Highlights from the Fast Casual Executive Summit

For three days in the later part of October, more than 200 fast casual executives and suppliers came together to discuss issues impacting the segment and the restaurant industry overall. Topics of discussion included flavor and menu trends, workforce engagement, reputation management and commodities.

Suzy Badaracco, founder of Culinary Tides, delivered the opening keynote while Tom Feltenstein, founder of Power Marketing Academy, captivated attendees during his luncheon presentation: Building Sales through Strategy, Passion & Energy.

"What are you doing that's remarkable? Are you waiting for the next ad to break to bring everybody to come in or are you working your four walls? That's where branding starts: inside," Feltenstein said. "Awesome hospitality is defined as an experience that is random and unexpected and out of proportion to the circumstances that creates positive, compelling word of mouth.

"I'm not so much interested in service anymore; service is just a mechanical skill. You serve from the left you serve from the right. People don't really care how their wine is decanted; what they want is that heartfelt connection between two people. That's what it's all about."

After Feltenstein's keynote, operators broke down into several groups to discuss industry best practices as they related to consumer insights, special-needs diners, mobile trends, food safety, local-store marketing and healthcare reform, among others. On day three, they were given a legislative update by Sue Hensley, the National Restaurant Association's senior vice president of public affairs communications.

Hensley gave the audience a rare bit of good economic news: For the 11th straight year, restaurant industry job growth has outperformed the overall economy.

"Our industry is one of the few small bright spots," she said.

There was plenty of uncertainty to be laid out in the NRA's "Washington Report," but Hensley's keynote in Chicago primarily focused on four victories she said the restaurant industry has experienced in the past year.

Those victories included the NRA's Kids Live Well program launched in July. Additionally, she discussed how the restaurant industry has been "successful in heading off the patchwork of state and federal menu labeling laws" that were in the works. In their place, a new federal standard requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide calories on menus, menu boards and drive-thrus, and make other written info available on request.

In regard to trends presented at the Summit, foodservice market research firm The NPD Group displayed new data that showed tap water as one of the fastest growing beverages ordered at U.S. restaurants, while revenue-generating beverages have been declining over the past five years.

Tap water servings currently represent 8 percent of the 50 billion beverage servings ordered at restaurants, according to NPD's CREST service, which continually tracks consumer use of restaurants.

Within the past five years, restaurant traffic has dropped 1 percent, and total beverage servings, excluding tap water, have witnessed a 6 percent drop. This is a decline of 2.7 billion servings, according to NPD's report "Beverages at Foodservice: Satisfying Our Thirst for Beverages."

"Although the economy and high unemployment are factors in tap water's upswing and beverage servings declines, some beverages, like carbonated soft drinks were declining prior to the recession," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst and author of the report. "A key learning from this report is that much of the declines in beverage servings are tied to the price/value relationship the consumer perceives."

One of the many reasons consumers gave for not ordering carbonated soft drinks and other non-growth beverages was the cost of these drinks.

"Some declining beverages will fare better as the economy recovers, but beverage providers will need to address consumers' concerns and poor value perceptions to stem further losses," Riggs said.

Throughout the event, operators and other attendees were given opportunities to connect and network. Click on the links to access photos from the food tour, networking receptions and education sessions. In addition, copies of every presentation have been posted on FastCasual.com. Videos of our keynote speakers, Suzy Badaracco, Tom Feltenstein, Sue Hensley and our CEO panel also can now be viewed from the website.

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