Food, Service and Hospitality

Perusing "What's Hot" for 2014

Posted on 02-18-2014 1:55 PM by Ben Olk III

I always enjoy going over the National Restaurant Association's "What's Hot" list for each new year. I'm particularly interested in the menu trends. These trends rarely change significantly year to year but they disclose overarching demand themes amongst consumers.

The top 10 menu trends focused around 4 core concepts:

Local Sourcing: 3 of the top 10 trends are related to the local sourcing of ingredients

Healthy Kid’s Menu Options: 3 of the top 10 trends outline an increased focus on healthful children’s menu options

Sustainability: 2 of the top 10 trends focus on sustainable practices

Gluten Free: 2 of the top 10 trends focus gluten free menu options

Restaurants that adapt and cater to the current trends resonating with consumers have an advantage other those that do not. Quality menu options are important; quality menu options that resonate with consumers are invaluable.

The same principles apply to service quality. Quality service at its core is the product of good training, compre­hensive product knowledge and the essential supplies needed for an enjoyable dining experience.

These tools all work together to ensure that diners feel welcome and are informed as to unique product offerings. Supplies such server pads are a cost effective way to ensure accurate orders are processed ef­ficiently every time.

Arguably the most important trend of "local sourcing" may strike some people as a menu theme that only applies to food. Certainly, restaurants want to be sure that food is locally sourced and sustainable as that resonates with consumers most directly.

But there is also an opportunity to recognize the importance of American-made restaurant disposables and equipment manufactured in a sustainable way in the USA by companies like NCCO.

Reduce Food Waste and Ensure Freshness

Posted on 01-07-2014 10:41 AM by Ben Olk III

According to the Green Restaurant Association, the average restaurant produces approximately 25,000 pounds of food waste each year. And while the vast majority of food waste comes from prep and plate waste, approximately 5% of food waste is from food spoilage. That works out to be around 1,250 pounds of food waste for a single restaurant each year.

A simple food rotation label system can help save time, money and significantly reduce the amount of food waste from spoilage for any restaurant. Here are our top four reasons to implement a food safety labeling system:

Save time, save money

One of the greatest features of food rotation labels are the ease of use that saves the restaurant operator time. Instead of having a food rotation system centralized around a marker and masking tape, standardizing food rotation with color coded pre-printed labels allows every person in the kitchen to quickly and easily identify the right food at the right time.

Fresh look, fresh food

Along with “day of the week labels” that have each day printed on them, you can maintain better inventory management with “Use By” or “Use First” labels that standardize an efficient first in, first out inventory control system.

Clean confidence

Avoid cross contamination by taking advantage of multiple adhesive options on labels including dissolvable labels that don’t leave a residue after washing, making it safe to stack containers. Food labels also give operators the peace of mind knowing of what each container contains, or what it contained, helping you avoid issues with consumer food allergies.

Ensure success

Food safety labels offer the ability to vastly improve inventory organization in any establishment at a relatively inexpensive cost. Food rotation labels ensure health inspectors and workers that the kitchen environment is up to code and serving the freshest food possible.

Tablet Technology

Posted on 10-14-2013 10:38 AM by Ben Olk III
With the iPad rumors surrounding Apple's October 22, 2013 media day, I thought of our previous post about tablet technology in restaurants and wanted to share it again.

I've heard stories about restaurants using tablets for wine lists and for menu selection. Then there are also those restaurants where they are used for payment processing. And I've even read stories where some restaurants have installed tablets table side to handle the entire ordering process so customers only interact with people who seat.

I'm both intrigued and troubled by what this means for the restaurant industry.

A tablet can be very helpful in narrowing down the characteristics or type of wine one would prefer, but a sommelier can still help with the final selection. And the server plays a critical role in the meal - suggesting an appetizer or describing the ingredients in an item can't be easily replaced with a menu on the tablet. If I have questions about something who do I ask?

Every one of us has probably complained about bad service at a restaurant before and how it really caused a negative impression on the overall experience. But what about no service? What does that do to the dining experience? With so many restaurant choices these days, owners need to think about how every decision they make affects the customer's experience and their likeliness to return and to recommend.

If you are considering a tablet or two (or more) for your restaurant, you also need to think about how many items you need to sell to make up the cost of the tablet(s). And if you are going to use this as an ordering tool how many sales of high-profit items are you going to miss out on because no one is suggesting them? Another thing to consider is how likely they are to disappear. No one wants to think their employees would steal from them, but it could happen and then, not only are you out the money you also no longer have the tablet.

