In June 1998, I authored a Parting Shot installment warning that statistics pointed to a potential “brain drain” in the foodservice equipment and supplies industry resulting from the departure of knowledgeable industry veterans aging out. The proposed solution included establishing industry resources to document and promote best practices for future generations. Unfortunately, we have largely failed to heed that warning and we are now contending with the fallout.
The brain drain is perhaps having its greatest impact on the design segment of our industry, an important seed for future business. In pop music, research confirms the steady decline in the quantity and sophistication of lyrics in recent decades. I would argue that foodservice design, overall, suffers from similar simplification, resulting in less creativity and a loss of opportunities to better serve our clients and increase sales.
Our industry remains desperate for designers experienced in both building information modeling and foodservice, but we often compromise to select candidates with one or the other. If we allow ourselves to fall into an either/or proposition on this front, we will have already lost the battle.
Customer input is beneficial, but neither Sony’s Walkman nor Apple’s iPhone were developed based on customer requests. Instead, innovators studied their subject markets and conceived of solutions to problems customers might not know they had, while also creating new opportunities for growth. Foodservice operators look to do more in less space, with less money. They need flexibility and a reduction of labor. They need us to bring new solutions to meet their needs.
To date, we are missing the mark. A lack of true innovation in our industry leads to crowded market segments, which suppresses revenue and margins. If we fail to respond to the needs of our clients now, they will look elsewhere for solutions. For those who say innovation opportunities are elusive, I respond with this example — wheels and luggage. Both existed separately for millennia, but their integration led to growth and continued evolution, even today.
Of all the challenges the foodservice equipment and supplies industry faces, automation is the greatest, as it will impact every aspect of our businesses.
Numerous studies highlight foodservice operations as one of the top targets for artificial intelligence (AI) and automation and the evolution will be rapid. This will impact the equipment we sell, who we sell to and how we sell. Early robotics focus on mimicking human action, but future iterations will focus more on process, results and new customer experiences. This will open the door to nontraditional players outside the current industry, and thus, further erosion of the existing model.
The question is, how will we respond? I have heard foodservice equipment and supplies industry veterans talk about adapting and evolving — both reactionary. Instead, I would argue that we should be leading — and identifying iPhone equivalents in our own industry. If we fail to do so, many industry assets and careers will be at risk.