Executive Chat with Lon Southerland
by Rebecca Patt, Senior Vice President of Development with Wray Executive Search
Lon Southerland is a leader and innovator of global F&B operations for brands including American Blue Ribbon Holdings, Marriott International, Starbucks, and 7-Eleven. His many accomplishments include leading the roll out of The Bistro – Eat.Drink.Connect® inside Courtyard by Marriott from inception to one of the most rapidly growing fast-casual outlets in the US.
He has a prominent voice throughout the restaurant industry with speaking engagements at conferences including IFMA Presidents Conference, COEX and the Fast Casual Summit. His keynotes detail his compelling successes in large-scale new-platform development & integration.
You have your fingers on the pulse of the industry as far as what is resonating with consumers in food and beverage. What do you think is really hot right now?
Over the last decade I've had my finger on the pulse of learning more about healthier eating, predominantly in fast casual. Our lives are increasingly busier, so time constraints are a significant consideration. It's something I'm passionate about for many reasons.
One of the major challenges in the US is the typical American diet is not as healthy as some other countries who are economically compromised. The effects of diet on health and longevity have become increasingly more important to me. I've found that when we've made changes that included healthier flavorful options, these items actually do quite well. At Marriott, for example, putting a citrus spinach quinoa salad on the menu was an absolute homerun, among other healthier options offered to the consumers. Certainly having these fresh choices with the ability to customize are what people want to find available. They are looking for a variety of options. Our progressive industry is starting to take notice of this trend, and it is likely to stay. The momentum is clearly growing stronger.
The Millennials are much more cognizant of nutrition and what they are eating. They certainly look for healthier places to eat, and the standards are increasingly changing towards health-based products. At the same time, Baby Boomers are starting to figure out that they need to be eating a healthier, more nutritious selection. The trend really does seem to be slowly gravitating towards what would be considered healthier, cleaner labels and a balanced fresh diet. I think the farm-to-table movement and local sourcing is the consequence of greater consumer awareness of these benefits.
A citrus spinach quinoa salad sounds pretty good to me. So you think America is really ready to eat more healthy salads, and the restaurant industry is ready to provide them?
You've got to hand it to First Lady Michelle Obama, she selected the platform of combating the epidemic of childhood obesity and has stayed the course. Unfortunately, the Surgeon General and numerous studies have predicted that children born today will be the first generation of children who will not outlive their parents. As leaders in the food and beverage industry, we are in a unique position to be a part of the solution.
A great example of a concept successfully addressing this issue is Revolution Foods. It starts where positive social impact can be made through educating and providing nutritional unprocessed whole foods meals to children in schools across our country. For many of these youth, it may be the only healthy meal that they will have each day. It's an amazing program that's growing, and valuable by helping our youth have a chance at a positive start.
Tell me about some recent food and beverage projects you're excited about.
I've been a Senior Executive Advisor working with a company that has some amazing products. It's Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York. They started forty years ago with emphasis on natural food cuisine taking inspiration from around the world. People visit Moosewood because the healthful, delicious food is affordable and accessible. They have been acclaimed as a driving force in the world of creative vegetarian cooking. We were on a call last week with Dr. T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell, and his son Dr. Thomas Campbell. Dr. Campbell is a proponent of the benefits of a plant-based, whole foods diet. He's been to Moosewood frequently, is a fan, and is very much in support of this unique concept.
We are planning to take Moosewood national and you never know, you may also see a great new fast-casual concept exploding across the country. As restaurateurs, we know there is a significant challenge with farm-to-table sourcing. We are also working closely with Joe Salatin whose farm was featured prominently in Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. His successful but unconventional farming practices have drawn attention, given their focus on the ethics of food and the environment.
Is Moosewood a plant-based diet concept?
They are primarily plant-based. The team continually updates their recipes with a different menu just about every day. There are already thousands of incredible recipes; you can see why they have 13 internationally acclaimed published cookbooks. One unique cookbook is for those who want to make great meals using produce grown in their own back yards.