Now let me be clear - I'm not anti-tablet. In fact they can be very useful in a restaurant for tracking and managing inventory, storing recipes and or even scheduling and any necessary reporting. I just don't think they should be a replacement for people and good service.

Paul Motenko, co-founder of Stacked Restaurants LLC is quoted in Nation's Restaurant News about this very subject. He says, "If you're using this technology it has to be for the benefit of the guest." I couldn't agree more.

Where do you stand on the great tablet debate - for or against and why?


2013 Restaurant Industry Mid-Year Buzz

Posted on 07-31-2013 1:31 PM by Ben Olk III

So how’s 2013 going?

Around this time of year we reflect on that question by looking back at first six months of the year.  I emphasize the word “reflect” in that first sentence, because rather than projecting for the second half of the year, I’m always more interested in trends “or maybe I should say “the buzz” than statistics.

The hard data

But one of the statistics I routinely come back to is the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Industry Performance Index. This index is based off the NRA’s monthly operator survey and is very easy to understand: a value of below 100 signifies industry contraction and above 100 means the industry is expanding.

The RPI has come in above 100 in five of the first six months of 2013 (and the only month below 100 was February at 99.9). Given the past few tumultuous years, this is a great way to start 2013. Other benchmarks I’ve seen echo this same success.

Generating a “Buzz”

But apparently not everybody in the industry is experiencing this level of success in the first half of 2013. According to an article in Nation’s Restaurant News from a couple weeks ago, the quick service segment lost some buzz in the first half of 2013.

YouGov BrandIndex’s mid-year “buzz score” rankings—which are based off what consumers have heard about a company’s brand in the past two weeks—indicate that the quick service segment’s buzz declined in the first half of 2013 after rapid growth for the past couple years.

This was the first time I had come across buzz scores and I love how it encapsulates so much about a restaurant’s brand. This buzz score is less about sales and more about consumers’ experiences with restaurants—both positive and negative.

I talk a lot about the importance of service, and even though these buzz scores have a lot to do with marketing campaigns and media stories about popular brands, it’s important to think about consumers’ direct experiences with restaurants.

Creating a positive brand—and generating positive buzz—for a restaurant starts with positive experiences in the restaurant itself. And the best way to ensure success—and positive buzz—throughout the second half of 2013 is to ensure positive experiences in your restaurant.

Masking tape food labeling myths

Posted on 07-16-2013 8:45 AM by Ben Olk III

Masking tape is often the food prep label of choice for many restaurants. But labeling food with masking tape—rather than food rotation labels—can be risky, surprisingly expensive and wasteful. Here are the top three masking tape myths that lure far too many restaurants down the risky beige colored path.

Myth #1: Masking tape is just as effective as proper food rotation labels

Without the prompts and color coding of proper food rotation labels, busy workers oftentimes write incomplete information on masking tape. The information is frequently illegible and doesn’t include the required food safety and rotation information such as use-by date, employee name, and prep date.  Further, when labels are easily accessible, employees are much more likely to properly mark  the prepared food items.

This “masking tape system” is impossible to standardize and leads to increased confusion, stress and spoiled food.

Myth #2: Masking tape is just as sanitary as proper food rotation labels

NCCO’s removable food rotation labels are designed for easy removal from containers and surfaces without leaving a sticky residue. Masking tape leaves an adhesive film that attracts harmful bacteria and must be scraped off.

If masking tape isn’t removed before a container is washed, your labor dollars will be spent scraping crusty tape off containers.

Myth #3: Masking tape is cheaper that food rotation labels

The third myth is that masking tape costs less than pre-printed labeling systems.  I can understand the cheaper cost of using masking is tape appealing—but in your restaurant the overall savings never add up.

A standard roll of tape can produce at most 1,000 1x2” labels. But employees never tear off just 2” of tape and half used rolls of tape always tend to walk off. When a roll of tape produces 250 4” labels rather than 1,000 2” labels, extra rolls of tape add up quickly and any potential cost savings over food rotation labels are eliminated.

Consider utilizing some sort of proper food labeling system—your kitchen staff and your pocketbook will thank you.


Ensure exemplary service to those with food allergies and sensitivities

Posted on 06-28-2013 10:49 AM by Ben Olk III

Millions of Americans need to manage their food consumption because of either food allergies or food intolerances which can make dining out a bit more complicated than it is for the average person.

