The Caterer's inaugural Foodservice Forum tackled some meaty subjects, from food trends to design and from cashless restaurants to some sharpshooting entrepreneurial tips. Rosalind Mullen reports
There was an impressive turnout of foodservice industry decision-makers at Kings Place in London earlier this month. The Caterer editor Amanda Afiya and foodservice editor Janie Manzoori-Stamford chaired the event, which hosted five speakers on diverse subjects.
Snapshot of the economy
The message from Ross Walker, UK economist at RBS Global, was that economic growth is bedding in. "It's beginning to look normal," he told the room. "There will be some slight moderation and some tax rises are possible, but we are looking at 2% to 2.5% growth next year."
He added that employment figures will continue to be robust in the next few years. And there will be a pick-up in wage inflation. The bad news is that the debt hangover from the recession is curbing the public's expenditure on leisure activities. Mortgages and credit card bills are making UK households the most indebted in the world.
With 13% to 14% of income going to service debt, Walker said: "It will remain a tight financial environment over the next year or two. The fiscal debt has halved, but the UK's is still larger than other countries. There is no scope for tax cuts and the income squeeze will continue."
He acknowledged the Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted a rebuilding of debt and people borrowing to buy, but said: "I am sceptical it will be as aggressive. Households are diverting to housing and there is less cash to buy other things."
Walker added that in real terms growth in consumer spending is at 2.8% this year, but in nominal terms, 4.5 %. Next year it will be 2.3%and 4.2% respectively.
Questions from the floor revealed the trend for outsourcing is here to stay. "Pressure on public finances means that outsourcing will continue. Local authorities are laying off people and hiring them back through agencies, eliminating non-wage costs," explained Walker.
Gardener said the cashless technology has added savings and improved sustainability, efficiency and accuracy. "The old way is cumbersome. Now you can remove caterers from managing debit cards and cash to provide a seamless service."
Similarly, customers benefit because they can log in, review their balance and even opt to top up their card automatically. Delegates heard how the technology has created a micro-city, integrating all departments with one hospitality card - from PAs using it to cater at meetings to staff using it to pay for in-house retail services.
The £15m turnover business has offset the £12,000 training fees. Benefits include lower transaction costs and the logistics of having cash on site have been eradicated.
More importantly, added Gardener: "We now get live data that we can analyse." At 8.50am, the team know they get a rush on coffee for 30 minutes, so the ratio of F&B staff is increased at those service areas. They can analyse statistics like the fact they sell 92,000 cans of Coke a year, 1,000 breakfasts a day at £2.49 and make 2,500 sales in the deli daily.
"There are many marketing opportunities to encourage staff to stay on site. It's easy, so there is now higher spend in our eateries," he added. This is helped by the fact the queue time has been reduced to 58 seconds because the transaction requires just a simple swipe.
"We can create our own marketing hub by rewarding loyalty," said Gardener. It is sustainable, too. Obviating the need for cash
collection has reduced the carbon footprint and saved 23,000 pages of printed till rolls.
"Knowledge is power. We know what is sold to whom and we can reward the best spenders. We can also plan menus, stock management
and so on," said Gardener.
Designing out clichés Karla Morales-Lee, managing director at AfroditiKrassa, the hospitality design company behind sushi chain Itsu, drove home the message that good design differentiates.
And she argued that an ordinary business can become a category leader through interior decor.
"Challenging the status quo gives you a chance to be talked about," said Morales-Lee, quoting US author Seth Godin. "For us, it is not just the colours. It is the smells, glassware, theatre. And it's not just about the price and looking good, it's about usability. Itsu is category defining. It makes it real in people's minds."
So, how do you differentiate? A good starting point is to look at five clichés in your restaurant category. For instance, when AfroditiKrassa was asked to launch Dishoom, an Indian restaurant near Brick Lane in London, the team avoided using bright ethnic fabrics.
The result is a 1930s Bombay-style café, slightly worn around the edges, with details such as electricity cables across the ceiling.
"It starts with the story. It's not just a fabric swatch. You have to ask in a creative way: 'what is the competition doing that is the cliché? Where can we tell the story better?'"said Morales-Lee.
Looking ahead, she said we can expect more cutting-edge fine-dining restaurants. "If chefs are the new rock stars, why are fine-dining restaurants so un-rock and roll?" she asked.
What's on the cards for food trends
Staying ahead of food trends over the next few years looks set to challenge culinary skills. Besides exotic East-West cuisine fusions, such as American burgers with Korean kimchi, or Japanese delicacies with a Peruvian twist, you need to keep an eye on street food, which is continuing to push culinary boundaries and meeting demand for freshly cooked ingredients.
Trending cuisines include American, Mexican and Caribbean, while South American food will come to the fore as the Brazilian Olympics approach. In Europe, Scandinavia is influencing chefs. These insights came from Charles Banks, co-founder of the Food People, who gave
delegates a preview of his 2015/16 Food Trend Predictions report compiled with the help of his team of food trendspotters across 33 countries. His team has identified six mega-trends that will take place over the next five years. The report will be published in full on 19 November at Pierre Koffmann's restaurant at the Berkeley, London, but here is a taster:
1 Freedom foods
In other words, hybrid delicacies, such as the cronut. This deep-fried croissant dough appeared early last year and has paved the way for national cuisine fusions. Examples that Banks gave include the lobster roll, the ramen burger and their natural conclusion, the ramen lobster roll, which has enthralled New Yorkers.
