TRENDS AND EMERGING CHALLENGES IN THE FOODSERVICE SECTOR OF THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY

Susina Jooste

When considering the development in the food production and foodservice sectors of the hospitality industry, it is evident that some trends follow a life-time cycle while others re-appear after a few years. Trends usually have a longer than ten-year lifespan which show upward or downward tendencies, as they are affected by broad external factors that influence specific industries. This discussion focuses on some of the prominent trends in various upward growth stages and indicates how it aligns with emerging challenges and the development of innovative technology for the foodservice sector.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution for the foodservice sector

The ‘Fourth’ Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 is not just about technology, but more about an emerging and disruptive interdependence of supply-driven technological innovations and demand-driven businesses. According to Fahnle (2019), the Fourth Industrial Revolution will even change the way in how we understand to be human and state that “our perceptions of humanity will shift as intelligence is increasingly augmented, personality is present in machines, tissue is being regrown and renewed, muscle and skeletal systems are improved, and brains are retrained to respond to compensatory artificial stimuli”.

There is however reason for concern when observing that the foodservice sector might be falling behind and not yet fully acknowledging the impact that Industry 4.0will have on individual businesses and their customers. People, process, product and technology should develop in parallel to create an environment in which Industry 4.0 practices are applied for sustainable success. The growth and popularity of the Internet of Things (IoT), supported by Artificial Intelligence (AI), will have major impacts on food production systems, -supply chains, -storage, -processing, -safety and -service. Innovative technology that makes use of big data analytics to better understand customer behaviours or connected devices to improve food safety are becoming common use in the foodservice industry. A few current examples of innovative technology include:

  • Counter systems that can track when, where and which food is served to specific customers, and which can identify their unique preferences, personal and demographic information.
  • Intelligent refrigerated storage which can help managing the purchasing process as it not only keeps track of the exact amount of stock at hand, but also of each item’s expiry date.
  • Technology to monitor a product’s lifecycle, including food rescue Apps, which contribute to maintaining food safety practises and assist in the management of food waste.
  • Intelligent labelling which integrates wireless labelling, software applications and cloud platforms to enable consumers to scan product labels with their smart phones to obtain detailed product information, while also providing data to the manufacturer about the consumer’s location, preferences, buying patterns and demography.
  • A new type of Pasteurisation which make perishable food shelf-stable for up to three months, such as ‘fresh’ potato fries, which were usually sold frozen.
  • Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), a vacuum packaging system that improves safety and extend the shelf-life of perishable food products by reducing the oxygen levels inside the packaged food. According to Sizer and Whitney (2020:457), “the food is packaged in a gas-impermeable container from which air is removed or to which an oxygen-free gas mixture, such as carbon-dioxide and nitrogen, is added to deprive microbes of oxygen”. Typically, these food items include soft fresh pasta or gnocchi that are available on supermarket shelfs in plastic pouches. Reduced oxygen levels inhibit the growth of micro-organisms that depend on oxygen for survival, prevents the discoloration of vegetables and fruit, slows ripening of fruit, slows enzyme-induces vitamin breakdown and prevents fats from becoming rancid.
  • More and more foodservice operations are moving away from presenting hard copy menus to customers and digital or touchless menus are becoming the norm. Customers use their mobile phones to scan a Quick Response (QR) code that is displayed in the restaurant or on the table to instantly access detailed information about the menu and the organisation. One of the biggest advantages of presenting the menu by means of a QR code is that the organisation can easily change and update all menus to ensure accuracy of information, while specific menu items can also be visually emphasised to promote sales.

