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Future of the food service industry post-pandemic

Guest Article | Ben Gower - CEO Cobb&Co NZ

In 2020, the foodservice industry as we knew it came to a halt and no one knew what the future would hold. Foodservice operators at every level of the industry faced extraordinary challenges, but as we saw in many sectors, these challenges provided an opportunity for ingenuity and innovation to shine. The team at Cobb & Co faced many challenges and had to think differently. Once the industry started to return to their new normal the additional impact of staff shortages both in sickness and availability made the team at Cobb&Co think hard about how they could maintain their signature excellent customer service and make guests feel at home.

Check out the unique way Cobb&Co tackled this with some very clever technology and two very special new team members.

To continue driving their inspiration the team recently headed to the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago which finally was bringing the industry back together after many years of cancellations. Ben Gower, CEO of Cobb&Co answers some questions about his recent trip and the expert-led, industry leading experience they had and what they were inspired and excited about.

What were the key theme/s at the show?

The key subjects at the speaker series this year all generally kept coming back to two main elements. Mental health issues among staff and overall staff/skills shortages.

Shortages were being blamed on the lucrative Covid pay out’s staff received during the pandemic. This was a big change from previous visits, where we had always been envious of the seemingly limitless supply of skilled, motivated staff available to the industry. Skill shortage is something we have struggled with in NZ for years and our uptake of various smart cooking technology has been in direct response to it.

Mental health at the show was being treated to some extent like the early days of health and safety in NZ. Initially, the desire was for a tick box solution that conformed with the legislation. Genuine safety culture followed but took time to become embedded in company DNA. Years ago, we considered if someone was ‘physically’ fit, they should turn up for work and park their mental issues aside while on shift. We now understand and accept that poor mental health is a legitimate condition that needs to be monitored and addressed appropriately.

At Cobb & Co. we look at mental health in the wider context of trying to put round pegs in round holes. It starts at recruitment, trying to find people who genuinely enjoy delivering hospitality, and then engaging those team members in a culture of teamwork and pride leading to improved personal performance, availability and above all, motivation.

What most surprised you coming to the event and exploring parts of the US and Mexico after?

After 4 consecutive attendances to the NRA Show, dining out in the US has become even more relatively expensive. While tipping has always been expected, many menus now carry a message that a 20% service charge will be added to the bill, non-negotiable, while still hunting 25% or more. We found service variable which is probably what would be expected as the industry moves towards a more fixed remuneration model.

How is technology being applied in the food service sector?

Robotics is a big mover. Having robots in Rotorua and Dunedin we were very interested in the various options available. While several brands are forging ahead with this technology, Pudu Robotics is leading the pack with most others still in development phases due for release later this year or 2023. I am always bemused at the concern often voiced that robots are going to replace people in the restaurant industry. We see guest/staff interaction and being spoilt on the night as an integral part of the dinning out experience at Cobb&Co. The robots are simply another tool to assist the team to spend more time doing what enjoy. Labour saving devices in the restaurant are already everywhere you look.

What were the top 1-3 technologies in your opinion?

Top technology available, I believe Rational Oven Computerised Cooking is still one of the top technology’s on show. The technology allows ordinary people to do extraordinary things. When we first introduced these ovens, the team affectionately named them “robochefs” because each one was like having another person on the line.

I was fascinated by a nifty innovation from a company, Irionox. An oven and blast freezer in the same cabinet. So can slow cook overnight roll straight into a blast freeze mode after cooking then hold at the required chilled temperature for the team to cut and portion when they arrive next day… safety bliss! Other equipment like mechanical cutlery polishers or glass polishers are great labour saving devices. When we looked at them 4 years ago, they didn’t stack up. Now, in the current environment, they are an attractive proposition and we have some on the way.

If money was no object, what would you do based on what you saw?

If money was no object, I would go and set up in America. The scale of the food industry in the States is mind boggling. You can be talking to the person sitting next to you at a show seminar. They’ve got a chain of 400 restaurants that you’ve never heard of and they’re all on the West Coast! Every person we interrogated from Uber drivers to cleaners to service staff and anyone else that would talk to us, said they ate out 3 to 4 times a week. Standards maintained in prominent chains we visited like Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, Ruby Tuesday’s, Outback Steakhouse, Longhorns and others are below what is expected of us here in NZ. American’s will happily queue for miles and for extended periods.

Here in NZ we are trying to make a business model function with 5 million people spread over 120,000sq miles, while in the States many cities have that population crammed onto a handkerchief. In one area we came across three separate Applebeet’s restaurants during an evening stroll.

If you had any advice for people in the sector (based on your learnings) about the future, what would it be?

If turnover is tight, apart from initiating strategy to increase it, focus on labour cost. This is the one that can really get away on you and wreak havoc on your bottom line. Big events like concerts or test match’s will not save your season. I liken it to a large super market docket. Who hasn’t looked at their docket in the car after doing a big shop and thought, “it can’t be that much”. You scan though it looking for the over charges but alas, that’s what it comes to. A healthy restaurant bottom line emerges the exact same way, being made up of the tiny incremental gains that need to be made every single day.

Anything else?

Things aren’t going to get any easier any time soon. Hikes in the minimum wage and other entitlements have outstripped our capacity to absorb or pass on the these increased costs. The challenge in our own particular segment is to remain affordable. As well as labour cost increases our suppliers are warning us constantly of a tsunami of product price increases on the way. While there has been a lot of publicity around perceived shortages of staff, I’m not certain that the real problem isn’t actually an over proliferation of restaurants. Half as many restaurants that were twice as busy would increase our ability to pay better wage rates and provide conditions across the board and lead to a healthy more vibrant industry that could pay its bills, upgrade and replace tired equipment and reap a reasonable reward for the considerable effort that operators put in.

Make sure you check out Cobb&Co next time you are out and about.

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