Industry leaders across the retail food and service sectors came together at the 2023 Niagara University Food Industry Center of Excellence Summit on Sept. 21, 2023, to discuss the ways in which they can change and adapt to meet the expectations of both staff and consumers.
Jamie Obletz, president of Delaware North Sportservice; Josh Halpern, CEO of Big Chicken; and Rebecca Brady, founder and CEO of Top Seedz, were the featured speakers at the event, which was presented by Niagara’s Holzschuh College of Business Administration.
As it did for most businesses, the pandemic had a significant financial impact on Delaware North, but 2022’s revenues exceeded those of 2019, according to Obletz, and that was due to the lessons learned during those challenging months.
“We learned to expect the unexpected, we learned to be agile and to be flexible and to be adaptable and to question and to think about the commercial implications of the decisions that we’re making for that day, but also for the future,” he said.
They also learned how to operate efficiently without jeopardizing the guest experience, and realized the critical importance of having “the right people, and the right talent, and the right management, and the right level of expertise around the table.” He also noted that innovation in reimagining the customer experience is critical to engagement and loyalty.
These lessons are helping the company address its current challenges, which include the recruiting environment, guest expectations, and inflation.
“The pandemic impacted us very significantly,” Obletz said. “A key for us was coming out of the pandemic and really honing in on those lessons learned and trying to stick with those key learnings as we go forward in the business. We have a lot of challenges, and we’re really trying to invest for the future.”
Halpern emphasized that recognizing and adapting to generational diversity was key to success, both in hiring the best employees and in attracting and retaining customers.
“Generational understanding gives us a better view on loyalty, both guest and staff, on how we can drive stronger brand affinity,” he said. “And we need to digitally behave in a way that our guests and staff need us to behave, not in the way that feels safest for us.
“Each generation is so different,” he continued. “Our two options are we either need to hyperfocus where the generations merge, or have a plan on how to tackle each one separately toward a one-on-one relationship, and truthfully, we need to do both.”
Brady discussed how she, as a newly transplanted Western New Yorker, launched her business.
“I decided to combine my passion for sports, nutrition, and good food and started a seed business,” she said.
She began by cooking hand-make seed crackers in her kitchen, before renting space in a commissary by the hour. Today, the company’s headquarters is on Oak Street in Buffalo, where it occupies 5,000 square feet of administrative space and 30,000 square feet of production capacity. It has won several local entrepreneurship competitions, including 43North, which awarded her $1 million in 2021.
In addition to her commitment to producing a high-quality product, being innovative and continuously improving processes, and having a happy team, she says much of her success is due to creating “raving fans.”
“We’re focused on excellent customer service, product excellence, community building, and distribution,” she said, explaining that she engages and communicates with her customers to create a lasting relationship with them.
Top Seedz fans have spread the word about the crackers to their local stores, and one even connected Brady with United Airlines, which purchased some to offer in their business class lounges. While the sale itself was modest, Brady was able to introduce her crackers to a substantial number of potential customers.
Brady also participates in other, more typical marketing activities, such as sponsorships, trade shows, and product demonstrations. But it’s the fans that have really driven sales, helping Brady sell her products in nearly in 1,000 stores across the country.
Her focus on connecting with her customers has led to “higher customer loyalty and retention, increased lifetime value of these customers, enhanced brand reputation and credibility,” she said. “We get a million referrals from these people, sustainable growth and profit, and a competitive advantage.”
Following the speakers, Michael Urness, founder and managing partner of the Seurat Group, moderated an executive panel discussion featuring Ronald Ferri, president of Tops Markets; Donald Hughes II, president of Bellissimo Foods; and Mike DeCory, vice president of meat and seafood merchandising at Wegmans.