Certainly with a bit of optimization, Moosewood has legs, and their tremendous following and 40-year head start makes them unique. We are seeing further broad acceptance of fresh quality food with a number of different concepts; Sweetgreen, Robeks, Native Foods, Urban Farmhouse Market and Café, and Whole Foods just to name a few.
I find this fascinating that you are someone who has a platform in the industry to promote a plant- based diet because I myself am on a plant-based diet, and I love it and take to it really well. The benefits just seem to keep increasing for me.
I think much of it is education and understanding what this optimal balance is for businesses. This requires monitoring results through "social listening" with companies like NuBrand, which yields real time actionable results on consumer sentiment. Leveraging companies like Guesmetics, which turns billions of raw transactions into intelligible insights, essential to understand and optimize ones operations. My wife has always focused on a whole-foods, plant-based diet; she also doesn't eat any animal products. I primarily eat that way, but it can be tough in our industry. Generally, my choices are more plant based.
We went on a cruise called, "Holistic Holiday". The lectures were about understanding how to properly eat. The first question I always seem to get is, "where do you get your protein", and you get it everywhere from beans, nuts, whole grains, to broccoli and other vegetables, including fruits. If you eat a balanced, plant-based diet, you are going to have sufficient protein. Truthfully, no one goes to the doctor who eats a balanced, whole-foods diet and finds they are protein deficient. It just doesn't happen, according to the world-renowned doctors I've had the privilege to converse with in person. Often people think this is a potential area of concern; certainly one has to be aware of various deficiencies, and may benefit from supplements. This is a growing area of interest with consumers demanding industry provide these options. Progressive companies recognize this value, and are making gradual adjustments.
What inspired you to pursue a plant based diet?
I've become increasingly aware of the impact of healthy eating over the last 11 years. I started off studying longevity, and then learned about Dr. T. Colin Campbell's, "The China Study" which scientifically documents the greater longevity of Chinese farmers in comparison to city dwellers. This was a massive study across much of the country. When farmers moved to cities and were able to consume more meat, dairy, and other animal products, as well as processed foods, their health and life span became compromised. Soon afterward, we saw the documentary, Forks Over Knives which made a significant impression on me, and I tell my friends it's worth seeing.
After gaining more knowledge, I thought it would be difficult to find good food that tasted great, however it's not been as hard as expected. I am in the very early stages of writing a book about the food we choose to put on our plates to help others who have an interest in health and wellness. I find there is growing interest in this area. You see trends in bagels, yogurt, but this is one trend you see that is going to stick. When a family is deciding to eat out and are discussing where they are going to go, often times there is a silent majority that want to have more than an iceberg lettuce salad. They are going to vote to go somewhere where there are good choices and if you don't have an array of tasty plant-based items on the menu at the restaurant you are going to lose out – Think Chipotle, "Sofritas" an example of a flavorful item that finds broad acceptance.
Where do you want to see yourself in the next few years?
I've been humbled to lead and be a part of incredibly successful teams across a wide variety of industry segments; from taking a startup to the Inc. 500 as Starbucks largest bakery provider to food and beverage platforms and concepts in world-class organizations. I can see myself in any number of capacities. I am passionate about operations, marketing, food and beverage, transformation and innovation, and contributing to wellness and a healthy footprint. This means being able to be flexible to meet the rapidly changing and growing needs of consumers across the entire industry whether it be school lunches, hospitality, fast casual, or CPG.
As food and beverage professionals, we must remain true to who we are, and we cannot allow our concepts to lose relevancy in today's environment. Proactive vigilance and intelligent risk are crucial to stay at the forefront, and I am passionate about helping companies increase insight and relevancy with this growing consumer base.
It's amazing to work in an industry providing products and experiences people love. You just never get bored when it comes to food!
What's an interesting little known fact about you?
I was a contender for the US Virgin Islands Olympic team in 1984 for swimming.
Rebecca Patt specializes in helping restaurant companies recruit top executive talent. Do you need to hire top talent for your restaurant company's executive team, or do you want to be considered as a candidate? Please email Rebecca.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credits: Marriott International, Moosewood Café
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