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Diversity in Foodservice Distribution – A Point Not to Be Overlooked



Paraphrasing The Wall Street Journal's Nov. 14 The Journal Report, there is a select group of well-heeled companies that have placed creating a diverse work force within their organizations as a priority, citing two good reasons. The first is the recognition that it is strategic move to have a work force that reflects the changing demographics of their customers. The second is that it's no longer about mandated quotas and assimilation to uphold the status quo. It is about leveraging the differences afforded through their diverse work force to capture new business and increase the bottom line.

Whether creating a diverse work force has become one of your strategic business priorities (or not) consider this – according to The Wall Street Journal, African-Americans make up 13.8 % of the American work force. Hispanics compose 11.1% of the work force. Between 2000 and 2003, the Hispanic and Asian populations grew at a rate nearly four times as fast as the total population, (source: the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA ). In general, the demographics of the labor pool are changing.

"Those distributors with diversity throughout their workforce will be able to establish relationships with the entrepreneur of today who may ultimately be the multi-chain owner of tomorrow." – Gerry Fernandez, MFHA president
Looking at the demographics of our foodservice community, more specifically, your customer base is increasingly becoming more diverse. According to statistics presented by the National Restaurant Association in August 2005, Hispanics account for 18% of eating and drinking place employees in 2003. African-Americans make up 11%. Women constitute 55% of the operator work force. Furthermore, roughly one out of five individuals working in foodservice occupations is foreign-born. Moreover, MFHA's website notes that almost one out of four, or 24%, of eating and drinking places is minority owned.

As a foodservice distributor, the above information begs the question – does your organization have the aptitude to read the marketplace accurately and the ability to communicate this intelligence thereby distinguishing your company from the rest of the pack? Is diversity an attribute that your organization should to invest in?

{mosimage}ID Access had the opportunity to interview Gerry Fernandez, president of MFHA. As stated on its website, MFHA was founded to increase the awareness and presence of diversity in the foodservice and hospitality industry. Since its inception in 1996, MFHA has seen interest in this issue become "center of the plate" for some major foodservice players.

Our conversation revealed there is very little documentation regarding work force diversity within the foodservice distributor community. However, a fairly large number of suppliers and operators have publicly made diversity a priority as well as a point of distinction. Just go to the MFHA website and read through its board.

The support for this issue is not just the right thing to do, nor is it coincidental that strategic thinkers have selected this path. Fernandez was willing to enumerate several reasons why diversity has hit the radar screen of cutting edge foodservice companies and more specifically, why it is worth foodservice distributors' consideration.

The first is survival. For today's distributorship to flourish it must attract talent. He states, "the demographics spotlight that the non-white, non-male population is where the growth is…you want to attract smart white-black-Latino females and smart non-white males to your work force." He continues this stream of thought by conveying the fact that young recruits are attracted to companies that they assess as being "open to all to participate in growing the business. That their presence is valued and therefore they have potential to contribute." This type of an environment fosters productivity and loyalty.

Fernandez also speaks to the point that our foodservice community is not the only entity vying for talent. "The marketplace is getting more competitive, the pool of recruits is getting smaller as the baby boomers are getting ready to retire, thus giving the brightest recruits from entry level through management choices." Being identified as a company supportive of diversity is attractive. He challenges the foodservice distribution industry "to shape its image as a place where talent wants to work."

He adds to this thought the fact that in some cases a diverse work force is a criterion for doing business and cites state colleges as well as government contracts where work force diversity is one element required for consideration. Attracting a smart and talented diverse labor pool just makes sense.

ESTABLISH STRONG BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS WITH DIVERSE CUSTOMERS Another reason is the need to establish a strong business relationship with a diverse customer base. He notes — "organizations, today, require insight into customer needs and the products they desire." Fernandez believes that the foodservice distributor that will have a competitive edge will "have the insights, varied experiences, backgrounds that a diverse workforce brings."

"More than ever the distributors' customer base is diverse and one that is serving a diverse universe of consumers that desire ethnic foods." The ability to serve as an advisor, to convey best product use will be a winning strategy. He is also certain that "those distributors with diversity throughout their workforce will be able to establish relationships with the entrepreneur of today who may ultimately be the multi-chain owner of tomorrow."

Along with the need to establish business relationships, Fernandez states foodservice distributors may be well served to consider establishing supplier diversity as a strategy to expand business.

"Be inclusive so that business will grow." – Gerry Fernandez, MFHA president
Fernandez identifies an additional reason foodservice distributors should consider creating diversity within their companies — planning for their future. Organizations that have made diversity a priority recognize that their diversity investment translates to staying ahead of the curve. Fernandez is very much aware that the creation of a diverse workforce is a process.

His final comments to the foodservice distributor community note MFHA's commitment to providing guidance to facilitate this effort. He states that his organization is poised to support any foodservice distributor that wants to move ahead.

MFHA offers resources to cover the continuum of topics related to creating diversity Most recently, MFHA published a primer titled Diverse Executive Development, which is a best practices guide for attracting, promoting and retaining a diverse workforce.

Concluding our interview, Fernandez, when asked what key point he wished to convey to the foodservice distributor community promptly replied – for distributors to "learn to leverage differences to the bottom line…be inclusive so that business will grow."

For more on this topic, read our story about the Women's Foodservice Forum in the Oct. 7 edition of ID Report.

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