A friend of mine once told me a story about having to call ahead to any restaurant she’s going to because of her extreme gluten intolerance. That story makes me think about dining out and about how a single ingredient could really be a life or death—or at least a hospital trip—for some people.

The unarticulated concern for so many of these people is how the message to the server is heeded. When someone says “I have a severe allergy to shellfish” it is potentially a serious situation, and that person needs to be confident that the restaurant has taken the necessary precautions.

Enter the NCCO Allergen Pad. It’s been many years since a new GuestCheck™ was launched, but this simple tool will really help restaurants assure food sensitive customers that the proper caution has been taken. Let me explain.

When a customer tells their server they have a food allergy or sensitivity the server will note that sensitivity on the appropriate numbered line based on the pivot points and in the removable label at the bottom of the check.

The check is then taken back to the kitchen where the cooks are made aware of the sensitivity based on the check and can take the necessary precautions.

Finally, once the plate is prepared the die cut label is removed and adhered to the side of the plate and delivered to the table.

The food sensitive patron is assured that the necessary precautions were taken when they see the label on the side of the plate.

This simple tool will help any restaurant provide exemplary service, guaranteeing an extremely enjoyable experience for the millions of Americans affected with food allergies and sensitivities.

And beyond that single enjoyable experience, the goodwill created will assuredly duplicate. My friend with the food allergy has also told me she has her “go to” restaurants that she trusts to heed her food sensitive requirements.

With the NCCO Allergen Pad your restaurant will be a “go to” restaurant, building a reputation for exemplary service within the food sensitivity community.



BPA Chaos Theory

Posted on 06-17-2013 2:56 PM by Ben Olk III

During the last few years BPA has been a pretty hot topic. The chemical is found is can liners for food, WAS found in baby bottles until it was banned last year and exists in some receipt paper—though you’ll never find it in receipts made with NCCO BPA-Free thermal paper.

The topic has been exhaustively covered by the Food and Drug Administration, pseudo (at best) scientific groups, and even Dr. Oz. Receipt paper produced with BPA was even banned in Suffolk County, NY.

Even with all the negative publicity, the FDA reinforced its position in March, 2013 that “BPA is safe at the very low levels that occur in some foods.”

Even though NCCO produces only BPA-Free thermal receipt paper, we also make sure to monitor the current environment surrounding BPA in receipt paper—and I’ve learned to not be surprised by anything.

Recently I came across a Huffington Post article/video from a few months ago where the expert source—Dr. Frederick Vom Saal is quoted as saying:

“All kinds of thermal paper is coated with this chemical, and people go into a fast food restaurant, touch this paper, and touch their food and they expose themselves to huge quantities of this chemical.”

Quotes like this one are always the things that get me. First of all “huge quantities” is hardly a scientific statement. Secondly, studies have shown that people would have to EAT large quantities of receipts in order to reach a level of BPA that is recognized as harmful by the FDA.

Ensuring that products are safe for consumers is obviously a great thing, as is limiting exposure to unhealthy chemicals. The BPA issue has become so convoluted and the truth about the reality of the threat—or non-threat—of BPA in receipts has gotten lost in the shuffle, or shuffled out entirely.

I’m not sure how big of an issue BPA in receipt paper actually is, hopefully the truth is fledged out sometime. Until then I urge everyone to not worry too much about taking your receipt—as long as you don’t eat it.

Perhaps I need to worry less about BPA as well… I guess I’ll just go “Like” the BPA-Free Receipts Facebook page.


NRA Show 2013 Recap

Posted on 06-03-2013 8:29 AM by Ben Olk III

The National Restaurant Association show is a bit of a blur in my rear-view mirror.  Just a couple years ago, one could buzz through both wings of the exhibit hall in a day and still have time to check out one or two of the speakers.  This year, however, my 30 hours didn’t allow me nearly enough time to do justice to the show.  Judging by the expanded size of the show and the increased number of visitors, the restaurant industry seems to be in full recovery mode.

Before I tell you what I liked, I'll let you know what I didn’t get to see. I missed out on the coolest booth at the show, but did manage to check out a video that showed it. ( These guys have come up with a misting system that drops the temperature by 20°.  If it ever gets warm here in Minnesota again, I will remember to call these guys. I also missed all the celebrity chefs – Rick Bayless, Anthony Bourdain, and the Ace of Cakes. I heard that Mario Andretti was there as well in the Go Daddy booth, but I am not sure what he has to do with the restaurants or building websites anyway.  Next year!

