Last month Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake made global headlines when he told the Brookings Institute that the recession is “very likely over.” If the recession is, in fact, over, what does that mean for the foodservice industry?

Joseph M. Carbonara, Editor in Chief
Joseph M. Carbonara, Editor in Chief

In the short-term, this ray of economic hope probably does not mean much to the foodservice industry. Foodservice operators’ equipment and supplies budgets are expected to decrease by 2.8 percent, on average, in 2010 according to FE&S annual Forecast Study. In contrast, 39 percent of the operators surveyed anticipate an increase in their food and beverage expenditures, while 45 percent anticipate this budget item will remain flat. Overall, we project that foodservice equipment and supplies sales for 2010 will remain flat when compared to this year.

Naturally, this means another year of belt tightening for the consultants, dealers, manufacturers, reps and service agents that serve them. Exactly how long it will take for the industry to return to a period of real, sustainable growth remains to be seen. And unlike Bernake’s proclamation that the recession has ended, I doubt that anyone in the foodservice industry will make a similar statement announcing that the community has entered a reovery mode. The foodservice industry’s transition to an overall growth mode will likely be very gradual as it will take time to restore consumer confidence to a point where they are actually purchasing food prepared away from the home at a greater level than they are today.

There’s no disputing the fact that consumers’ have altered their purchasing habits in light of a volatile business climate. For example, 58.4 percent of consumers say they are choosing less costly restaurants in response to the down economy, according to Restaurants and Institutions’ 2009 New American Diner study. But consumers’ change in purchasing habits goes beyond trading down. Consumers are also cutting back on what they order, as is evidenced by the fact that 74.3 percent say that skipping appetizers helps them trim their check averages. And consumers continue to scrutinize the very notion of going out to eat. In fact, 32.3 percent of consumers feel that all meal occasions are subject to being trimmed when it comes to managing their personal budgets.

For foodservice operators, the key to recovery is understanding how their core customers have altered their consumption patterns and react accordingly. The addition of value menu items and limited time offers represents a terrific short-term option as consumers watch every penny spent on food. But it’s important to pair these steps with a long-term, more strategic approach.

As their customers go through this type of evolution, foodservice equipment and supplies companies need to make the investment to get closer to the operator base they serve. During challenging times like these, it’s easy to cut back the travel and manage the other expenses. While that might be a fiscally prudent move for some companies, cutting back on customer contact can’t be good for any organization.

Today we often bemoan the fact that information technology, in the form of email, cell phones and the like, has considerably sped up the pace of the business world compared to just a few short years ago. While this has undoubtedly altered the way we do business and communicate with one another, perhaps now is the time to use these tools to your advantage as you strive to stay connected and evolve with your customers’ needs.

That way, when the recession is finally over for the foodservice industry, you and your company will be poised for immediate growth.