seminar or panel, will anyone come? Who represents the brands at these shows and can we make meaningful connections? Essentially, this was a reconnaissance mission. I got what I needed and so much more.

My takeaways: 

  • If you haven’t been, go just for the samples. It’s like Costco sample day on steroids with much better food. I found myself in the Italian imports section at 10:30 in the morning and was full by 11. Try saying no to imported cheeses and perfect al dente pasta!
  • There is significant overlap between the exhibitors at Expo West and NRA. Many of the brands had their retail packaging out on display, but showed what a theoretical food service package could look like.
  • The majority of exhibitors do not sell food. I had good conversations with equipment vendors that had relevant offerings for some buildout projects we’re working on. I got some ingredient samples for a specialty beverage we are in the process of developing. 
  • Successful restaurants get the details right.  

I want to focus on the details, because I perceive these subconsciously when dining, but I never thought about how each detail was a decision that had to be made. Even while watching Chef Carmy and Sydney supervise renovations, select plates, and determine the menu on FX’s The Bear, I don’t think it set in. Walking the show floor put restaurant operations in perspective for me. The investment is large, the margins are small, and each decision is a high stakes decision. 

To name a few categories of wares I hadn’t considered, there were dozens of vendors showing the variety of stock takeout containers. Then there were the packaging companies that made custom, printed takeout containers. There were uniform and shoe vendors; plate and cutlery vendors; table and centerpiece vendors; shuffleboard and claw game vendors. There was a company that sold the menu covers for fine dining establishments (immune to the QR menu takeover). There were multiple companies that sold the swinging kitchen doors and had working displays of the newest models. There were half a dozen competing robotic frying systems (that so far can only do french fries.)  It was all very cool for someone who was just looking for food samples. 

I’m tearing tape like an asshole.

As operations people, FoodOps lives in the details. Spec sheets show the details of how your product is made, packaged, and shipped. Our S&OP shows where every piece of inventory sits, what’s moving where, and when that product will be pulled to fill orders. We have subject matter experts that we pull into key decisions that make sure our clients get the details right. Our project managers break down complex projects into manageable weekly tasks and keep objectives on track. Product doesn’t get made if these details are missed. 

The next time I am dining out, I will have a keen eye for all of the details that went into the establishment’s atmosphere, aesthetic, and menu. The next time I want to order a CPG product that is out of stock, I’ll know that a key detail was missed somewhere along the way!

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