Once I got my bearings, I did check out all the new automated label printers. The cream of the crop is clearly the Avery 9417.  This updated version of the 9415 has an intuitive touch screen technology that makes the printing of date labels fast and simple. There are others trying to occupy this space, but with this long-awaited introduction, Avery has a significant head start on the competition.

Another interesting sighting was the Sysco booth. It was their first appearance after an 8-year hiatus. Hanging above their space was the familiar logo and tagline, “Good things come from Sysco”, except “Good” was crossed off and “New” was inserted.  Given their recent focus on growing their business through a more aggressive sales partnership with their vendors, it was no surprise that the booth was staffed by their executive sales team. With their recent sponsorship of Robert Irvine and their new commercials perhaps their new slogan might be “Different things come from Sysco”.  We will see how this plays out, but I think they are on the right track.

There were several other cool things to see at the show, but next year, I plan to spend more time.  There is so much to absorb that you really need to immerse yourself in the spectacle of it all.  And if I get overheated, I’ll just look for that booth to cool off a bit.  

What did you see that you liked at the show this year?



NRA Preview

Posted on 05-15-2013 8:26 AM by Ben Olk III

It’s hard to believe it’s time for the National Restaurant Association Show again.  It seems like I just got back from last year’s event with a bunch of new ideas and knowledge.

This year I’m looking forward to connecting with our customers and brokers, as well as seeing some of the new food.  Last year I was intrigued by the flash frozen ice cream vending machine, and I want to see what creative options are on display this time.

I’m also curious about some of the technology solutions that are new.  Every year there seems to be some technology designed to help the restaurant operator do something faster, cheaper and/or better.  I’m wondering when I’m going to see the app that makes apps faster, cheaper and/or better!

The great thing about this show is that the knowledge isn’t limited to just the show floor.  The education sessions can be just as helpful and in some cases more so.  As the leader of an organization I’m always thinking of our employees so I want to stop by the session, “Best Practices for Employee Engagement”.  It’s been documented in many studies that employees who are engaged with their job and the organization are happier and more productive.  It’s going to be interesting to find out what things we’re already doing right and what opportunities we have.

Lastly, I’m looking forward the Women’s Foodservice Forum breakfast Monday morning.  I am a strong supporter of this organization because they really create content and curriculum to help women advance in the industry.  The subject this year is “Executive Intelligence” with Justin Menkes and is all about recognizing those softer skills that all leaders need.  It should be fascinating.

Even though the show seems to come around quickly, it’s such a great opportunity to remind myself how great this industry is and how much fun it is to be part of it.  My next post will be all about my experiences at the show so check back for that.

What are you looking forward to this year?




Super Broker Opportunities and Challenges

Posted on 04-30-2013 2:01 PM by Ben Olk III

Broker consolidation—like everything else in this life—is change and has numerous opportunities and challenges.

One of the biggest opportunities is the resources available with a large brokerage. Smaller manufacturers—like National Checking Company—get access to a broader group of customers and end-users and participation in food shows and sales meetings that on your own you couldn’t afford. And with more and more broadline distributors utilizing these brokers to be their sales force those benefits are substantial.

Larger brokerages also tend to be more data driven and technologically savvy, enhancing accountability to both the brokerage and vendors.

But with opportunities also come challenges.  Large brokerages tend to specialize in center of the plate and categories outside of that are foreign to them. More people and more manufacturers for a brokerage is good, but there is still only so much time in a day and resources tend get spread thin.

Broker hours are divided up and the majority goes to the largest food manufacturers who demand the time and pay by far the most commissions. Even in the nonfoods categories money buys time and the more you have the more you get.

The key for smaller manufacturers is effective management, messaging and marketing. Regardless of the size of the broker, manufacturers really have to effectively and efficiently manage the broker sales team.  If you rely on them to do the work for you, you will get pushed aside or completely lost.

Message reinforcement and adding value for all stakeholders is central in NCCO’s mission. Even as new challenges emerge with “Super Brokers” the opportunities presented—both with the brokerages and in the marketplace—are every bit as intriguing.

I was talking with one of sales managers the other day who mentioned that he thinks the emergence of Super Brokers has created an opportunity in the market for smaller startup brokerages with the ability to specialize, especially in the nonfoods category.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of the broker dynamic and where do you think its heading?