Health, vegetarianism and plant-based foods

One of the most consistent trends in the foodservice industry is the ever-increasing demand for and prominence of healthy food. The growing awareness of the nutritional value of food items is not only visible in the expansion of specialist health food shops, but also on restaurant menus and in everyday eating patterns in most households. The current consumer is nutritionally conscious and informed, and they continuously consider the nutritional content of the food they eat and its long-term effect on their health. Some fast-food franchises are specialising in healthy food and offering an increasing number of vegetarian options. The multinational fast-food franchise, McDonald’s, has recently diversified its menus to include items with lower fat, salt, or sugar content. Vegetarianism is no longer considered as the exception to the rule and more people are changing to a vegetarian lifestyle, not only because of the health benefits of reduced fat and cholesterol, but also for economic reasons since non-meat products are, on average, less expensive and more sustainable.  Vegetables are no longer considered as a side-dish but presented as the main component in many meals. Upmarket restaurants are trending by introducing new ways to include items such as kale, spinach, chickpeas, lentils, and wider options of indigenous and traditional plant-based foods on their menus.

Traceability and food safety

According to the definition of the European Union, (EU, 2007), traceability refers to “the ability to track any food, food-producing animal, or any substance that will be used for consumption, through all the stages of production, processing, and distribution”. Consumers are not only concerned about the nutritional value and safety of their food, but also about its origin and how it was grown and cultivated. Tracing food through the production and distribution chain is important to identify and address risks to protect public health since traceability is in essence a risk-management system which allows authorities to withdraw or recall products that might have been identified as unsafe. Traceability forms the cornerstone of food safety policies worldwide.

Local communities and hyper-local food

The awareness to support local producers in the sourcing of food has increased further during the COVID-19 pandemic. This preference for locally sourced food items can be linked to health value and freshness, the reduced carbon emissions associated with transportation of fresh food, and the growing effort to support the smaller producers in specific communities. Home-grown or organically grown produce are sought after and prominent on supermarkets shelves and at community- and farmers markets. Many large franchises – such as McDonald’s and Burger King – already advertise that their beef is locally sourced. Restaurateurs and chefs are increasingly indicating on their menus if the food items were sourced locally by referring to its origin on their menus, for example Karoo lamb or Weskus snoek. Foodservice professionals are conscious about supporting local producers and prefer to buy the local dairy’s cheese instead of buying imported Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy, for example. There is also a trend towards replacing iconic international items, such as Norwegian Salmon, on the menus of upmarket restaurants with seafood items from local and environmentally friendly aquaculture production units, such as Franschhoek trout.

Hyperlocal foods mean that most of the ingredients used on the menus of a specific establishment were grown, raised, or cultivated by the foodservice organisation itself. This include anything from herbs, salads, vegetables, or fruit grown on the premises, the use of eggs that was laid by free-range poultry on the estate, rearing of own cattle or pigs and the production of wines, the brewing of craft beers or the making of cheese on the same site.

The food waste emergency

It is estimated that billions of tonnes of food are thrown away by foodservice organisations each year. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), an estimated one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. Food loss typically happens during the food value chain (production, storage, processing or distribution) while Food waste refers to food that is of good quality and fit for consumption but are discarded because was left to spoil.

Foodservice organisations are further generally considered as some of the largest abusers of energy and producers of waste and are now forced to respond to the pressure of becoming more environmentally friendly while remaining financially sustainable. Movements such as ‘soil to stomach’, ‘farm-to-fork’, ‘nose-to-tail’, ‘root to shoot’ are important to create awareness to control waste, limit the distance that products are transported and motivate chefs to utilise the whole food item. Chefs are creating new menu items to incorporate every edible part of the food commodity and re-focussing on making less-popular parts of an animal or plants more appealing to customers.

Wellbeing of people and place

The impact of food production, food processing, foodservice operations, buying systems and consumer patterns on the natural environment is a major concern in most countries. Foodservice organisations are taking actions to lower their environmental footprint and is switching to recyclable packaging or buying more environmentally friendly items – such as oil and cleaning supplies. Restaurants and fast-foods outlets are increasingly supporting the principles of environmentally friendliness, ethical farming and buying, and the sourcing of organic and preservative-free ingredients. Movements such as Fair Trade and Slow Food are contributing to create awareness and support the wellbeing of employees and local traditions.

