Restaurant trends, challenges addressed at Western Foodservice & Hospitality Expo

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Concerns about the choppy economic outlook, the impact of the federal health care mandate, and rising commodity costs were the top issues on the minds of West Coast restaurant operators who gathered in Anaheim, Calif. on Sunday for the annual Western Foodservice & Hospitality Expo.

The annual three-day conference, sponsored by the California Restaurant Association, or CRA, was co-located for the fourth consecutive year with the Expo Comida Latina, a food-and-beverage trade show featuring Latin flavors. The event is scheduled to run through Tuesday evening.

Typically, the conference alternates between Los Angeles and San Diego every year, but the show landed this year for the first time at the Anaheim Convention Center, which is about halfway between the two metropolitan areas in restaurant-chain-rich Orange County, Calif., representing a big chunk of the CRA’s membership, said Jot Condie, the association’s president and chief executive.

While the economy in California has improved significantly over the past year, Condie said challenges remain as cities such as San Jose consider a minimum wage increase and operators struggle with increasing regulation.

Voters in San Jose this November will consider a ballot measure that would raise the minimum wage there from $8 to $10 with automatic annual increases. “If it passes, it will have a contagion effect in other cities,” said Condie, and state lawmakers make see it as “setting a different floor.”

Condie said the CRA is also working with state lawmakers on the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, under which employer mandates for health care coverage go into effect in 2014. “But the November election nationally could have an impact on how it’s implemented,” he said.

Consumer sentiment, food trends revealed

In educational sessions during the conference, Melissa Wilson, principal of market research firm Technomic Inc., said 2012 was off to a good start, with many limited-service and full-service restaurant chains posting positive same-store sales compared with last year.

However, consumer confidence remains low, and job growth has been sluggish. Looming next year is another round of spiking commodity inflation that is expected to result from this summer’s severe drought in the Midwest.

In a survey of consumers in early June, Technomic found that less than one-third of respondents felt the economy has improved, while 44 percent said things have gotten worse, and 29 percent said they have stayed the same, Wilson said.

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