Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A suggestion to restaurant suppliers: Wake up

This is a public service announcement to all of the mega-sized companies that sell food to restaurant chains: Are you living in a cave or something?

Complacency might be a warm and comfy place to call home, but you’re juggling dynamite, Bunkie. Look at any trends roundup, or just talk to a 22-year-old, and you’ll see that the dining-out world is changing at lightning speed. Yet you and many of your cohorts seem stuck in the ‘80s.

Consider, for instance, the penchant for locally sourced ingredients and its complement, the desire to have the origin of a product clearly identified. This weekend, for instance, we had Florida corn, New Jersey and Georgian peaches, Washington State cherries, locally caught fish, California and Long Island strawberries, Boston beer, Indian tea, Kenyan coffee, and one of the big national brands of chicken, which listed the address of its corporate parent on the label. One of those things was clearly out of sync.

Yet the big processors shrug and say, What can we do? We’re a big company with a national production set-up. How can we pretend to be local, or figure out the source for any item when it could’ve come from 10, 15 or 30 different plants?

That’s like parking under a teetering water tower and saying, “Well, this is my assigned spot.”

The market is moving away from them, yet they seem loath to latch on, or at least try.

Why, for instance, couldn’t they provide restaurateurs with ideas for regional dishes that incorporate their products? The flavorings, sides or ingredients could all be listed in the menu description with their origin, which ideally would be local. One ingredient that isn’t tied to a locale is a lot better than the whole item.

Or couldn’t they show a restaurateur how to make a dish that’s connected to an area, like Santa Fe Chicken, or Pork with Washington Boysenberries?

In any case, trying something has to be better than doing nothing while the market leaves you outmoded. And yet the level of inactivity on the part of many suppliers is astounding.

The sourcing issue is just one of their problems. There’s also the growing interest on the part of consumers, and hence restaurant operators, in less-processed, more natural fare. And changes in portion preferences. And a curiosity about unusual cuts or variations of an ingredient.

How do their products work with pairings? Or as bar-menu items? Or for catering?

The list of questions is lengthy. But the main one has to be, What’s worse than doing nothing?

Even with budget restraints, soft sales from restaurants, limited personnel, and all the other factors that foster inertia, inaction is clearly the wrong choice. Yet it seems to be a popular one right now within the supplier community.

No comments: