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Cater to their 'pain points'

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In 2008, the restaurant industry will have an estimated $557 billion in sales and employ 13.1 million people—or 9.1% of the U.S. workforce—in 945,000 locations, according to the National Restaurant Association. Though foodservice is big business, it's also a notoriously tough business. Marketers looking to supply restaurateurs with products and services—whether food, kitchen equipment or furniture for the dining area—can greatly improve their sales efforts by addressing trends and "pain points" that are top of mind for this audience.

The three key areas that typically affect a foodservice operator's profitability are recruiting and retaining employees, food cost containment and increasing productivity with new systems and new technologies, said David Smania, founder of Foodservice.com, an online community for foodservice professionals.

"You can run ads and marketing all day long, but if you're not targeting the pain points that these operators have, then the effectiveness is definitely going to be questioned," he said. "If you target those pain points for those operators, those are the ads that typically do much better."

Loyalty-building products

With restaurant traffic generally down, operators are particularly interested in selling more to existing customers, said Tom Larranaga, associate publisher of Nation's Restaurant News. "[Restaurant owners] want to make it a loyalty-building customer experience and make people want to come back," he said.

Suppliers that provide healthier ingredients, energy-efficient or recyclable products, or products that can build loyalty and speed customer interaction have an advantage, he said.

Foodservice suppliers would also do well to help their restaurant clients cater to consumers' increasingly sophisticated palates and interest in food, said Greg Kirrish, VP-sales and marketing at the National Restaurant Association's convention division. Kirrish points to the popularity of the Food Network, the cultlike following many celebrity chefs have and an increase in the number of people taking cooking classes or enrolling in culinary schools as evidence of consumers' growing fascination with food. "Anything in marketing messages that can be touched on about how you help the restaurateur find the next hot thing or get on the bandwagon—or [addressing] your customers' increasing sophistication and higher expectations—there's a very receptive audience to those kinds of messaging," Kirrish said.

A demand for more authentic foods from around the world led NRA to add a pavilion for international cuisine to its annual show three years ago. "This is the kind of thing that the operators flock to because, in a more and more competitive field, they're looking for products, and concepts and ideas that they can adapt to their operation and their menu," Kirrish said.

The foodservice industry has been somewhat slow to move online, Smania said. Many foodservice operators' online ads are simply digitized versions of print ads, he said—an approach that might be fine for branding but that doesn't take advantage of the Web's interactive potential.

However, he said, an increasing number of marketers are embracing the medium, using Flash-based ads and tracking viewers' responses, for instance. "The industry is notoriously slow in embracing new technology, but there are a handful of manufacturers that are starting to break out of that shell," he said. "It's still an uphill battle."

In some cases, marketers are shifting their print advertising dollars online because of the measurable return on investment that clicks and impressions offer, Larranaga said. Yet, he said, "There is still a large universe of foodservice suppliers, the smartest of the bunch I would say, that understand branding and the extensive marketing benefits of print in combination with other selling and marketing activities."

Events serve many

Events remain a significant part of foodservice marketers' efforts, from huge shows such as the annual NRA Hotel-Motel Show to smaller, more targeted forums. Nation's Restaurant News organizes various events, including a culinary R&D event—an educational conference that features about 15 sponsors and has about 100 attendees.

NRN also offers custom events for individual sponsors, such as a Seafood Symposium sponsored by Fishery Products International. The events features 10 to 15 R&D chefs and has 15 to 20 attendees, who are educated about various types of fish and ways to prepare them. The event, which typically lasts a few days, also features entertainment and networking to build relationships with attendees. Costs to sponsor such an event can be significant, but the rewards are, too. "There are multimillion-dollar contracts signed as a result of these events," Larranaga said.

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