Looking Over My Shoulder at 90 – Part 4

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This is the final installment of this series, which I have titled “Looking Over My Shoulder at 90.” It summarizes some of the events that have taken place within the foodservice industry from 1939, when I first started to help out in my family’s restaurant in Philadelphia, to the present. You may not agree with my selection of events, but they did happen.

Fred G. Sampson
Fred G. Sampson

The last half of the 1980s and most of the ’90s witnessed not only great overall growth, but the full impact of the interstate highway system that Congress created back in the ’50s and which has come full circle. Because of it, downtown commercial centers became deserted and, thus, restaurant growth moved to the suburbs. That also was where the megamalls were being built and a new marketing concept called “food courts” was changing the competitive climate. Instead of avoiding the competition, it was next door. Another trademark of suburban life was the growth of “strip malls.” These groups of small shops with ample parking spaces were popping up all over the place. That’s where you found pizza and sandwich shops. You would also find boutique restaurants serving delicious food and being rewarded with great business. As I said in a previous column, the ability to purchase a professionally prepared meal is no longer limited to major metropolitan areas; it now can be found anywhere.

I would be remiss, when discussing the progress and growth of our industry these last 78 years, if I didn’t acknowledge the tremendous contributions made by our purveyor partners. From the development of laborsaving equipment to eye-popping interior design, to providing exciting new food products, to technological support systems—they have served and continue to serve the industry well. They have been of great assistance in bringing the industry to a level of sophistication that has not only grown in size but in management skills as well.

What does the future hold? … We will see more mergers, particularly in the QSR sector. Why? Many small companies presently with 5, 10, 15, or 20 units are hoping to become another Five Guys or Shake Shack and they can’t all make it. In addition, more capital venture groups will fight for control of the larger chains.

Labor costs will continue to increase as long as government entities continue to raise the floor (also known as the minimum wage), as will food costs. More supermarkets and convenience stores will go on expanding their takeaway food offerings and in some instances add dining areas in their stores.

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I do believe the Service Employees International Union will become more active in attempting to represent the QSR sector employees, as per their participation in the $15 per hour wage issue.

Management must give improved service a high priority. Most think they do; however, that’s not what consumers are saying.

Today’s consumer is the smartest, best informed, and social media educated that the business community has ever had to deal with. Many of them don’t take the time to complain on the spot; they simply announce their dissatisfaction to the world via Yelp or other similar venues.

Here are some of their complaints: “Lack of friendly disposition,” 56%, and “Not stopping by regularly to see and check if I need anything else,” 50%. Another survey: “A bad attitude really turns me off,” and “If they’re not happy with the job, then find something else to do.” These next two are on all the lists: “When picking up the check, asking ‘Do you need any change?’ and ‘Is everything all right?’ every five minutes, as opposed to ‘I’ll be right back with your change’ and ‘Can I get you anything else?’ ” If something is wrong, the guest will let you know—if you remain aware of them.

To sum up the service issue, may I be so bold as to suggest that you remember, when interviewing for servers, that “Attitude Defines Service.” Using this as a measurement of the applicant, what was your impression?

I leave you with this basic premise that my dad uttered to me so very long ago: “The best-prepared meal in the world cannot survive poor service; however, good service can enhance an average meal.”

When I started this abbreviated memoir, I realized that I couldn’t possibly cover almost 80 years in 3,000 words and there would be many areas left untouched. In some future column(s), I will discuss particular individuals I have known who have had a positive influence on this rewarding industry we call foodservice.

I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing “Looking Over My Shoulder at 90” with me. Thanks for taking the time.

Fred G. Sampson is the retired President Emeritus of the New York State Restaurant Association. He began working with NYSRA in 1961. Within the next four years the NYSRA more than tripled its membership and expanded from one regional chapter to eight. Sampson played roles in representing restaurants on issues including paid sick leave, minimum wage, liquor laws, a state-wide alcohol training program and insurance plans. Comments may be sent to fredgsampson@juno.com