Restaurant Trends, Challenges Addressed At Western Foodservice & Hospitality Expo

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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Still, consumers have a pent up desire to eat out, particularly at fast-casual restaurants, which continue to show the highest rate of growth. Wilson said 77 fast-casual chains reported more than 20 percent sales growth last year, showing far more growth than other segments.

In an overview of food trends on restaurant menus, Wilson said beverages are a key area of innovation, including everything from health-friendly coconut water and fresh juices to energy drinks and specialty teas. On the show floor, which included about 500 exhibitors, emerging trends included all-natural or organic beverages.

Better-for-you items, such as Greek yogurt, also remain hot. Other increasingly popular ingredients include woodland-foraged foods, such as mushrooms, nettles and ramps, as well as heirloom grains and produce.

Chefs, execs and students compete in Culinary Clash

A number of top executives from the CRA's board gathered at the show Sunday for the Culinary Clash: Battle Anaheim, a competition of teams from 10 chains in a benefit that raised about $45,000 to benefit the CRA Educational Foundation.

The challenge was to prepare a dish using scallops and lamb in less than 45 minutes using only two butane burners. The dishes were judged by a panel that included Ferdinand Metz of the Master Chefs Institute and former Top Chef contestant Betty Fraser.

The competition had top executives and chefs paired with high school students in the ProStart program to prepare the dishes, which were judged by varying aspects. The team from Maria's Italian Kitchen, for example, included chief executive Madelyn Alfano, corporate chef J.J. Berardis, who is also her nephew, and Imelda Morales of Santee High School in Los Angeles.

The winner for overall taste and presentation was the team from Daily Grill — though Fleming's Prime Steakhouse was the Ecolab Champ for having winning food safety and sanitation practices.

The team from Yard House, which included Herrmann and founding chef Carlito Jocson, along with Ramiro Rodriguez from Newport Harbor High, raised the most money with a Facebook campaign that garnered $1,240.

Also during the show, Mariann Costello, vice president of the 47-year-old Scoma's Restaurant in San Francisco, was named CRA chair, replacing outgoing chairman Harald Herrmann, chief executive of Yard House Restaurants. On deck for the chairman's job next year is vice chair Kevin McCarney, founder of the Poquito Mas chain, based in Los Angeles.

Next year, the Western Expo is scheduled for Aug. 18-20 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Contact Lisa Jennings at
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