(First published on PerishablePundit.com)
Simon Stenning describes himself as a jack of all trades and master of them all. It’s an apt description, considering his colleagues call him one of the best crystal ball forecasters in the UK’s foodservice industry.
Stenning spoke Wednesday at the 2019 London Produce Show’s Foodservice Forum, with a talk titled, “The Market in Focus – Expert Insight Into UK Eating Out & Drinking Trends.” Those who attended last year’s LPS may remember Stenning, then executive director and strategic advisor of MCA (www.mca-insight.com), the latest incarnation of M&C Allegra Foodservice, who discussed how the UK’s current and future eating and drinking trends could boost profits, especially for buyers and sellers of fresh produce.
Currently serving as founder and strategic advisor of FutureFoodservice.com, Stenning’s 2019 presentation will be filled with hot-off-the-press information from his 150-page ‘The Future of Foodservice 2025-2030’ report.
Produce Business contributing editor Carol Bareuther, RD, talked with Stenning about his background, what makes him so good at predicting the future and to provide a few sneak peeks at key drivers of growth in the UK’s foodservice industry and what this means for fresh produce.
Q. Let’s start with some background. What were early life experiences that put you on the professional road you’ve traveled for the past 30-plus years and led to your work today?
A. If I look back, I can see a couple of strong influences. For one, my father and father’s family are all farmers from the south coast of Ireland. The work ethic of farmers, Irish farmers in particular, is very strong. That, and the fact that farmers back then were self-sufficient. So, when I had children, I had them talk to my father, their grandfather, about what shops he had available to him when growing up in Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s.
Of course, my kids, only 10 to 15 years ago, thought of shops like supermarkets and clothing stores. He told them he didn’t go to shops, because there really weren’t any and that was because they pretty much grew, bred or made everything they needed to live. The work ethic and the link between how food, food production and food consumption has changed, has really stuck with me and helped me in what I am doing now.
Q. Did you grow up on a farm? Is that what led you on the foodservice career path?
A. No. My father moved to the UK as a young man and worked in health care. I grew up as a normal kid in Hampshire, in the Southeast of England, and then received a scholarship to attend boarding school.
One of my friend’s fathers was a managing director of a large hotel company. When it came to figure out what I wanted to study at the University of Portsmouth, I liked the idea of hotel and catering management. That’s because of all the different facets: accountancy and law, human resources and design, cooking and service. All those elements made it sound really interesting.
Q. I understand that your foodservice career was more traditional at the start in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. How did your profession evolve from pursuing to predicting the latest food and beverage trends?
A. Well, at first I managed hotels and then ran restaurants at places like the Hurlingham Club, a private members club in London. I worked with Albert Roux, who was very famous and one of the first chefs in the UK to get 3 Michelin stars. Then, I went to work at Pret a Manger. This was really strange at the time and a lot of people asked me ‘What do you mean you’re going to work for a sandwich shop?’ since I’d just come from the Michelin dining arena.
They didn’t get it, but I saw how the nature of foodservice, food retail, catering, whatever you want to call it, was changing. I was really excited by working with this incredible brand. When I joined, there were a dozen to 15 stores. It was very small, but it was creating a name for itself. I wanted to be a part of that.
Five years later, I was head-hunted to work with the Compass Group. In essence, I was pinching Pret’s ideas, but instead trying to recreate the high street within contract catering environments like workplaces, hospitals and defense sites. While working on that, I moved from being an operator managing shops, stores and people, to developing retail brand concepts and principals.
The defining point came one day when I gathered together procurers, site developers, designers and operators on a new concept we wanted to develop. One of the outside designers said, ‘shouldn’t we get your marketing people involved?’. It was one of those moments when you look sideways and then you realize it’s actually you who is doing the marketing element of it. At that point, I decided to put myself through a post-graduate diploma in marketing. I’m not a marketer, but I wanted to get that understanding and background knowledge of strategic marketing practices.
Q. This background sounds like it figured strongly into building what you needed to research and write your latest 150-page report?
