In this episode, host Jonathan Havens, co-chair of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr’s Food, Beverage and Agribusiness (FBA) Practice, speaks with Brian Berger, principal and founding partner of JBH Advisory Group, which provides a variety of advisory services to stakeholders involved in scalable food service throughout the hospitality industry. They discuss the challenge of trying to maintain consistency in an industry where the product experience can never be the same twice, and how tools such as data analytics and strategic purchasing can be leveraged to that end. They also examine how innovations developed years ago, such as ghost kitchens and ventless cooking methodologies, have helped operators in the food and beverage industry adapt to pandemic-related challenges, particularly labor shortages and supply chain issues.
Episode: Leveraging Data and Technology to Achieve Scalable Food Service
Jonathan Havens and Brian Berger May 2022
Jonathan Havens: Thank you for joining us on our food, beverage and agribusiness podcast series, “Don't Miss a Beet.” My name is Jonathan Havens and I'm the co-chair of both Saul Ewing's Food, Beverage and Agribusiness Practice as well as the firm's Cannabis Law Practice. And I'm based in our Baltimore and Washington, D.C. offices.
Today, I'm thrilled to be joined by Brian Berger, a principal and founding partner of JBH Advisory Group. Brian – we’ll get into his very interesting background and how he came to be a founder of JBH. But, he's responsible for business strategy, industry relations, client engagement, and new ventures. Brian, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it. We know our listeners are going to get a lot of value out of hearing your story, hearing more about JBH. So, welcome to the show. And if you wouldn't mind introducing yourself, giving us a little bit about your background so our listeners can know all the great information about you that I know.
Brian Berger: Jonathan, thank you. Appreciate you having me on, and look forward to the conversation. Just a brief background – I’ve been in the restaurant and food and beverage industry, started potlatching at 14 and was off and running, attended a hotel restaurant program for college, worked with some companies like Aramark and, Houston's now Hillstone Restaurant. And ended up at PricewaterhouseCoopers where I helped to lead a global food and beverage advisory practice for close to a decade. In 2009, my partner Lynne Jacoby and I started JBH Advisory Group and we've been running that ever since.
Just a brief background on JBH: we work in multiple services, but everything surrounded by the food and hospitality industry. We work with private equity firms that are looking to acquire a food-related target, whether it's a restaurant company or contract management company or a food supplier, helping them with operational due diligence. We work directly for operators. It could be a hotel group, a restaurant, a convenience store. And we do a lot of work on really process improvement, operational efficiency in today's world. A lot of that is labor efficiency – that kitchen-of-the-future design. We do help create concepts or brands for companies as well. And then really a distinct part of our business is in that contract management field. So, to be more specific, health care is our largest channel. We've helped over 500 health care facilities really find improvement in their food and nutrition. Lastly, we do have a restaurant operating group, so we do continue not only to provide advisory
services, but we do operate. We have 12 different restaurant brands that fall under SVK or Sous Vide Kitchen as kind of our overarching brand.
Jonathan Havens: That's great. Thank you so much. And I think we're going to unpack – I just want to tell our listeners – we’re going to unpack a lot of the things that Brian just talked about. I mean, if you're going through your mind, there's various segments to what JBH does. There's various segments of what Brian does. So, don't worry. We're going to get into all of that through this conversation. So, to Brian, one of the reasons that I really love working with clients in the food, beverage and agribusiness spaces is that it really gives me a deeper appreciation of exactly what it takes to get food to the end consumer. And as you well know, and I know, it's a lot more complex than some might imagine. So with that in mind, can you touch a bit on JBH’s services? I know that you all are in the data analytics space and operational process improvement and, as you just talked about, due diligence, to name a few. And discuss how you support your clients to get products and/or services to their customers.
Brian Berger: Absolutely, and, I like to say, we really work in scalable food service. This isn't your independent chapter of “in” restaurants, but we're working in areas where we're doing large-scale food service, whether it's with a hotel or convenience store or within a university or hospital. And, as you said, it's a very complex space. We don't produce widgets in our industry. In essence, you're trying to recreate a product experience that can never be the same twice. Every chicken breast or tomato has a little bit of a different taste to it, not to mention that service experience depending on the people interacting, how they come into that engagement. So, we at JBH say, we're always trying to replicate and get to that consistency and fight the good fight on something that you could never really truly replicate.
So with that, as you mentioned, we look at a lot of data from a data analytics perspective. We, specific to the health care space, have a partnership with a company called DSSI, where we launched something called “Analyze” that really looks at all the operating metrics within food and nutrition, as well as housekeeping, facilities management in that world. And, by really mining the information, it allows us to give our clients the best advice, give them all the options and really be aware and have that transparency on how they go forward with decisions. So that's a very key to our group and the way that we look at the industry and then, really in addition, it's about process. It's really about strategic purchasing. It's about – from that initial “what are we looking at from a menu perspective” through how we're serving our guests – it’s looking at all the different processes that take place, and then leveraging the innovation and technology and amazing suppliers that are out there.
I think the food industry has been really changed over the last two years. Although a lot of things we've been working on, we've been working on for over a decade, but they have magnified in this environment. So it's really about finding the right ways to drive that process.
Jonathan Havens: Yeah, that's great. And that leads really nicely into my next question or kind of a line of questions. As our listeners know, we've had other guests come on and talk about the well-documented challenges in the space related to COVID, including supply chain and labor. Could you talk a little bit about how JBH has navigated those challenges, or better yet how you've helped your stakeholders navigate those challenges?
