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Customer Development Strategies in a Post-Pandemic Environment

sticky notes on corkboard

The pandemic has forever changed the foodservice industry, especially how suppliers acquire and develop customers.

And it’s a long time coming for an industry used to massive trade shows, guided cuttings and golf outings for aligning sellers and customers.

On May 27, The Food Institute brought together three keen observers of the foodservice supply chain—Art Bell, partner, Kinetic12; Taylor Crown, president, Acosta Foodservice; and Bob Goldin, co-founder and senior partner of Pentallect Inc. to share their insights related to changes in the customer acquisition and development process.

Bell kicked off the discussion by sharing Kinetic12’s Emergence research on supplier/buyer relations.

Whereas Kinetic12’s Emergence Report for the first quarter of 2021 identified “insights into categories, consumer behavior and the industry” as the most important industry need, ”kitchen/labor/prep simplification and labor cost reduction” jumped to the top spot in the Q2 report.

Bell’s acquisition strategy recommendations included:

  • Integrating virtual sales acquisition tactics with traditional tactics
  • Creating differentiated acquisition tactics based on operator segments

Acosta’s Crown agreed that the labor crunch was a major shift for the industry. He also noted that menu simplification was important and combining digital with face to face is one of the most challenging changes. As Crown said, “We have learned new ways to interact and do business digitally yet culturally we long for human interaction.”

Goldin of Pentallect added that the industry is being challenged by many legacy practices, including organizational design and deployment, order management and customer interface. He added, “Many trade customers seem comfortable with new approaches and don’t really miss the old ones.”

Menu Insights and Labor Problems

The industry experts said that the pandemic presented “a historic opportunity to reset relationships” between sellers and buyers. And while ZOOM presentations and virtual tastings will be part of the future, I believe that the foodservice industry will not abandon its reliance on the personal touch that is important to those who sell, prepare and serve food. Taste and one-to-one selling will continue to be significant.

Acosta employs 60 culinary chefs that play a role in sourcing and the development of menu items. And those creative roles are not being abandoned as the foodservice industry struggles with labor challenges and margin pressures. Menus are currently being shortened to manage costs. But that may be a temporary fix.

When asked, “In five years, will there be more food choices available to the U.S. consumer or fewer?” Bell, Goldin and Crown agreed that menu choices will grow. American consumers are interested in more cuisines and suppliers are developing products that will make these global and regional tastes more available across the country, from major cities to rural towns.

Consumers are tired of their own home cooking. Although they may make their “signature mac and cheese” on Tuesday, they will go out on Friday and try something new. And the foodservice industry will be there to satisfy those expanded appetites.”

Ron Tanner, currently a senior advisor for The Food Institute, has observed and reported on the food industry for more than four decades, including 33 years with the Specialty Food Association. He has also presented hundreds of educational programs about the industry.