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Variety is a Many-Splendored Thing

Trade magazine editors are often quizzed by foodservice manufacturers about their marketplace, with one of the most common questions being, “How can my company better approach your readers about the products we have to offer them?”

The short and simple (but, alas, not always as easy-to-implement) answer I like to give is that they should learn as much as they can about the way target market segments operate, and then study in even greater depth key individual operators within those segments.

The goal should be to better understand the specific challenges those individual customers face and the business objectives they are trying to reach. With this homework done, new and existing products and lines can be pitched or customized with real-life uses and applications in mind.

That said, I often remind manufacturers that there are some challenges virtually every FM reader faces, and that marketing activities can seldom go wrong if they position a food product to address these.

The example I often use is the need directors have to offer menu variety at every meal. Unlike commercial restaurants with established menus and a couple of daily specials, our readers must appeal to the same diners over and over again, every day, and finding ways to offer continuing menu variety is a never ending challenge.

But how do customers or operators define the variety they want or are seeking to achieve? I posed that question to a sampling of readers over the course of the summer show season. Variety, it turns out, is not as simple as it seems.

"A lot of what operators think is variety is really confusion," says Charlie Stock, vice president of operations for JPMorganChase

"Variety is not offering 25 menu items. It is offering eight items, four of which a customer actually wants to buy."

"Variety is as much about daily menu changes as it is about which items are on the menu," says Dan Farrell, assistant director at University of Washington. "You can offer 20 items at lunch, but if it is the same 20 things, Monday through Friday, our customers don’t consider that variety."

"Lots of options become one option, agrees Mary Molt, associate director at Kansas State University. "The same 60 items are the same 60 items."

And achieving variety is not as simple as changing or rotating that menu mix. FSDs who deal with the same customer base every day have to know them well, emphasizes another director I spoke to.

"Variety is not simply having choice-—it’s having the right choice, my choice. It’s having what I want when I want it. If I want chicken wings every day, I will love your variety if you offer them every day."

Customer expectations for variety often are colored by what they see in the outside environment.

"When your students go to a restaurant on the weekend and see something new, and you do not have it, they will see your variety as lacking," says another college FSD.

The same factors operate in K-12, where young customers’ expectations for variety are frequently driven by the advertising and promotions they are exposed to elsewhere.

"Variety is having fresh food that is competitive in the sense that kids see it matching up with the promotions they see on TV and in their communities," says John Peukert, assistant to the superintendent for business operations at the San Bernardino (CA) School District.

Part of the challenge is managing customer perceptions, and that goes beyond the menu itself. One reader I spoke to with a smaller operation decided to make pizza a daily option instead of offering it twice a week on a menu that always offers three entrees. In effect, the menu was expanded, since there were now four options every day. But customers didn’t perceive it that way.

"The perception was that they had lost choices, and that all we wanted to push was pizza," she says. "We got beat up really badly over that, even though pizza remains popular and we didn’t take anything away. Part of it was its placement in our facility—it was first in the line every day."

So back to my advice to manufacturers: If you have a product that can be used in different ways beyond its obvious application, make sure reps and customers know that. In addition to featuring recipes, promotional materials should also make suggestions about how those items can be named and described on a menu so they appeal to today’s more sophisticated diners.

If secondary ingredients can customize an ordinary application, describe their use. Show how the product can mesh with the theme meals and promotions that are another way onsite operators add variety to meal periods.

Whatever you do, remember that operators don’t look to add products to their menu—they look to add variety. Make sure your products are positioned to help them do so.

rade magazine editors are often quizzed by foodservice manufacturers about their marketplace, with one of the most common questions being, "How can my company better approach your readers about the products we have to offer them?"


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