The changing landscape of MAS consulting

Karen Malody
Karen Malody

Founder and Owner

Original Article

Management advisory services (MAS) consultants need the expertise and agility to turn their hand to any challenge, as Amelia Levin hears

Karen Malody FCSI still remembers one of the first FCSI The Americas Symposiums she attended back in the mid-2000s, when she led a panel called ‘What is a MAS consultant?’

“We had a designer on the panel, and he was being a bit sarcastic but also truthful, and he asked: ‘Why should I hire you and share the money?’,” says Malody. “There are some designers today who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they know enough and that they can dig into all of those conceptual details that make an operation successful.”

Fast-forward nearly two decades and the consulting community has come a long way in understanding management advisory services. “Being an FCSI consultant has been tremendously beneficial in educating other members and the industry at-large about what we do,” Malody says. “I get a lot of calls from designers who have gotten the drift of what we do, and who understand how important it is to design kitchens based on solid programming work, as opposed to designing generic kitchens.”

So, what is an MAS consultant exactly? In a nutshell, “we do everything other than design, although we absolutely work hand-in-hand with designers,” says Malody.

This includes: concept development and design; menu development and testing; financial, strategic and long-range planning; operator sourcing and requests for proposals (RFPs); workflow and ergonomics; staffing, training and the development of standard operating procedures; marketing and publicity; and the development and measurement of key performance indicators (KPIs).

Over the last few years, Malody has formed a solid partnership with Russ Benson, a foodservice management professional (FMP), who has his own MAS consultancy, called Day One Hospitality Consulting. Both have a culinary background, although Malody tends to handle more of the concept design and menu planning, while Benson excels at the financial aspects and strategic planning.

“Not every MAS consultant does the same thing,” she says. Russ has his own clients and I have mine, but we have created a virtual, collaborative team to tackle different project needs.”

Benson calls their relationship “a match made in heaven in terms of how our skillsets complement each other.”

While some MAS consultants do design, it also works vice-versa. Vinoo André Mehera FSCI, of promaFox AG, is based in Switzerland. He started off as a kitchen designer in the 1990s, but gradually switched to take more of an MAS focus because his non-commercial foodservice clients are more concerned about food quality and creating memorable experiences than ever before. At the same time, they’re worried about costs and budgets, and labor shortages – two growing issues in the foodservice industry.

“We earn our money with kitchen design and planning, but we differentiate ourselves in being good MAS consultants as well,” Mehera says. “The consulting element has become more important for our clients. They value that a lot more.”

Gil D’Harcour, founder of Baguette & Co, is based in France, but is a member of the FCSI Asia Pacific Division because of his extensive work in Indonesia over the last 25 years. He feels his role has changed. “I consider myself more of a restaurant coach now than a consultant,” he says, noting the switch was personal, having returned to Europe from Indonesia to care for his parents and then having to stay there during the height of the pandemic.

New technology has also had an impact on client needs. “The profusion of information that one might gather through the internet about interior design, plating, etc, has empowered the entrepreneurs who used to be my clients to believe in their own abilities in opening restaurants,” he says. “With AI and the power of social media, they sense that the use of consultants is not crucial anymore. They improvise as designers, chefs and as managers.”

To that end, Malody hints that every day is a battle to remain relevant and to educate others in the industry about what she can offer. The wrong planning (or no planning) upfront can set up an entire project to fail. It’s vital to get involved in the early stages, well before any designs are created.

“Back in the day, MAS consultants were not even invited to the manufacturer’s seminars because the attitude was ‘if you don’t design, why should we invest in you?’” she says. “But the reality is, if we’re developing concepts and menus, we need to know the equipment that’s needed and make sure the client gets the right equipment package for the anticipated volume.”

Restaurants and foodservice operators have always run on tight profit margins, but in today’s post-pandemic, high-inflation world, pennies are being pinched even more. MAS consultants have a unique opportunity to respond and carve out a new niche as ‘future-proofers’, and kitchen designers have a unique opportunity to hire them to ensure a project is successful.

The labor issue

MAS consultants, designers and operators point to labor as the number one challenge impacting foodservice operations around the world right now. Following the mass exodus (and layoff) of hospitality workers during and after the height of the pandemic, many never returned.

“There’s no staff,” Mehera says bluntly. “It’s important that you optimize [operations] with the right equipment, and design and layout, to not only save on staff, but potentially use less-qualified staff to deliver products.”

