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SHFM Report: How Does It Feel?

“Pretend you’re giving the food away for free and they pay you only for how you make them feel.”
That was an intriguing suggestion made by noted restaurateur Danny Meyer (Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Shake Shack, etc.) to the 200-some attendees of the Society for Hospitality & Foodservice Management Annual Conference at the Mohegan Sun resort in Connecticut during the opening general session on November 5th.
Meyer, who also operates onsite dining venues in several museums and sports facilities (Museum of Modern Art, Citi Field, etc.), talked about the values he tries to instill in his establishments. Paramount among them is that “how do you make them feel” ethos Meyer says came to him in a concrete way two decades ago.
That was when he was puzzled by the rating his Union Café had received in the 1994 Zagat Survey, which named it the third most popular restaurant in New York City. However, Union Cafe wasn’t ranked anywhere nearly that high in any of the specific rating categories like décor, food or service. Only in the overall “most popular” category.
“It didn’t add up,” he said.
But then it hit him. It wasn’t the specifics that made Union Café so popular, it was that patrons loved it and kept coming back because they liked how it made them feel.
So, how does you foodservice operation make your customers feel? Is it a relaxing, comforting space that is a break from their hectic work or education place? Or is it simply a necessity they can take or leave if they have to? Are you simply a commodity service or unavoidable necessity, or are you a go-to place?
What if the food was given for free but the patrons paid you for that feeling you give them? Are you earning the money?
I thought it was a very telling insight.

Meyer’s talk was only one of the activities on SHFM’s first full attendance day. The previous day was reserved for liaisons and self-operators and also featured an opening evening reception highlighted by a culinary competition among students from three schools—Johnson & Wales, CIA and University of Massachusetts—hosted by celebrity chef Jet Tila and including celebrity chef Marc Forgione as one of the judges. The winner received a $5,000 scholarship and the two runners up split another $5,000.
Another session of note on the first full day of the SHFM Conference saw veteran trend watcher Harry Balzer of NPD Group provide some insights on what Americans are eating. Some of his observations…
• of the ten food/beverage items that saw the greatest growth in the past year, eight are hand held/portable and only a couple require an implement (that would be spoons for No. 1 yogurt and forks and knives for No. 10 pancakes);
• many foods that are touted as growing in consumption remain at miniscule consumption levels. Balzer cited kale, which recently grew 300%(!) from, er, 1% to 3% of consumers eating it at least once a week;
• the great “healthier eating” trend…isn’t. Actually, the ten most popular food and beverage items among Americans haven’t changed at all in the past decade, though a few reshuffled their positions in the list. Fruits did tick up, though.
• “We change our behavior for only two reasons: convenience and money.”
• “People will always try new things but when they do, we mistake it as a trend.” This, Balzer noted, explains the fruitfly lifespans of supposedly trendy foods: people are always ready to try something new…until something else new comes along and replaces it.

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