By Charlie Hopper, guest blogger
Once you’re “in” at the NRA Show in Chicago, one of the opportunities available to anyone is to just wander down the hallway where the speakers are, find a seat, and allow someone interesting to fill your brain up. It’s kind of like the cap-and-gowned deans and bursars of Yale or Stanford throwing wide the gates for two or three days, and offering you a chair in any classroom you want.
At the Show held last May I strolled in and sat down for the “He Said/She Said” town-hall-style education session in which Nancy Kruse, trend expert and president of The Kruse Company, had a wide-ranging discussion with Bret Thorn, Senior Food Editor at Nation’s Restaurant News, along with anyone who cared to step up to the microphone in the audience.
“This is a ‘live column,’” Nancy said, referring to an ongoing column they write for Nation’s Restaurant News. One topic they discussed early on was whether you should respond to negative reviews—which I discussed in my last blog entry.
Quick review: Their advice on responding to negative reviews (including input from audience members) is basically like when the Magic 8-ball says, “Reply hazy try again” or “Ask again later.” It’s murky. Case by case. Clearly, it would be ideal to respond to everyone you can afford the time to address, especially when the customer “offers to allow you to save the day” by informing you via social media when there’s a problem. Wouldn’t most restaurateurs want to know when there’s a problem?
On the other hand, don’t get into a social media mud-slinging contest. And always be nice.
If you don’t want to read my other blog, I think that’s the basic conclusion.
But they covered a lot of other ground.
“Farm to table,” said Nancy, throwing out a topic to discuss.
There were positive-sounding murmurs. But Bret seems—to someone who just wandered in from the hallway—to be slightly contrarian, or at least frankly pragmatic. “It’s great restaurants want to work with local farmers,” he said in a humorous way, obviously leading up to a “but.” “But it’s the cost of entry for working in food service today.”
Nancy agreed with that. “It’s no longer a marketing point.” She sounded disappointed on behalf of everyone there, as if she really wished that she could tell everybody that ‘Farm to Table’ would make a huge opportunity for them in the marketplace. In a rueful tone, she said, “There’s just so much buzz. What the customer is saying is, ‘I’m afraid—is this trans fat? Is it gluten?’ And so on, and so on. And so, as Bret says, it’s the cost of entry today. Farm to Table positions you as wholesome, real, and transparent.”
Their feeling was it’s no longer a newsworthy approach—just a requirement for anyone trying to serve and reassure the fearful eaters of the world.
Later the topic turned to GMOs. Bret immediately looked irascible. “The facts are immediately lost, as soon as the subject comes up,” he said.
Nancy said, “Show of hands, who thinks customers are tuned in to the GMO issue?” Almost nobody raised either of their hands.
“Cheerios, interestingly enough, Cheerios began advertising—on their box—that they were non-GMO. And sales went down,” said Nancy. “People responded with, ‘Why did you change my cereal?’”
Bret was just shaking his head. Nancy nodded to his head-shaking. “It’s polarizing.” But then she began pitching Bret a new idea, saying brightly, “But why not GMO ‘enhanced?’ You could tell people the positivies—‘Rice has vitamins now.’” Bret smiled, as if to say, “Good luck with that.”
That kind of back-and-forth brought an energy to the room that most speeches can’t achieve, even with a gifted solo speaker.
If you ever get the chance to sit in on their “class,” I’d recommend it. Maybe you can see them if you’re wandering speaker’s row at the NRA 2015 Show in the Spring what-I’ll-refer-to-as-a-semester, next year?