I’ve been attending the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show since 1995, missing only three over these past 23 years. While the show has obviously changed during this time, the 2018 show that wrapped-up recently had an exciting, optimistic, almost buzzy energy about it. You could see it in the Lakeside Center with the delicious diversity of foodstuffs from around the world. And you could hear it in conversations at the receptions and parties. Something has changed and I believe it’s reflected in the future direction of the NRA itself.

Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive office of the NRA, shared the association’s direction during an interview with BrandInsight last month. What I like so much about her comments were the focused simplicity:

“We’ve focused our efforts on building the influence, the image and the engagement of our members and the industry as a whole. Prioritizing our work through those three initiatives –influence, image, and engagement – has allowed us to target our efforts more precisely than ever before.” Dawn SweeneyClick To Tweet

Sweeney has provided a roadmap of sorts that reflects the overall needs, wants and expectations of its nearly one million operator members. But it’s also go-to-market strategic guidance to the suppliers selling their goods and services to them. This group should be asking itself how it can support these initiatives to help customers thrive and drive suppliers’ own businesses. Here are three takeaways for suppliers to consider in the context of their respective business proposition to customers.

  1. Purpose-driven business. Restaurant patrons are expecting more from operators than delicious food, excellent customer service and a good value. They want to understand what the brand stands for on a wide range of topics, such as community support, sustainability and even cultural issues. Suppliers should understand these dynamics to identify opportunities to provide value in unexpected ways to strengthen business relationships.
  2. Investing in employees. In Sweeney’s comments, she discussed the ways NRA is working to change the image of the industry as one offering many career paths for people. Suppliers are uniquely positioned to offer training on their products as well as invest in education programs supported by their operator customers. Demonstrating a genuine commitment to a customer’s most important resource—its staff—tangibly shows customers that a supplier cares about a customer’s business on a human, more emotional level.
  3. Technology-influenced menu. Using culinary innovation to differentiate one’s operation is a strategy where food and beverage manufacturers have traditionally assisted customers. What has changed is the landscape. App-based delivery services make “takeout” even easier to coordinate. Web-based dining options strive to provide a familiar restaurant food experience. And consumers are bombarded with countless food options via digital media, blogger sites and social media that they want to find on menus. How does any of this affect manufacturers? Creating even more unique, more original foods and ingredients—that travel well, by the way—has never been more urgent. Manufacturers need to take chances, experiment and even risk disappointment with the goal to surprise and delight operators. Suppliers can give operators a leg-up in this highly competitive, increasingly fragmented market.

Now, before you say, “Ed, we’ve always focused on what our customers’ business needs. This isn’t anything new.” And I would partially agree with you. But ask yourself this:

Is your organization prepared to address these tectonic shifts happening to your customers and provide much-needed leadership for and partnership with them?

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