IFMA COEX 2024: Key Themes and Industry Trends


KANSAS CITY, Missouri – The food away-from-home ecosystem, including suppliers, manufacturers, and operators, convened at the Loews Kansas City Hotel March 3 through March 6 for COEX 2024, hosted by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association (IFMA). Attendees were treated to three days of face-to-face meetings, networking events, emerging food trends, and data sessions.

Phil Kafarakis, IFMA president and CEO, was proud to report operator representation increased for this year’s iteration of the Chain Operator Exchange event, and that 50% of foodservice operator attendees were first-time visitors.

He also noted that since IFMA had opened its doors to more members of the industry following the 2023 Presidents Conference, attendance was more representative of all parts of the food away-from-home ecosystem.

“We’re very excited about the kickoff of the year. And now we’re going to build off of this with the other programs, at the Virtual Marketing & Sales Conference and then Presidents Conference at the end of the year,” he told The Food Institute at the event.

To Succeed, ‘Find a Way’

Josh Linkner issued the opening keynote for the COEX 2024 and noted that creativity and innovation was critical for continued growth and success. He also noted that research had found all humans are naturally drawn to creativity, but that it manifested in different ways.

He argued that the foodservice industry was being called to lead in a fresh manner, and that the headwinds the industry is facing are clear: it would no longer suffice to rely on the models of the past and expect new results. He also encouraged leaders to think small when innovating.

“We think that innovators take these high-risk moonshots, that they are always swinging for the fences, but the best of the best do the opposite. They cultivate small daily acts of creativity and think of them as micro-innovations on a high-frequency basis,” he said.

‘The Next Normal’ Emerges in 2024

Bruce Reinstein and Tim Hand, both partners with Kinetic 12, developed a timeline of the post-pandemic period for operators, and noted that 2024 was the beginning of “The Next Normal.” This period would require a balancing act for both growth and profitability.

“Now let’s define ‘The Next Normal.’ We’re defining it as not fighting the fire of the day, but about getting back to kind of the pillars of business management, which is managing these two things – growth and profitability,” said Hand.

The pair discussed how the top operator concerns per data from their Emergence Chain Restaurant Group in the first quarter of 2024 centered around building customer traffic, but also maintaining it.

To do so, many said they were trying to be more consistent with their menu executions (51%), adding or expanding a loyalty program (44%), and building a happier or more engaged staff (44%).

“So you’ve done all the work, you have additional new consumers, you have loyalty, but are you actually keeping those consumers? So that’s a concern. It’s a big concern, but in the end, if you’re not profitable it doesn’t matter how much traffic you have,” said Reinstein.

A Focus on Labor and Listening to Your Team

Another key COEX 2024 theme was a focus on labor, with Brinker International CEO and president Kevin Hochman sharing how empowering store employees led to better results for the company.

He shared an anecdote about an employee who felt they were wasting their time counting shrimp, which led to a simplification effort that saved millions of dollars while improving the guest experience.

Hochman said eliminating unnecessary tasks would allow team members to focus on core responsibilities and improving the guest experience, which remains the core for any hospitality business. And by listening to team members, the company saw positive results.

“The biggest thing is they know that their ideas are going to show up quickly in the updates that we do, so they feel like they’re a part of the future. And I think when you can get a large team feeling like they are a part of paving the future…you’re going to be more excited to stay there,” Hochman noted in an on-stage conversation with Kafarakis.

Core Menus Shrink, LTOs Continue to Reign Supreme

Megan Lynberg, vice president of sales at Datassential, revealed data showing a 9% increase in limited-time offer (LTO) introductions at chain locations since 2021, showcasing the staying power of the offerings. The average chain added 22 new items per year, with Starbucks (104), TGI Fridays (77), and Taco Bell (66) at the head of the pack.

When it comes to the types of LTOs introduced in 2023, the top categories were somewhat surprising: non-alcoholic beverages (589), desserts (54), and appetizers & sides (405) were the most popular categories for LTO introductions.

“A lot of consumers are going to be motivated to visit a restaurant when you’re offering an LTO or something that they’d like to try, so there is benefit to that item being new and exclusive,” shared Lynberg.

Global Flavors and Differentiated Ingredients

Lizzy Freier, director of menu research and insights at Technomic, shared that 40% of consumers want restaurants to offer foods with complex flavor combinations. As a result, more chain operators were offering dishes and drinks that offer those types of experiences.

She noted five flavors, sauces, and ingredients in particular that were gaining traction:

  • Chraimeh sauce
  • Awaze
  • Schisandra berry
  • Bulldog sauce
  • Jeow som

She also noted consumers were looking for more differentiated ingredients. Instead of just apple, they would be looking for Pink Lady or Granny Smith descriptors on a menu.

“It’s just that kind of added attention to detail and it’s something that a lot of consumers are very much craving. And in addition to this, we are seeing an influx of regional or country callouts directly on menus as well. And this is coinciding with the fact that consumers are increasingly interested in more global cuisines and regional cuisines on menus.,” she said.

Finding Ways to Engage with the Health-Minded Consumer

Jack Li, co-founder and executive chairman of Datassential, served as the anchor presenter of COEX 2024 and noted that the fastest-growing chains in the country were those that engaged consumers with health and wellness.

He also pointed to the growth of wearable devices that can monitor blood glucose levels on a nearly instantaneous basis as a major source of change for how consumers will eat.

“With wearables that are measuring things, people will make a very direct and immediate connection between what they eat and what they do and how they exercise and all the other aspects of life, and what’s actually happening to their body in real time. The shortening of that connection, that immediacy is what I think is going to drive changes in consumer behavior,” he said.