This is a Detroit-inspired overture to the restaurant industry's suppliers: We need to talk.
Two weeks ago, at an industry trade show, I heard the executive chef of Princeton University detail the preferences of his young and very particular clientele. The hands-down Number One trend, he stressed, is authentic Indian food.
Coming out of the presentation, I figured I'd see what resources a restaurateur would find on the exhibit floor to ride that trend. The answer was quickly obvious: zero. There wasn't one company listed in the exhibitor directory as being a supplier of Indian fare. Visits to the booths of several mainstream spice, sauce and soup suppliers, including many of the biggest names in the business, verified that I was unlikely to find a single Indian-inspired product, much less something authentic.
I didn't find a hint of the Subcontinent. In some instances, I also didn't find much traffic. The salesmen seemed bored, if not angry and frustrated. I didn't recognize any of them from the breakout presentation I'd just left.
In the course of my search, I saw a booth that was absolutely slammed with shoppers. It was selling what it called micro-greens, including herbs that chefs could grow in windows of their kitchens and pluck for a fresh dash of flavor.
I remembered that the Princeton chef, Bob Harbison, had noted that sauces are regarded by the students he feeds as flavor-maskers, not enhancers, and hence regarded as heavy-handed and unattractive. What's in, he said, are aromatic, fresh herbs.
There, in a slider-sized portion, is my analysis of a major problem for the industry's vendors.
Like my media brethren who remain fixated on print, they're trying to find a way back to the good old days when their products and services were in demand. Short of discovering a time machine, they're going to be bankrupted intellectually (and possibly financially) by that attitude of selling what they know and have, not what their customers' customers want. As a Southern congressman colorfully put it in his recent characterization of the first TARP outlay, "They're shooting behind the rabbit."
It's a dangerous mindset, as General Motors, Chrysler and Ford are currently learning. I have a lot of respect for the major soft-drink companies, but clearly they fell victim to that inertia as Snapple and Red Bull stole new generations of customers. Ditto for newspapers.
I'd hate to see the restaurant industry's suppliers fall prey to that same myopia of "We were making a ton of money off this stuff in better times. We will again when things get better." The operative word there is, were.