The Food Industry and Its Future Are Critical to Our Economy When was the last time you took a minute to think about how food gets to your table? Why not start now?
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Before Covid-19, few people would've considered the idea of a country like America running out of staple items such as corn and baby formula. Since the pandemic, restaurants have closed, delivery has exploded and consumer preferences have changed. At the same time, supply chain problems have become a concerning new norm that goes beyond the empty shelves at supermarkets.
We'll see the effects on menus when we dine out at restaurants and cafes, as proteins, fryer oil, packing materials and replacement appliance parts become harder to come by. Add in mass resignation and an industry-wide lack of chefs, food servers, farmers, field hands and anyone working with food, and prices will continue to soar. Birthday parties, weddings, even when business leadership wants to impress investors or celebrate team experiences with catered corporate functions, they'll feel that tighter squeeze on their budget. Food companies support families and drive economies, but since the pandemic, we've been learning the hard way how important a functioning food industry really is.
I may have retired from my day job, but I haven't left this industry. In my new approach to business — as a consumer and an expert advisor, not CEO — I get to see so much more of it. Turns out, the industry of feeding people is enormous. As I started to realize how many moving parts really go into getting people their food, the set of considerations for improving quality and safety and how deep all the moving pieces of a food business actually run, here are few that surprised me.
Bigger than a breadbox
Restaurants may not seem like an integral cog in a functioning economy, but they generate jobs, not only in-house staff and management, but in agriculture and transportation. In the U.S. alone, the food industry drives about 5 percent of total GDP, supports 11% of employment and accounts for 10 percent of consumer discretionary income. Globally, food consumption accounts for $4 trillion in spending. When restaurants thrive, the food industry behind them thrives, and when restaurants crash, the economy can go along with it.
From the waitress serving our meal to the chefs who cook it, the management who runs the restaurant, and the truck drivers, farmers, brewers and distillers who supply it; even technology innovators play an integral part of getting food on our table, and each moving part comes with its own complexity. Attention to ethics and sustainability details at every production point, especially in a time of economic recession, can give companies in a struggling industry a competitive edge.
Three guys who opened a beer garden in Pasadena, California celebrate their food like no one in the industry, considering every angle of each moving part to bring the most value to their consumers. They make sure their products are ethically-sourced, use readily and locally available ingredients where possible, and buy everything from the right people. When consumers sit down to dine in their restaurant, they get to feel the confidence of knowing and approving every aspect of the financial support they give.
A chef is more than a chef
All my years running a business in the food industry never prepared me for what I learned serving on company boards. When I accepted the position on the James Beard Foundation board, I thought the company simply celebrated great chefs and went in focused on what I could bring to the awards aspect of their business. Of course, being a James Beard Award-Winning chef is pinnacle to their brand, but being on their board taught me about the real work they do in supporting the journey of a chef.
The foundation helps train young chefs to understand what it takes beyond cooking good food. They offer workshops and programs on the business side of being a chef. Skills training can keep them competitive and better quality tools give them more ways to prepare beautiful food, and the contribution of each lets them continue to curate their craft. Suddenly, the conversation around the industry of food expanded to include knife makers, appliance manufacturers, and cutting-edge culinary technologies.
Like many industries, chefs need more representation and the foundation works to make the restaurant industry more inclusive. Women make up less than one-quarter of the country's chefs and, on average, they make over $10,000 less than men, so the foundation provides programs to support more female chefs in the industry. My experience on the foundation's board drew my attention to the connection between food and major social issues, like diversity and gender equality. Learning all the complexities of being a chef opened my eyes to just how big the food industry really is.
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We can run the industry better
Working for a massive franchise, it might seem like I learned all there was to know about the food industry, but now I get to learn how to do it better. Since retiring, I started consulting, started to see the industry at a much grander scale, and now get to advise aspects I never had time for as a CEO: the vertical integration of commodities, competitive purchasing and global markets. Consulting offers me even more ways to see and participate in an industry I have always loved and lets me offer my years of expertise to the next generation who will lead the innovation of that industry.
It may be enormous and critical to our economy, but there will always be new considerations to make the food industry and everything it touches bigger and better. Consumer demand continues to drive sustainability and I love to watch the transition as people pay more attention to the trend, making it less expensive and easier to participate and scale. I visited a new paper plant producing sustainable packaging items — an evolution away from plastic and an exciting new direction for the industry. The beauty of business is seeing new generations take what we've done well and do it better. That's how an industry not only grows to enormity, but thrives.
Related: Market Forces Alone Likely Won't Solve the Food-Security Problem
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