How to navigate the big challenges of institutional foodservice

By Doug Radkey

Day after day, foodservice providers in hotels, schools, hospitals, convention centres, casinos and other large facilities prepare and serve hundreds, sometimes thousands, of meals to their unique guests. Managing those numbers requires a corresponding volume of human resources, sales data, inventory and multiple menus as well as the support of effective leaders and a dedicated team, because overcoming industry-wide challenges like staffing shortages and cutting costs is not something that happens overnight. Add in the ever-changing food trends hitting the industry, and the capability to adjust menu offerings, even in an institutional setting, becomes a necessity.

Consumers in this segment demand the quality and innovation they have come to expect from every other foodservice provider. They don’t care that institutions have a more difficult time responding to change; they only care that they do it. So how can large foodservice operators adapt to change? Below, we’ll look at how three segments can respond.

Colleges and Universities

The phrase “staff shortage,” or more specifically “chef shortage,” has been used countless times in 2018 – including its use by small independent restaurant operators that may employ 8–10 people or fewer in their kitchen. But can you imagine the headache of staffing 50 cooks? How about the migraine of hiring 100?

What many don’t realize is that campus dining programs have a difficult time attracting and retaining qualified staff in their kitchens. Despite offering flexible schedules, fair wages and a positive environment, many post-secondary schools are struggle to adequately staff their facilities. Overworking the staff members they have leads to burnout and frustration, running the risk of leaving morale at an all-time low. If that happens, they’ll have an even bigger staffing shortage to deal with, starting the cycle over again.

While it would be ideal to hire new staff quickly, that may not be a wise decision. Hiring new staff should be a careful, methodical process where values beat out required experience. Hiring and retaining the right people is essential or you’ll find yourself right back where you started: short on quality, dedicated people. Directors, chefs and managers who know how to attract, inspire and develop their people will remain in high demand, not only in today’s restaurants but in today’s schools and large food-service facilities.

Casinos and Entertainment Groups

Food and beverage is a critical component of casino operations. The majority of these operations include several cafes, bistros, buffets and restaurants with different themes, price points, and menu options. According to a report from the UNLV Center for Gaming Research, food and beverage revenue makes up about 22 per cent of a typical casino’s total yearly revenue.

As the demographics of today’s gamers become more diverse, so must the menus. Dining selections that appeal to gamers also bring in customers who appreciate a well-designed menu to enhance the overall experience. And like cars and fashion, the casino food and beverage business remains highly sensitive to trends, and the speed of change continues to increase. Casino operators have a wide range of customers to satisfy, and keeping these diners happy means offering enough options to please everyone, all while keeping costs and food waste down.

Recent food trends should be taken into account when revamping offerings, creating new menus or promoting limited time offers — if you’re an independent restaurant operator, then this should all sound familiar. Keeping menus interesting and current is essential to developing and maintaining a loyal customer base. For years, the leading casino programs have recognized the important relationship between innovation, investment and engagement, leading to higher customer satisfaction and stronger revenues. The challenge for operators and suppliers is to position dining programs to be more responsive in shorter time frames and with less investment.

Convention Centres

Determining the direction of a convention centre is always an interesting task considering its events range from black tie to trade shows to cosplay conventions. Taking over the kitchens of a convention centre that needs to be known abroad for the quality of its cuisine is a huge challenge. An executive chef or foodservice director’s newest challenge falls within the financial officer’s increasing quest for new sources of revenue and controlled costs.

One could argue that customers’ heightened expectations for diversity, quality and transparency in their food, as well as special diet needs, collectively put upward pressure on average food and beverage costs. The best way to overcome this is to efficiently control labour, quality, energy costs, supply chain management and food safety. Convention centres are going through extensive renovations to accommodate for these challenges and pressure from shareholders, building kitchens with combi-ovens, blast chillers, hydroponic gardens and even conveyor belts, which speed up plating. Instead of build out, they’re building up by stacking equipment that is capable of accomplishing various tasks, like the aforementioned combi-oven, which makes better use of available space.

The Only Constant

No matter the size of venue, whether it’s a 1,000 sq. ft. restaurant or a 15,000-plus sq. ft. kitchen, institutional foodservice operators need to adapt. There is no denying the influence that economics, society and limited budgets have on food and beverage programs found in many of these segments. The vision however, must continue to focus on creativity, simplicity, and authenticity — three key fundamental ingredients to success!

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