Multi-sensory, textured food is also trending, said Banks. Take Peter Gilmore's signature eight-texture chocolate cake at the Quay in
Sydney, Australia. This has different elements of chocolate, such as dark, caramel, praline, ganache, hard and hot.
Banks told the room that inspiration is coming from affordable, fun street food, particularly at venues such as Trinity Kitchen in Leeds.
Delegates also heard that lines are also blurring between sweet and savoury. But whether LA restaurant ChocoChicken's chocolate and chicken combo catches on remains to be seen.
2 Full-on food
Banks described this as simple food that is big on flavour, such as corned beef hash or cauliflower cheese, "but made wonderfully".
Ingredients are cooked on open flames with fire and wood, as at Neil Rankin's Smokehouse restaurant in London.
"Meat is often the hero," said Banks. He pointed to the likes of Hill & Szrok, a London cookshop by night and a butcher by day. There is also a move towards using different cuts of meat in burgers, such as smoked, or aged meat.
"Other trends are being overlayed on the American food genre. Take Brew Burger in Florida, which serves burgers with bacon and onions candied in beer," said Banks.
This feel-good cooking harks back to favourite old dishes with a modern twist. For instance, fish-finger butties made with sourdough bread and handmade fishcakes, and pease pudding are now finding their way on to gastropub menus.
"Schnitzel is on its way back, paired with condiments from North Africa or South Korea," added Banks.
4 Simply natural
Diners want to eat authentic ingredients and innovative chefs are increasingly seeking a connection to nature through food pairings, texture and the presentation of dishes. This could be simply leaving the top on a bunch of radishes, using fresh, seasonal produce, or plating a dish on earthenware.
The sub-trend, said Banks, is coming from Scandinavia - 'pared-back Scandicity' - with more rawness on the plate. Tastes that are emerging include acid, bitter, sour and smoke.
He also gave delegates the heads-up on a new term - flexitarianism. Vegetables are moving to the centre of the plate and it's not just vegetarians who are attracted to it, he said. He cited Bruno Loubet at the Grain Store, who uses meat as a seasoning or goodie in a dish, with vegetables the star turn.
5 All being well
Today, consumers have more information about health, calories, heart rate and so on, so they want the same when dining out. Allergies and intolerances are encouraging growing use of ancient foods such as quinoa or tef, that have low GI or are gluten-free.
And if you have the stomach for it: "Insects are on the agenda. They can add value as a protein sauce. For example, you can use cricket powder," said Banks.
6 By whom, from where?
Consumers increasingly want to know where food is from, which is leading to a reconnection with suppliers. Those doing it well include Simon Hulstone at the Elephant in Torquay, who is growing his own heritage varieties - providing a backstory to his menus.
View from the entrepreneur
Richard Reed, co-founder, Innocent Drinks
The delegates hung on to every word that Richard Reed uttered - he's the ultimate entrepreneur. He and his two co-founders sold Innocent Drinks to Coca-Cola in February 2013 for a reported £100m, having only launched it in 1999.
Reed himself seemed bemused by what they had achieved: "Investors said it wouldn't work because we had no experience," he said. "But there are seven ways you can beat the odds."
1 Keep the main thing as your North Star
Reed explained that the three founders had come up with the idea for healthy smoothies after suffering crushing hangovers on a skiing trip.
This inspired them to try to solve that problem and it was their single-mindedness that guided their strategy.
"It drew people in who were like-minded and powerful," he said. "We wanted to be good at making smoothies, so we brought inagronomists, fruit growers and so on and set about making us the best. That's all we did."
2 Start small and think big
Reed described how they had trialled their smoothies at a festival, asking customers to vote on whether they should give up their day jobs.
The next day they all resigned and the rest is history. "By putting our flag up, it was amazing the people who wanted to help," said Reed.
"You need to get out there, get evidence and get in the game," he said.
3 Be choosy about who joins you
Reed looked for staff with an entrepreneurial mindset and gave them the opportunity to make decisions. "If you're 70% sure, go for it - that was my guideline. It empowered people."
4 Invest in creating a community
"The spiritual heart of the business is focused on the soft stuff - the values. We invited eight people at a time to tell us what Innocent stood for and against. In the end, we had 3,000 values, which obviously we whittled down."
5 Chase beauty
"We make decisions with our right brain. We are initially attracted, love or like someone or something and then the left brain justifies it. You have to get a visceral human response."
6 Be ethical
"Innocent has a strong commitment to being ethical. That is our direction of travel. So we source ethically, invest in environmentally friendly packaging and so on. We give 10% of our profits to charity. We sold to Coca-Cola with that in place."
7 Work the details
"There is a reason why people choose your product rather than the next one. We wanted people to enjoy our product. It is more textured, authentic."
Ross Walker, economist, RBS
Charles Banks, co-founder, Food People
Paul Gardener, head of catering, Nomura International
Karla Morales-Lee, managing director, AfroditiKrassa
Richard Reed, co-founder, Innocent Drinks