26 APRIL 2019
Innovate, or die / “Same old is out” – Wendy Alberts, CEO Restaurant Association of South Africa (RASA)
The message is simple: restaurants have to innovate and provide a “sensory experience” to attract diners as convenience foods offer an affordable alternative and consumers become more educated and discerning.
Quote: “Consumers are yearning for excitement…”
Like a whirlwind of energy, Wendy Alberts breezes into the lovely sitting room slash meeting room area of the Restaurant Association suburban head office in Douglasdale. After a warm greeting she quickly morphs into her role as an assertive CEO as she sorts out a photographer, who is late for a shoot. Her phone is pinging and she’s clearly a modern powerhouse – a mother and formidable industry leader – but once she settles into the plush sofa across from me she’s in the moment and focused.
Alberts was voted one of South Africa’s Most Influential Woman in Government and Business Award [CAN YOU CLARIFY AWARD – WHO FROM AND YEAR] for her role as CEO at RASA – a leading organisation in the food and beverage sector. RASA aims to uplift and self-regulate the restaurant industry, and under Alberts’ leadership it has grown into a powerful association that partners with blue chip companies and works with government on legislation that affects the industry. “We’re like the head office for all the independent restaurants,” Alberts explains. RASA is run like a business, providing members with value adds like supplier rebates and promotions as well as preferential rates. The organization also works with government on legislation compliance – to protect the interests of restaurants. The organization also offers staff training and recruitment services.
And after chatting to her, it’s easy to see why she’s so successful. A self-confessed A-type personality, Alberts is passionate about the industry and progressive about leading the industry forward. She’s direct about challenges facing the industry but she’s still optimistic.
“These may be difficult times for restaurants but it’s also exciting – there are opportunities for growth…”
After growing up in the food service industry, Wendy has been working in restaurants since she was 10 years old. CAN YOU ADD FAMILY RESTAURANT NAME/PLACE?
Her business background includes working in the banking sector and this, combined with her passion for food, has given her a unique understanding of the way the industry works. “I have a natural gift in that I understand the business of food.”
Crunch time for restaurant industry
Alberts says restaurants that are not moving ahead and offering consumers innovation and an experience will not survive. She echoes that global trends of convenience are set to disrupt the local industry.
Having travelled a lot, Alberts believes restaurants have a lot going for them.
“We definitely have world class restaurants that are comparable – if not better. We’re not as arrogant, we’re friendly and inviting and accessible,” she says.
But restaurants are closing – a fact that Alberts contributes to demographics and those not creating an experience. “It’s a competitive industry and restaurateurs need to offer a unique element.”
Alberts’ industry trend alerts
- Good value. The consumer has become very educated and they know the value of food and wine that you can buy from retailers. Retailers are competing with restaurants in terms of good value ‘deals’.
- Ordering in replaces home cooking. UberEats, ‘meal deals’ and ‘meal in a box’ concepts are definitely replacing a home-cooked meal.
- Eating out must be a ‘wow’ experience. Restaurants need to deliver on a great ‘experience’ (the rise of picnics, festivals, pop ups, food trucks, underground restaurants), even if it costs more than an average meal.
- Convenience is key but the health trend is big. Consumers want top quality, and free-of foods (additives, salt, sugar, colourants) so there’s opportunity for healthy takeaways.
- Packaging counts. The demand for environmentally sustainable BPA-free and less chemicals is increasing.
- Tasting menus at the top end. Consumers are willing to spend if the expectation is met; and we’ve seen a rise in chefs offering nouvelle cuisine tasting menus – smaller portions of delicate, innovative dishes but over multiple courses. And these would include ‘interactive’ or ‘surprise’ elements – like finishing a dish at the table (flambéing as an example).
- It’s not just about the food. Crockery, glassware, entertainment and service (and including things like theatrical training for waiters) all become part of experiential dining.
- Chefs have inspired consumers. Ironically, television cooking shows and celebrity chefs have diminished the industry by educating and empowering home cooks.
- Restaurants have to become specialists. Even if it’s a milkshake, they have to serve the best ever milkshake. Offer a unique element – the way food is plated or even the way waiters interface with diners – or serve a speciality dish.