Was it a return to the good 'ole days or simply a renewed sense of comradery amidst the new normal? Last week's PMA Foodservice Conference & Expo was as healthy of a show as we could've imagined. It felt amazing to see so many of our favorite faces after nearly two years apart.
While it didn't feel exactly the same as a pre-pandemic event (and we certainly wouldn't expect it to), the connections made and the experience had was rich. Here are our takeaways from the expo:
Here's What Blew Us Away at PMA Foodservice 2021
Being Together is a Step Forward
After the year we have all experienced, it is no surprise that the opportunity to see our industry friends, colleagues and peers face-to-face was just about enough for the DMA team. Sure there have been other tradeshows in 2021, and we've been very aware of the people from California who we've missed seeing. It was made abundantly clear by leaders at PMA as well as the people in attendance at PMA Foodservice, whether from California or otherwise, that we were all very grateful for the opportunity to be present and together once again in Monterey in support of foodservice.
Labor Shortage Woes are a Resounding Struggle
PMA's Chief Strategy & Membership Officer, Lauren M. Scott, lead the keynote which included the impact that "the great resignation" is having on the foodservice industry. While out of work during the pandemic, many foodservice workers took on new types of work to make ends meet. Now, in search of more flexibility and happiness, millions of people are not returning despite the surging demand and reopening of businesses. Think we're exaggerating? A record 4 million people quit their jobs in April 2021 alone, according to the Labor Department.
Echoed throughout the conversations we had at the event, labor shortages are wreaking havoc on not only the foodservice industry, but the entire supply chain from all angles. From field harvesters to packers, transportation support all the way to the service providers at restaurants, times have changed. During the opening session discussion, the audience was asked: what can we do to solve the problem? Short of contacting our legislators to emphasize how current economic conditions are affecting our industry, the answer was resounding: focus on innovative solutions that make our operations more efficient. Which brings us to our next takeaway...
Fresh-Cut Solutions for the Win
According to a US Foodservice Trends Report for 2021 by Mintel, while many consumers are scraping by, others are thriving as evidenced by the rise in fast food and luxury goods sales. The report goes on to share how some restaurant chains are experiencing some of the best financial quarters in their company's history, while many independent operators are closing at a rapid rate. In light of this, restaurants are having to act nimbly and scale menus to serve those that are still dining out and cut back on unnecessary expenses.
This offers a significant opportunity for fresh-cut processors to jump in with solutions that help restaurants address the ongoing labor shortages while creating nimble menu solutions that meet operators' immediate business needs.
Several of these solutions were present across the show floor. HMC Farms had their new, ready-to-eat grape slices on display - positioning themselves as providing innovative, time-saving solutions for foodservice operators.
Another innovative approach was seen with Wonderful's new seedless lemons. Imagine the time this could save de-seeding for the likes of bar staff mixing cocktails or pastry chefs baking lemony treats?!
Collaboration and Creativity are Viable Solutions
At DMA, we often like to take a step back and consider the "what if" of any given scenario. What if we had an unlimited marketing budget? What if we had a helicopter drop thousands of bags with parachutes of fruit over food deserts? While listening to Lauren speak, we wondered, "What if restaurants worked smarter to work more together instead of working harder to compete?"
What if a BBQ restaurant cross promoted and operated with the best burger joint in town? What if they had a pop up together during the fall when outdoor activity will be at its height for the year? What if, what if, what if?
While consumers are at the helm of the foodservice industry's success, whether they decide to eat out or not, or whether they choose to support local or a chain, what is stopping us from working together to adapt and capitalize on both? Bureaucratic business operations have their pros and their cons. When it comes to quality and food safety, bureaucracy has a value. But when it comes to creativity and innovative thinking, you know that bureaucracies are a weakness!
The suppliers that are willing to stretch and think creatively to serve foodservice operators in new and innovative ways will succeed. The same can be said for the role of restaurants in the US! Creative thinking and adopting innovative ideas from your suppliers and your patrons may save your business at the end of the day.
Consider a Flexitarian Approach
Whether you're a supplier to a foodservice business or you're running a foodservice business, the opportunity for you both is the same and is also a significant one. Flexitarian dining has been growing in popularity for years and is now at a peak since the pandemic began. According to a report from 210 Analytics, flexitarian consumption was up by 4% YOY mid-pandemic compared to the year prior, lowering overall meat consumption in the US. While consumers still do by and large eat meat, this shift elevates an opportunity for foodservice operators.
How is your menu offering more plant-based solutions that cater to this growing audience? How are your suppliers teeing up solutions to your needs for more flexitarian options or better yet, how can you work together to shape solutions that include more plant-based foods?
During the Chef's Creative Lunch, Duda Farm Fresh Foods showcased a delicious flexitarian-friendly dish in the lunch bag offerings. The Dandy Super Sweet Corn Harvest Bowl created by Chef Todd Fisher includes sweet potatoes, celery, and green onions, along with a zesty coriander and cumin dusted cauliflower and red onion mixture tossed with forbidden rice and quinoa that is out of this world! (You can get the recipe here.) Working with suppliers to create menu items that follow this growing consumer trend is another viable solution for foodservice companies to consider.
Social Distancing on the Show Floor & Networking
Yes, the show floor felt different than it has in recent years and we fully expected this to be the case given the state of the pandemic. We were happy to see exhibitors that we know well participating in the show and seeking to help get the foodservice sector out of its current slump. After speaking with several exhibiting companies, we were pleased to hear that most of them had the opportunity to network with their customers face-to-face during the event and even found new customers to help! This was music to our ears and we know that PMA was glad to hear it as well.
Networking events were heavily attended and felt like the good 'ole days. During the closing reception at the Barns, delicious hors d'oeuvres were passed and colleagues toasted with chilled wines and craft beer. It was an excellent site to see.
Booth Marketing & Engagement Tactics
Truth be told, we weren't expecting the moon and the stars from a booth marketing perspective (as we usually do and celebrate in this post). Instead, we expected to see less people and we weren't quite sure how masks or booth engagement would actually shake out. What we found on the show floor felt refreshing! People were happy to engage with one another responsibly. Masks were worn by some (not all) and we found that overall people were present, engaging with their colleagues and experiencing what it's like to be face-to-face again in a tradeshow setting.
From a marketing perspective, we noticed several booths that featured QR codes with links back to sales kits and information, like this example pictured from Duda Farm Fresh Foods. We noticed less paper or physical handouts in general and a bigger nod to sustainable messaging throughout the show. Exhibitors like Lakeside Produce gave booth visitors pencils that could be planted in the soil to upcycle and create edible sprouts! These little touches amounted up to a lot of thoughtful planning and care for elements of the show that likely normally go unnoticed.
What blew us away most?
The countless hugs, thousands of smiles, dozens of toasts and a general sense of community that took over the show blew us away and made our hearts full. It was evident in Monterey that we had missed one another and were back to not only being together, but also to serve a purpose for our industry.
Speaking of being together, how ready are you for our next industry event? If there is anything we can do to help you from a messaging or public relations perspective to get you ready to tell your story best, we're here to help.