A. Very much so. It was 13 years ago that I set myself up as a consultant and started working with a management consultancy company called Allegra Strategies. It provided market intelligence in order to win management consulting work by demonstrating ‘we know an awful lot about this market’ mostly through due diligence. They needed help in terms of how to leverage the knowledge they had, and I worked with the founder to turn it into a market intelligence business that also did consulting work. That took me into the market intelligence world. My experience at the shop end to start, and then to someone who is developing concepts, has given me very broad knowledge.
Q. What led you to go way into the future for your most recently published research? Is it something that no one has done before?
A. That’s it… no one has ever looked this far into the future before. In fact, and in my own words back when I was running MCA, I would say that there is no point forecasting beyond three years because after that it’s pure guess work. However, the thing that started it, and a strong personal interest of mine, is what drives change? Why do consumers change? What are the key factors that drive these changes?
Writing about something that is happening in the future is a very personal project for me. I think it links back to the infatuation I had with studying several facets at the same time from my university days, then bringing it all into one focus of what I think will be the case. My proposition is that I’m bloody good at guessing. Educated guessing that is.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your methodology?
A. The approach I’ve taken is not to look into a crystal ball and get really stupid. I’m not forecasting we’ll be living on the moon and eating moon dust. What I’ve done is taken an approach that looks at ‘where have we been?’, ‘where are we now?’, ‘where are we going in terms of what will be?’, and then, ‘what might be?’. It’s very much a case of joining up the dots.
Q. So, let’s say a Foodservice Forum attendee is sitting in the audience, listening to you speak and thinking about making major capital expenditures to move their business forward. Can they count on your research to correctly predict the direction of the UK’s foodservice industry up to a decade from now?
A. Very much so. It’s a piece of work to which I’ve brought a really rigorous approach when analyzing, collating and compiling the data. My forecast is not plucked out of thin air. There’s a rationale to it. The difficult point of looking at the future is that you can’t ask consumers about it. US automaker Henry Ford explained it best when he said that if he asked customers what they wanted; they’d ask for a faster horse.
Q. Can you give us a teaser about your talk?
A. That’s rather difficult because it covers so many things. That said, I will be sharing ideas about what we will be eating in the future. It’s fascinating. For example, last month a chain of healthy, sushi, lunch-food-type shops announced they were putting crickets on the menu. Fried crickets. Well, I won’t say that we’ll all be eating insects in ten years’ time, but I will say that we’ll be using insects as a protein source to feed animals to make eating meat more sustainable. Another tidbit is that we’ll have vegetables as dessert. And, I’m going to talk about social refueling.
Q. What is social refueling? What does it mean for fresh produce?
A. I’ve given that name to a new segment of restaurants. I believe restaurants are changing, and the way in which consumers use restaurants is changing. From a produce perspective, it’s not so critical. It’s more about the way in which consumers engage in restaurants and how restaurants develop.
From a consumption perspective, produce is going to play a much bigger part in consumers’ repertoires and in operators’ menu-planning. This is because we’ll continue to see a move towards veganism, vegetarianism and conscious reductionism that we will inspire consumers to desire a broader range of produce to fulfill part of their diet and operators to extend the breath of their menus.
Q. Lastly, what is the key message you’d like LPS’s Foodservice Forum attendees to take home from your presentation?
A. I’m going to be telling them lots of information, lots of intelligence. But what I want to do is provoke their thinking about what it means for their businesses. I want to provide a stimulus for strategized thinking. I don’t have all the answers. But what I’m going to do is give them a lot of information, tell them all about the drivers of change, and they will then have to do the thinking about what it means for them.
Predicting the future is always hard. Herman Kahn, a famous American futurist, once pointed out that if we knew what people would do in the future, we would do it today!
Or as a wag once pointed out, the key to being a great futurist is to predict what will happen or predict when things will happen — but never at the same time!
We, however, are honored to have found the real deal — someone not afraid to put a date to a thing or a thing to a date.
And, in fact, we have no choice but to look at the future. From the search to develop a new variety to large-scale commercial production, the process can run into decades. So we have no choice but to make predictions.
Of course, nothing is certain. Wars break out, political things change, technology surprises us — but predictions can still be informed or ignorant — and this session is most assuredly on the informed side of things.
So, please, join us in London for the Foodservice Forum and The London Produce Show and Conference. Get a glimpse at the future — and how you, your organization, and the industry can prosper in that future.