Careful operational planning is a way to combat this issue. Mehera has been advising people to lean on offerings such as pre-cut vegetables and quality, parbaked goods to be able to offer items that are still freshly made and nutritious even if they’re not made-to-order. This can be tough, he says, especially as the younger generation want a wider variety of menu offerings that showcase regionality, health and wellness.

“You have to develop your menu a certain way to deal with labor shortages, because a menu that’s too complicated will create a bigger demand for labor,” he says. “If you haven’t figured this out before the design happens, you could have a designer inadvertently design something without understanding the financial constrictions that might end up on the client.”

Benson notes that 95% of the time, the MAS consultant is called in too late in the game, when “the client is forced to reinvest hundreds of thousands of dollars into fixing an operation because the client didn’t have a viable strategy in the first place.”

Eli Huff FCSI, principal owner of S|F|G Consulting Group, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US, is a chef who recently transitioned away from his operating services. He acknowledges this conundrum, saying: “Menus need to change constantly, but this also presents a staffing issue.”

Robin Hungerford, associate principal and planning director at Webb Foodservice Design, knows this all too well. Until a year ago, she served as senior director of dining and hospitality services for the University of California-Riverside’s (UCR) self-operated foodservice program. In total, she spent 12 years working in foodservice operations there.

“The college student today and tomorrow is so different than in the past; they want to engage with the cooks, have sophisticated plates, and take an interest in global foods and flavors,” she says. “They expect a variety of food offerings on campus and this has an impact on design.” 

Amid a labor shortage, Hungerford had to figure out how to offer variety while not overstressing the staff. “Gone are the days of just assuming the labor force will be there and be thankful for a paycheck,” she says. “We’re in a new place now. Everything used to be about the guest, but now it’s about the whole team and the company, and developing recognition programs and leadership opportunities… to build morale and a culture of teamwork,” she adds.

During the height of the pandemic, she sensed that for the first time in a long while, hospitality workers were feeling that they were being ‘seen’.

“They were considered ‘essential workers,’” she says. “Restaurant work is a thankless job; you do it because you’re passionate about service and food. That rug was pulled from under us when all of a sudden everyone had to start doing rounds of layoffs. When I made this shift into consulting, I realized I can help hospitality leaders feel seen again.”

The Strategic Planning Studio, which Hungerford leads, provides services such as operational assessments, strategic plans, RFP management and innovative problem solving. “We position ourselves as a trusted advisor that can come along for the journey with our client,” she says. “I am thankful to be on a team that sees value in this approach, and to be able to relate to the clients I work with and understand the challenges they face. That connection helps build trust, so we can really become partners in finding the way forward.”

Learning about new technologies

MAS consultants who keep up with the latest technology and help clients navigate these waters will put themselves in a competitive position as design consultants specify more traditional equipment.

Malody says learning about new technologies has been a huge shift in her work. “We have had to become point-of-sale (POS) and technology experts at times,” she says. “Often, designers don’t want to deal with that, and clients are completely overwhelmed, so we help them sort through what’s out there.”

At back-of-house, we’re seeing robotic arms with the ability to flip burgers and fry fries, points out former chef Huff. In Japan, customers can place their order at a kiosk while a robot grabs their pizza and puts it in a hot locker, and then they enter a code to pick up their food when it’s ready, he adds.

“Seamless ordering is the wave of the future; there are plenty of new technologies that allow someone to walk up and order on a kiosk or pre-order through their phone,” Huff says. “I could foresee smaller concepts like bagel shops, sandwich shops and pizza places becoming almost entirely all automated, and this is exciting.”

On the flipside, advancements in technology have helped consultants in their jobs. “Photos, videos, drawings, interviews – they can all be done without a physical presence,” says D’Harcour, for whom this technology was helpful when working with his Indonesian clients while he was in Europe. “I did my first outlet 100% by distance, from France, using my smartphone and guiding my employees in building a local bistro for them to work in and feed their families. From Jakarta to Manado, Sulawesi to Papua, I can be with them with just a click.”

Budget challenges

Aside from the high expense of hospitality labor, robots and automated equipment are not cheap, and there are many other costs to contend with, from rising food prices to energy and permitting costs. Mehera says his recent work has been almost entirely centered on budgets and finances, with “clients telling us they need help keeping costs under control,” and he is taking a more holistic approach.

He says the mindset used to be “let’s focus on the design, because the operational costs down the line are not my problem. But now operational [players] are getting involved earlier and they don’t want any issues or surprises later on. They want to look at the cost of electricity and energy and make sure they’re making the right equipment choices and planning correctly.”

He then adds: “The holistic approach is important because of the complete investment. At the end of the day, the biggest cost is not the restaurant; it’s all the other stuff around it.”

