If you ignored the accents, took away the air conditioning and forgot about Hurricane Ivan approaching a few miles down the coast, the discussions between restaurant executives at Chain Leader Live could have been taking place in London, Birmingham or Edinburgh. How do you keep prime costs down and maintain brand values while trying to serve healthier food? And how do you attract and keep good staff? Different country, similar problems.
|Statistics suggest that more than 60% of the US population is overweight|
Anyone who visits the USA regularly is likely to agree that the country is suffering from an obesity problem. The people, in general, look big - and too big in a lot of cases. According to the privately funded American Obesity Association, 127 million adults in the USA (64.5% of the adult population) are overweight, and 30.5% suffer from obesity.
The problem with the food service industry tackling obesity is that some restaurant operators, who have made a success out of serving burgers, chips, pizza and deep-fried chicken over the years, are reluctant to alter their concept or menu. When asked how a brand becomes established, delegates at the conference agreed that "consistency" and "meeting customer expectations" contributed to a winning formula and often this meant continuing to serve customers with what they expect and see as traditional American fare.
And pleasing the customer is of paramount importance. As Bob Lang, quality assurance manager of the In-N-Out Burger chain (187 outlets nationally), said: "There are two rules. Rule one: the customer is always right. Rule two: refer to rule one."
Karen Gorrell, a nutritionist with product development agency Ideation Foods, said that portion size in the USA was one of the problems and it was, perversely, compounded by rising food costs. "For competitive reasons, operators are reluctant to pass on rising costs to the customer without appearing to give something back, so they increase portion size as a way of compensating for rising prices."
To say that none of the restaurants in the chain sector is paying attention to healthier menu options would be unfair. An increasing number of start-up companies are offering healthier food. Rick Akam, chief operating officer of Raving Brands, is launching a concept called Doc Green's Gourmet Salads. The client demographic is "20- to 60-year-olds", and he is so confident that customers are switching to lighter food that he plans to open 50 franchised outlets during the coming year.
Billy Jacob, executive chef for product research and development with Popeye's Chicken & Biscuit, said that his chain has an expanding salad programme. "We are selling less deep-fried meat and battered chicken," he added.
Corporate executive chef of the Cheesecake Factory, Bob Okura, agreed and said that one of his chain's biggest-selling menu items was a recently introduced salmon dish. As a result, he is now working on a sea bass dish.
Another favourite area of discussion was staff recruitment. Speakers and delegates universally agreed that vetting new recruits, employing the right people and training staff at all levels was now a top priority. One veteran manager of 40 years' experience said that if he was starting his job again he would place more emphasis on "selecting people with enthusiasm, training them properly and making sure they stayed with the company".
Howard Gordon, senior vice-president of business development with the Cheesecake Factory, said: "Defining your brand is all very well, but you can only deliver it with good service."
And keynote speaker, business guru Ram Charan, said that "putting the right people in the right jobs and rewarding the doers, not the talkers" were two of the most important keys to running a successful business.
So, familiar problems… but familiar solutions, too. Who said the US market was ahead of us?
|USA 2003||UK 2002|
|Outlets (excluding contract catering and hotels)||527,800||106,841|
|Total sales||$292b (£198b)||£14.5b|