(This column first appeared on PerishablePundit.com)
Yet sometimes, understanding, anticipating and even creating the next big trend requires virtually no technology at all. Just ask Jason Danciger, who is the UK’s managing director of the Hana Group, a company that locates Asian and globally inspired food concepts in retail environments.
Danciger took attendees with him on the ride as he engagingly navigated the Forum’s program, titled “Transforming Foodservice Through Technology & Trends,” with interactive seminars, panel discussions and taste demos. Featured speakers, who range from chefs to software developers, are all on the forefront of the UK’s flourishing foodservice industry, while at the same time deeply committed to simple fresh ingredients like produce. It’s this combination, says Danciger, that will deliver “pure, pure business relevance” for attendees in all sectors of the industry.
Carol Bareuther, RD, contributing editor of the Pundit’s sister publication, Produce Business, talked with Danciger about the UK’s foodservice industry trends and technological advancements.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. What influenced your passion for produce and subsequent proficiency in so many sectors of the UK’s foodservice industry? Any fun stories?
A: I fell into hospitality at the age 14, when I started work as a waiter. There was certainly a calling to this line of work, and I loved it, because it allowed me to interact with people, which I really enjoyed and still do today. However, quite simply, the job was there. It was a part-time bit and a good way to make pocket money. That job earned me the reputation as the ‘Milky Bar kid’. With my salary, 99-pence an hour, versus 6 pence apiece for a milky bar, I could buy all my friends’ chocolate at the school snack shop.
I followed as barman at age 15 in true Tom Cruise-style by shaking cocktails in the evening and studying Latin the next morning. After reading about a Michelin-starred chef (former head chef of Le Gavroche) who was opening a new restaurant, I wrote to him. His English was as rusty as my French, but I started the next week and ended up as the first-ever English sous chef at the time after a few grueling years, of course.
Twice a week we would receive trays of fruits and vegetables from the markets in Rungis. It was always a wonder! The amazing salads, fruits wrapped like presents, the variety of fresh wild mushrooms, the aromas of perfect Charentais melons. I remember the vibrant colors of different vegetables and fell in love with fresh produce at first sight.
Q: A quick glance at your LinkedIn resume shows a traditional restaurant start, followed by an increasingly diverse foodservice career. How have you seen trends happening at the time that were transforming the UK’s foodservice industry and your own career? Could you describe that journey for us?
A: I was at first deeply rooted in the Michelin-starred years as that flourished in the UK. This was followed by a desire for the less formal restaurants that kicked off the ‘casual dining’ fashion. Then, I founded café society and European bistros before being at the forefront of gastro pubs and launching hundreds of award-winning Time Out pubs.
What I saw was that while people still liked to get dressed up, to go to a Michelin-star restaurant, those were more of an occasion than every day. For every day, they liked being relaxed and loved the fact that they could eat simply. That was a really early element I learned.
A good example is that it used to be you had to order all three courses or the waiter would look down his nose at you. Now, we know people graze and eat at different times of the day as they balance busy work and home lives. We know someone might come in for just a starter or main dish, and we created an offer that hit on that. We’d also welcome someone, particularly in café society, who came in for just a cup of tea with as much charm as if they were ordering a meal. That’s because we knew they’d feel we were the place that really looked after them and they’d ultimately come back to dine.
Then, the large retailers awoke, and in-store cafes and restaurants took off. I was lucky with Marks & Spencer to also start a new bakery trend that grew significant market share. Drawing on that experience of ‘grocerant’, I wanted to continue to create theater in food halls with hand-crafted sushi made in front of customers.
We went from 0 to 90 sites in 2.5 years as well as created several new concepts with the same feel. For example, El Luchador, Little India Kitchen and Wok Street. What we found is that when cooking from scratch with fresh produce right in front of customers, we didn’t need signposts and messages to tell customers that the food was fresh and healthful. They could see it for themselves. It built trust just by watching. That was useful and intuitive.
In some places, you could say some of our products are ready meals. But, they are ready meals that are cooked fresh daily with the cleanest ingredients you can imagine with a very short shelf life. In essence, better than you could make at home.
Q: If you were to distill all this hands-on experience, what skill would you say keeps you passionate about the foodservice industry?
A: My favorite activity is walking. As you walk, you can watch the landscape change. It’s all very dynamic. You can see what happens on the high street and you can watch customers’ reactions. It’s a skill I’ve developed and it’s helped me to recognize and ‘ride the wave’, if you will, of the growth areas consumers will ultimately desire.
Q: Now, what about the technology piece, a central element of this year’s Forum. I saw that you studied E-Commerce and Corporate Information Systems at the Harvard Business School. What sticks with you most from that education?
A: I learnt at Harvard that technology will double every five years and that it plays a significant part in strategy. Also, that planning ahead and the skills necessary to bring that technology to fruition are key to success along with sharing a vision. We use so many tools to manage production, our teams, retail partners, waste and so much more, and embracing technology plays a huge part in business success.
We have double digit LFL (like-for-like) growth and that comes from all of the above…not just luck!
Q: Could you give us an example of some of the technological tools employed within the Hana Group?
A: Absolutely. There’s an app we use called Planday. All of our teams have it on their mobile phones. They can check first thing to see if teams are at work. We are a factory. We produce fresh in store daily. If we don’t produce, we aren’t making sales. The program enables the managers to move people around, if needed, and make sure we have every site staffed.
Then, there’s a system called GESCOM. Each of our team managers scan every box of food waste. The system intuitively learns itself. Any items where there is low waste, the system will tell the team to make more of it on a daily basis. If a box has very high waste, it will tell teams to make less. Consider you have 100 stores, each in different areas, with different types of customers like a lunch crowd in one or family dinner types in another. The system lets you put out just what those customers want in that store and waste really goes down.
What this means is that our area managers can stay home, sit on the sofa, feet up, drinking tea in the morning rather than getting stuck in traffic. First, they check on the people and secondly on the production side. These two factors running smoothly means the customer is happy. Once the manager has checked these elements, they can get out, the traffic has died down by then, and spend the rest of the day mentoring people, talking to supervisors and whatever else they need to do because the really tough stuff is done. These are just a couple of examples.
Technology done right is very effective. It plays a huge role, but in the end it’s still fresh produce that we’re working with. We don’t use that technology to change a strawberry. We want that strawberry to be organic and/or from a local area and full of taste and in its raw form. So, it’s not using technology to actually keep the strawberry, but to manage the strawberry as we turn it into deliciously fresh healthful food.