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Takeaways from Niagara University’s Food Industry Center of Excellence Summit 

September 22, 2023

Throughout September’s Food & Beverage Month at The Martin Group, we’ve been celebrating different ways our staff is connected to the industry – and continues to learn from its evolving developments and trends.  

On Sept. 21, our team attended the Niagara University Food Industry Center of Excellence’s Annual Summit, held at Buffalo’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. The afternoon program provided an update on all the tremendous things Niagara is doing for students intent on entering the hospitality field. It also provided valuable lessons from industry leaders who’ve spent the past three years navigating a turbulent sea of change, with massive adjustments brought on by customer expectations, technological advancements, and a global pandemic.       

Led by influential industry leaders from the Buffalo Niagara region and beyond, the day’s presentations and panel discussion provided valuable insight into what’s helped operators, suppliers, and distributors manage through changing times – and what technological advancements and evolving consumer trends may mean for the future.   

Here are a few of our favorite takeaways: 

Expectation meets experience – Jamie Obletz, President of Sportservice, Delaware North  

After the COVID-19 pandemic decimated Delaware North’s stadium operations across the U.S., Obletz and his team faced myriad challenges across their industry – especially once customers started returning to venues. After living in an on-demand and highly digitized world for more than a year, they returned to live events with high expectations. For Delaware North and businesses like it, meeting these heightened expectations – whether by improving quality of food, adhering to ongoing culinary trends, or meeting the needs of 57% of their customers who’d prefer to order their food and drinks digitally – has been crucial to providing an ideal experience, and one that can be replicated repeatedly. 

Their focus on autonomous ordering and self-checkout at stadiums and arenas is fascinating; someday soon our faces will be scanned, which will connect to our driver’s licenses, so humans won’t have to check IDs for alcohol. 

Loyalty as the end goal – Josh Halpern, CEO, Big Chicken 

There are so many things to consider when cultivating an enduring relationship between business and customer. But for Halpern and his Big Chicken restaurant team, the main goal in this realm comes down to one word: loyalty. This isn’t achieved with coupons, LTOs, or BOGO deals. According to Halpern, it’s about a dedication to quality and customer service that can establish an emotional loyalty – built on genuine affinity, attachment, and trust. If cultivated properly, this loyalty can drive a lifetime of value, and fuse your brand into customers’ (especially Gen Z customers’) personal brand.   

He brought up a great point about how much Gen Alpha’s friends drive their purchasing and how they’re actually trying to reach the tastemakers at schools to generate interest – with the understanding that kids are largely invisible data-wise to restaurants because their parents are buying everything.  

Let your guard down – Rebecca Brady, Owner, Top Seedz 

Top Seedz – the Buffalo cracker and seed company that took international entrepreneurial competition 43North’s top prize in 2022 – can attribute its ongoing success to a variety of convenience and nutritional factors. But according to Brady, it’s facilitating the creation of what she refers to as “raving fans” that’s proven crucial to the brand growing so rapidly over the past year. This interest has been achieved by simply being open and honest with her customers, and engaging with them in a very natural way. Direct emails. Phone calls. Dialogue about her personal life typically reserved for best friends. It seems antiquated in a world now run by social media and automated responses, but by letting her guard down – and letting customers be part of her success both personally and professionally – Brady has earned the type of loyalty to her brand as Big Chicken’s Halpern preached as critical for modern-day success in the food & beverage industry.  

They have also done a great job reaching tastemakers. In order to generate buzz, the Top Seedz team actually offered free crackers to local Orange Theory Fitness locations (because they know that a lot of their customers are members) when they launched in a new Northern California grocery chain. And they have even worked with customers to identify local and regional stores they can sell into. 

Delighting Customers, Executive Panel Discussion – Panelists: Mike DeCory, VP of Meat & Seafood Merchandising, Wegmans Food Markets; Ronald Ferri, President, Tops Markets; Donald Hughes II, President, Bellissimo Foods; Moderator: Michael Urness, Founding Managing Partner, Seurat Group 

One of the key messages from this panel was around connectivity and communication between suppliers, distributors, and operators. The best suppliers offer their distributors resources for how to work with them, enabling sales teams to be more educated about their products. Hughes made a great point about the value of being in-person, especially in the foodservice industry, and the importance of connecting with the brands they’re selling to. This trickles down to retailers like Tops and Wegmans, who need the same education and inspiration from distributors and suppliers to understand how best to sell these products in their stores.  

Inflation has been an increasingly important topic for foodservice and retailers as COVID programs like increased SNAP benefits and student loan deferments are ending, leaving customers with less discretionary income at a time where prices are at an all-time high. Inflation goes hand in hand with staffing issues, as panelists shared that their average rate of pay has gone up 50% in less than a decade. This is along with dealing with pandemic-driven changes such as the need for increased flexibility and hybrid or remote employees. The pandemic also quickly brought delivery and digitization to the world of food, with about 12–13% of food purchases in the U.S. being done online now. That number is much lower in WNY (4–5%), as many shoppers still see the value of picking out your own products (especially meat and vegetables).  

In terms of advice for our future foodservice leaders, the panelists said there is real value in interacting with customers and being “customer-curious”; they encouraged young talent to be passionate about food, new trends, their customers, and listening to those around them. 

To learn more about The Martin Group’s work throughout the food industry and beyond, click here.   

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