Employee health, happiness, technology, healthy foods top restaurant trends

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Kenyatta Ashford chops peppers and tomatillos at the Proof Bar and Incubator in Chattanooga on Friday, July 9, 2021.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Kenyatta Ashford chops peppers and tomatillos at the Proof Bar and Incubator in Chattanooga on Friday, July 9, 2021.

Restaurant owners of today have to worry not just about consistent service and good food. They are also looking for ways to better use technology.

They are dealing with customers who are more aware of healthy eating and sustainable foods, and they want to keep their employees longer and happier.

Mia Littlejohn is co-founder of Proof Bar and Incubator, a food and beverage resource center with a shared kitchen, restaurant incubator and craft cocktail bar. Littlejohn said Chattanooga restaurant owners are following some of the national trends found in a recent survey by marketresearch.com, but are also dealing with local issues.

For an industry that took a heavy hit during the pandemic, the good news for many of those who managed to survive is that the global market is primed for growth. While that growth in some larger markets could be in online ordering - especially from so-called "ghost" restaurants that don't have storefronts - Littlejohn said it appears Chattanoogans are ready to get out of the house and dine in elsewhere.

"This rise in popularity in online ordering and delivery, I see that more in large markets," she said. "People here still want to gather. It will be interesting over the next few years to see if something like the ghost kitchens take off here, but you need a lot of tech support with that. You don't need front-of-house [service], but you need tech.

"And, I think there is more of an interest in specialty experiences and the dining room experience here," she said. "It's something people have been craving for a year."

The marketresearch.com study predicted an increase in the use of things such as touchless menus and cashless or cashierless payment options, and Littlejohn said those would likely be found at chains and franchises that can afford to have staff dedicated to such things.

Of bigger concern for local, independent owners is how to find, train and keep quality employees, she said.

"Another trend we are seeing is employers working really hard on how to retain a well-trained staff, and that is trickling down to service industry workers," Littlejohn said.

"Whether it is with paid time off or an increase in the hourly wage or a stipend for educational courses, they are looking at whatever it takes.

"We've hit a little bit of a reset, and having a well-trained staff continues to be a challenge."

Littlejohn said the old days of managers treating staff, especially back-of-the- house staff, harshly by yelling at them to work faster or harder are over.

"Now the focus is on understanding and supporting the mental health and happiness of the staff," she said.

Proof is partnering with the Michael P. Hennen Hospitality and Culinary Center at Chattanooga State and the Tennessee Small Business Development Center to create a workforce development course for managers and entry-level employees to train them on what to expect upon entering the field.

The goal is to create a work force that wants to stay in the industry long term.

The research survey also found more and more Americans are focusing on ethical considerations and sustainability when making food choices. As a result, more of the bigger brands are paying attention and focusing on "healthy, high-quality menu items, diet-friendly options such as keto, vegan or vegetarian, responsibly sourced and certified ingredients, including non-GMO and plant-based, and sustainable business practices to reduce waste," the survey states.

Chains such as Chipotle, Panera Bread and Starbucks have menus that emphasize high ingredient quality through ethical sourcing such as cage-free, pasture-raised and antibiotic-free livestock. Subway urges diners to "Eat Fresh."

Littlejohn said Chattanoogans are definitely embracing that attitude in ways not seen in recent years. While most of us are not 100% vegetarian or vegan or any one thing, we are more aware of the issues, she said.

"It goes beyond just eating farm-to-table," she said. "Consumers are just more tuned in. Yes, we eat farm to table, but we also have some fried chicken in the fridge, and I still think "vegan before six" is a good idea. We are more aware of the big issues, and local restaurants are responding."

Giardino co-owner Jake Leonard said he tries to celebrate the sources of the items on the menu at the Italian restaurant on Missionary Ridge whenever he can.

"We put the name of the farm on the menu, and I am constantly talking about our chefs. I've been espousing this topic left and right," he said.

Littlejohn said she believes restaurateurs who survived the pandemic, especially the ones who survived with little or no staff, have realized they are better at adapting and pivoting than maybe they knew and that they will continue to do so.

"I do think long term, people will continue to increase efficiency to enhance their business," she said.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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