Benson says: “One of our value-adds to our clients is determining all the operating costs. Ideally, this takes place well before the design process gets started. Running projections around what they can expect is all part of teaching the client how to run a successful food program.”

Training, educating and operating

Speaking of teaching, many MAS consultants offer training as part of their service. “It’s important to emphasize [that] we are really striving to educate clients how to be food-program managers,” Benson says. “Nine out of 10 of them don’t know which end of a knife to hold. Visioning, operator selection – all of these steps lead us to the end goal of providing that education so the food program manager knows how to manage their program.”

In some cases, MAS consultants become the operators. “My school catering business is still going as I am handling the foodservice facilities of the German school in Indonesia,” says D’Harcour, who has also been working with a “young entrepreneur in opening an outlet that could be representative of Indonesia overseas, emphasizing Indonesian coffee and local pastries to become an Indonesian version of Starbucks.”

In Huff’s case, he has built a business on actually becoming the operator, doing 20% management, and 80% design and consulting, of which MAS services remains a solid core. He oversaw the $30m renovation of Union Public Schools’ high school in Tulsa, US, as well as renovations at other schools in the 17-unit district.

“We designed the program, then stayed on to manage it for three years, training and managing the program with their staff,” he says. “Once we felt comfortable, and the nutrition director and superintendent were moving and grooving, we phased ourselves out.”

Huff has also worked on the menu/concept development, planning, design and buildout of a new $9m cafeteria and food hall for Oklahoma State University, as well as a new Meals on Wheels campus worth $15m — a project that started seven
years ago.

“We had to design it for the future,” he says. “They’re preparing 4,000 meals a day, but eventually want to get to 10,000 meals, so we added 10 extra feet of hood on either side of the floating islands, and put all the gas and electrical in a UDS system, so we can roll in extra warming boxes and eventually replace some of them with kettles and tilt skillets if need be.”

Environmental and social sustainability

Today, sustainability considerations go far beyond waste reduction and energy efficiency, extending to social aspects such as the comfort of employees.

“We’re morphing into a more holistic approach,” Malody says. “We have to bring up sustainability goals and ESG strategy (see Briefing, p 106) if we’re doing our job right. The foodservice operation has to be aligned with a company’s sustainability goals. We can’t have the kitchen become the energy hog.”

Some clients have returned to permanent ware after the heyday of disposables during the pandemic, while others are switching from gas appliances to electric to reduce their carbon footprint.

On the social side, there are more considerations about “culture and human satisfaction, and making sure employees are happy,” Malody says. “At the end of the day, if you don’t have happy people in the kitchen or on the floor, you’re not going to make money.”

“We have clients in California and Georgia, and those re-engaging with sustainability, who care not just about reducing waste and carbon footprint, but also about animal husbandry, not overfishing, plant-based menus and supporting diversity,” Hungerford says. “Keeping food affordable at the college level is also a huge issue. It was shocking to me when I first learned there are many students who struggle with food insecurity.”

While working on the operations side, Hungerford used a matrix-based approach to help campus administrators see the value in sustainability initiatives. “We scored everything in terms of whether it was high or low cost, high or low impact,” she says. “The goal was to go for as many low-cost/high-impact initiatives as possible.”

Low-cost, high-impact measures can be as simple as retraining staff in the dish room to optimize dish flow and reduce energy consumption or turning off power during non-peak hours. 

The future of MAS

MAS consultants have had to become chameleons or jack-of-all-trades, often expected to offer all kinds of services from concept development to long-range planning, to cost control and quality assurance or training, and even kitchen design and equipment selection.

For Hungerford, remaining flexible is important game going forward: “We need to be constantly evolving and reinventing,” she says. “I love continuing to listen to the guest of today and the guest of tomorrow to inform the decision-making process.”

For others, it’s all about collaborating. “The perfect scenario is still for people like Russ and I to get in in advance of design,” says Malody. “There should never be any design work done until the client’s goals and visions have been made very, very clear.”

With so much emphasis on cost control, staffing and sustainability goals today, MAS consultants are seeing a shift in the project player dynamic. One might say they’re becoming more necessary to ensure long-term success than ever before.

“I’m really relieved about this,” Malody says. “Clients are getting really educated and a lot savvier, and they’re wanting to truly ‘own’ their own programs and visions, and rightly so. They don’t want to have to renovate brand-new kitchens anymore. This is where a design consultant and an MAS consultant can do great work in building a lasting, successful operation together.” 

Amelia Levin

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