What It Takes to Be a Leader in Food Service

by Beverly Harvey

In an industry that is certainly close to the top of the list of those profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders were already challenged by the need to, “adapt our food systems to sustainably feed almost 10 billion people by 2050 in a world with shifting climate and environmental pressures,” says Dr. Jennifer van de Ligt, writing on the Food Safety Tech website. She also points to enormous food-production waste (more than 30 percent), as well regulatory and production challenges.

Pre-pandemic, back in 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted food-service occupations would grow 7 percent over the next seven years, and food-service management jobs would see 5 percent growth.

Just before anyone imagined that a virus would hold the world in its grip for more than a year, the food-service industry enjoyed stable growth in consumer spending, growing at a rate of about 4 percent annually, reports columnist Jim Sullivan. On March 15, 2020, Sullivan notes, the pandemic “effectively transformed the US foodservice industry forever.” A report from McKinsey speculates that four years may be needed for the US food-service industry to recover from the pandemic. “I’ve never seen such a pervasive, perverse, devastating and invisible enemy with such murky beginnings and no definable end,” Sullivan writes.

Food-service instructor Allison Moore defines food service as encompassing “all of the activities, services, and business functions involved in preparing and serving food to people eating away from home.” The food and beverage/restaurant sector is considered a subset of food service, although the hospitality industry also sometimes claims that sector. Sample job titles at the upper levels of the field include food consultant, food and beverage director, executive vice president, chief food and beverage officer, general manager, president, CEO, CFO, and COO.

The restaurant segment of food service has the most diverse workforce in the US, reports Nicole Duncan, but “that diversity rarely reaches management and C-suite positions.” Minorities comprise only 8 percent of corporate executives, Duncan says, though they make up half of hourly employees. Duncan cites Gerry Fernandez, founder and president of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA), who believes the reason for this underrepresentation at the highest levels is “poor talent acquisition and retention.” Because so few diverse candidates are hired and retained in the first place, a Catch-22 situation is created in which minorities have few role models.

Similarly, women outnumber men in the rank and file of the food-service industry but represent only 18 percent of C-suite positions in the segment, Julie Littman reports, citing the Women’s Foodservice Forum.  As of Littman’s 2019 article, the industry was going backward in its elevation of women, given that women comprised 23 percent of the C-suite in 2017.


Preferred Background

Just over a third of food-service directors and just over half of food-and-beverage directors hold bachelor’s degrees. Master’s-degree holders in both areas comprise less than 10 percent. Certificate programs are available in the sector, including an undergraduate Food, Beverage and Goods Leadership Certificate and at a much higher level, a Certified Food and Beverage Executive designation.

Zippia, which publishes guides to various career paths, notes that director-level food and beverage executives often bring backgrounds as general managers or food and beverage managers.


Desirable Characteristics

Success factors for leaders in food service are changing. Restaurant industry recruiter Joan Ray states, “You can’t just be a specialist in the c-suite anymore.” Ray asserts that food-industry leaders need a big-picture grasp of business. “You can’t have somebody leading a function,” Ray says, “who doesn’t have a bigger strategic understanding of their role, how it affects the customer, how it impacts the P&L.” Jennifer van de Ligt adds that food-service leaders must be able to “navigate the complexities of the global food system.” She refers to a need for “food systems thinking,” including “understanding the interdependencies throughout the food system.” Additional leadership characteristics recommended for aspiring food service leaders include the following:



Leadership Styles in the Food Service Field

The apparently small amount of research conducted in this field focuses on the food-and-beverage sector of food service. Noting that “highly effective leadership is the primary determiner of restaurant success,” Alan Someck writes about the transformational style as an antidote to the high failure rate in the restaurant business. Co-authors Godwin-Charles Ogbeide and Robert J. Harrington studied the participative style, concluding that when restaurant firms promote high levels of participation in decision-making and plan execution, they have greater financial success and are better able to implement action plans.



These resources offer additional insight on leadership in food service:

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