Value for money fast-foods, convenience and food deliveries

According to Thomas (2019), the income of most households across the world has shrunk in recent years. The Franchise Association of South Africa (FASA) observed that consumer demands for affordable fast-food has contributed to the expansion of fast-food brands and with emphasis on ‘value-for-money’ product offerings, such as a standard burger at bargain price or a happy hour two-for-the-price-of-one pizza offer (Murray, 2016). Restaurants and Fast-Food outlets which offer more affordable options are doing exceptionally good business in southern Africa, specifically since these menu items cater for a broader range of demographics. Rapid urbanisation is increasingly changing the eating patterns and lifestyles of people in South Africa as rural-to-urban migrants tend to shift from eating traditional food to eating more convenient and fast- foods. According to StatsSA (2021), the demand for convenient and safe access to fast-food and food deliveries has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as people are scared to go out, and because of increased financial pressure on individuals and households. The global food delivery market is estimated to be worth over $100 billion and it is predicted that it will double between 2020 and 2023 (Lawrence, 2020). This boom in the delivery market is giving way to another emerging trend of Ghost Kitchens.

Ghost Kitchens and effective use of smaller spaces

Foodservice organisations are moving away from producing and serving meals in a traditional restaurant set-up in a prime location and with amazing décor and the finest cutlery and crockery to impress guests. Rising costs of prime locations are reconsidered, and investments are made in off-site kitchens for basic food preparation. With no customers on the premises, extra care can also be taken to ensure that food is prepared safely and hygienically. These ‘Ghost Kitchens’ will not be visited by the guest, but only by the staff (and robots) who are processing the food and the delivery people who are driving through to do the picking up. Conventional restaurant kitchens are evolving and with ever-increasing lease payments for rented space, smaller and more effective spaces for the preparation and storage are becoming the norm. The key is to select equipment that is uniform in size, movable and adaptable for more than one use. Existing spaces are also being adapted to be used for more than one purpose during different times of the day or week.

Superfoods, exotic foods and future foods

Although there does not exist a single superfood item, the term generally refers to plant-based food items that are nutrient rich and have a supposedly positive affect on health, with ‘natural’ quality attributes, associations with ‘exotic’ places of origin and a history of traditional or indigenous use. Superfoods is a term that is often misused for marketing purposes to influence food trends and sell products from prominent health-food brands. Grains, pulses, leavy greens, berries, nuts and seeds are all considered superfoods.

Future Foods are based on high nutritional value, low environmental impact, availability, and affordability. It is predicted that the world’s population will grow to approximately 9 billion by 2050 and therefore securing food for everyone will become more challenging. Most of the world population will be living in cities, with increasing demands for processed foods and protein. Lab-grown and plant-based meat are becoming a reality as current cattle farming methods may not remain sustainable, even if many people are reducing their meat intake. Lab-grown meat is considered future meat as it requires less farmland, less energy, and less water to produce. Many insects including mealworms, crickets or flies are protein rich and contain healthy fats and essential minerals. They also reproduce fast and without major effects on the environment. Although some people may have an aversion to the idea of eating insects, the demand for protein-rich food will keep growing and energy bars, spreads, ice-creams, snacks and other products enriched with edible insects are already available in local markets.

The trends and emerging challenges discussed in the preceding paragraphs might provide some direction for hospitality management graduates when they are planning their future careers and for training institutions, food production and -service organisations when they are doing strategic planning and forecasting. While some aspects of the foodservice industry are timeless, there will always be new trends as well as new challenges that impacts the success and sustainability of the foodservice industry.

NOTE 1: This article is based on information from the new textbook: Jooste, SM., Engelbrecht, WH. Eds. 2021. Foodservice Management -an African Perspective. Van Schaik.

NOTE 2: Our next discussion will focus on future careers for hospitality and culinary graduates.