Last week started with a quick trip to Dallas where I joined fellow advocate and cattle gal, Janice Wolfinger (read about her family’s feedyard at for the love of beef) and several hundred restaurant executives, owners, operators, chefs and food suppliers at MUFSO, the Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators Super Show.
With Chipolte’s Scarecrow dominating the food/farm conversation the last few weeks, I felt a bit defensive strolling into Sunday evening’s reception. If we believe all we read on Facebook, this is an us versus them game, and Janice and I were facing an army of “them”.
What I discovered, however, was a group of people who love good food – no labels attached. Labels are marketing tools and while some owners base their restaurant concepts on labels – organic, all-natural, grass-fed – others don’t want to enter the debate. In fact, during the “State of the Plate” address, Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Company and menu trend columnist for Nation’s Restaurant News, reiterated what we’ve been saying in agriculture for so long, “It’s all about choices”.
Then she challenged the group with this. “You will take the leading role in teaching Americans how to eat healthy.” I expected that statement to be followed by a litany of labels, but instead we heard about the up and coming good-for-you food, the potato.
Restaurateurs are a nice group of people stuck between a rock and a hard place. For the most part, they understand farmers, farming and the pros and cons of what we do, why we do, and how. They are fully aware of the ups and downs of supply and demand and yet have customers in their ears asking for specific food, labeled specific ways.
The label of the day is local. The two restaurant owners who joined Janice and I on the panel “Behind the Menu” agreed that millennials are looking for ways to develop an emotional feel-good bond with a community. Investing in local farms, businesses, and organizations is the way to go.
They also surprised me by shrugging off “organic” saying that that trend has sailed. They were not discounting the importance of organic foods in the system, but felt that it had lost its marketing shine. The new ship is sustainability.
The National Restaurant Association’s 2013 Hot List found that one in three consumers strongly agree that purchasing products and services with social and environmental benefits is important. During a panel discussion about sustainability in foodservice, Jeff Dlott from Sure Harvest, a sustainability consulting company said he approaches farmers’ with sustainable practices as a way to continuously improve their overall business strategy.
Continuous improvement . . . seems to be a theme in what resonates with consumers and also business strategy.
What was identified in each of these discussions was the void of knowledge about what happens in the food chain. George McKerrow from Ted’s Montana Grill pointed out that what happens after a commodity or food product leaves a farm and before it reaches a restaurant is where we should focus our curiosity. I hadn’t thought too much about that before, having been so focused on the farm end of the story.
That single minded focus catches me off-guard at times, so when Avery from Taco Bell told me her journey to the restaurant business I smiled broadly. Avery started waitressing at 16 for gas money and fell in love with the people and pace of the restaurant business. Now she works in corporate human resources for Taco Bell and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I was baling hay at age 10 in exchange for feed for my show cattle and fondly remember those hot back-breaking days. I also couldn’t imagine living any other way.
Two different life paths, but the passion felt for both was evident. These folks love their storefronts as we love our fields.