Brian Berger: Absolutely. I think at this point it's a little comical because about 12 years ago, after we had left PWC and started JBH, we actually started our restaurant group as well. And we were looking at, from a labor perspective, the increase in wages that was occurring, the difficulty in finding skilled labor. From a capital expenditure piece, looking at real estate, looking at build-out costs, looking at food safety, all of these things that really have been magnified during the course of the pandemic and afterwards. I think, as you said, labor and supply chain right now for the industry are two of the largest challenges. But over twelve years ago, we started on looking at process and utilizing technology, looking at sous vide method of cooking and the applications that are there. Looking at rapid cook ovens that were coming into place with companies like TurboChef and Rational. Looking at ways to eliminate the need for hood systems and ventilations, which are quite costly from a build-out perspective and limit real estate that you can go into, just finding techniques and strategic purchasing in a way to really automate some of the processes within the kitchen. And so we’ve fortunately had over a decade of time to test these, not only within our own operations, but to really bring these skills and these techniques to our clients.
So, we're working with clients in the convenience store space where we can give them a kitchen of the future that requires 25 to 50% less labor, but gets more consistent, safest food. You know, through some of these technologies like HPP and sous vide, we don't have to add preservatives into our foods. We can have, really, foods that are cooked naturally in their own juices. But at the same time, it allows us to operate with zero waste because of shelf life and the pasteurization that comes into play when you're using these methods of cooking. So it's become a really amazing, interesting road out there, but we feel very fortunate that we've had over a decade of working with clients and showing them different techniques in scalable food service, of how to really get around some of those labor and supply chain issues.
Jonathan Havens: So it's interesting. I think some of the things that you mentioned you've been doing for 10, 12 years, obviously weren't done with an eye towards supply chain issues or labor issues, but in fact, have really helped you and your stakeholders meet the challenges that have been brought on by their recent challenges, the smaller footprint kitchens and sous vide preparation. Obviously, the past two years have been pretty tough for everybody, but it's nice that—I would assume—that the things that you've been working on have really kind of been brought to the forefront to say, “Okay, here's how you can address challenges that are newer challenges, but these are things that we've been working on for a long time.” So, kudos to you and your team for kind of pivoting or adapting those things that you've been working on and helping industry meet new challenges.
So, you talked about this a bit before, but I think something that's particularly exciting about what JBH does is concept and brand development. Can you talk a little bit about some of the concepts that you're involved in, and if you're willing to share, going to give us a peek behind the curtain about anything exciting that might be coming down the pike.
Brian Berger: Absolutely. So, we're looking at ways to operate more efficiently with less labor, safer, lower build-out. So we started with our first concept called “Bonmi,” which is a Vietnamese sandwich and bowls concept. And that's where we really looked at going to this ventless assembly methodology kitchen. And over time, we saw the benefits of the production model and we started to really create new concepts. We launched them first as ghost kitchens. We launched our first ghost kitchen in New York City back in 2016. The first one we launched was called “Pulled & Chopped BBQ.” At this point in time, we have 12
different brands and are growing, everything from our “Rotisserie Joes,” more of a comfort food, to “Vindy Indian” to our “Good Egg” breakfast concept. And really what we've found is we can produce all these concepts off of one line with about 50% less labor than a typical kitchen using a hundred ingredients or SKUs, for all 12 concepts. And what we now have found is because of our operational paths on the advisory side, we want something called Simple Solutions where we can do the same for any operator.
We can essentially go into a banquet kitchen or a full-service restaurant, or it could be a convenience store, could be a fast casual restaurant and we can basically give them all of the approaches and processes to back into this assembly methodology. That's going to get them that value proposition which is lower labor, more consistent, safer food, and really what we find to be a sustainable financial model, which the industry has had challenges with in the past but have really been magnified, coming out of the last few years. So on the advisor side, the important thing is – at the end of the day – the production side is the process: how it comes, how it's delivered to guests, whether it's through ghost kitchen delivery or full-service operation. That is the piece that can be very flexible. But when it comes to the back of house process, we can really give our clients that direct plan of approach, to get that value proposition.
Jonathan Havens: That's great. So, you talked about ventless and you talked about ghost kitchens. For our listeners that might not be familiar with ventless or ghost kitchens, could you just do a little one-on-one here.
Brian Berger: Yes, absolutely. My apologies. I am so used to talking about these things. It's a great point. So, most traditional kitchens have a hood system because they have open flame. They have fryers and ovens and grills that really require a ventilation system that if it's not existing in a potential real estate space, can cost $50,000 -$200,000 depending on how it's run. There has been such innovation from a technology standpoint on the equipment and on how we really don't necessarily have to cook every ingredient from scratch. We can get high-quality, clean, natural ingredient products in combined with the new equipment where we don't require that ventilation. And that opens up so many doors to where we can put in outlets. We're working with hospitals where we can—instead of just, sometimes you'll see that kiosk that has coffee and maybe some pastries—now we can put in multiple full-menu operations with barbecue and Vietnamese food, et cetera.
When it comes to ghost kitchens, you know what we've seen in the industry is – there’s different formats to it – but, as we know, the consumers are looking for more convenience. They're looking for food that's delivered to them. This was really highlighted during the pandemic when all food went to delivery for many urban areas for specific periods of time. But with that, there's the opportunity to not necessarily run a restaurant operation that has a brick and mortar location that people can walk into. We can utilize other spaces, whether it's basement space or a space that's off the beaten path to have a kitchen, almost a commissary kitchen that can produce the food that is then delivered to customers. What we've also found is with this, there's been a lot of development where you may have a specific restaurant that guests are walking into and eating in, but out of the kitchen, they may be producing other brands, other concepts that are delivered to, that are providing those delivery and caterings that you may not even see as you're eating in that restaurant. So, we not only do some work as an operator in that space, but we also work with a lot of clients that are operating in that space.
Jonathan Havens: Great. Thank you. Thank you so much. I think we hear, people hear the term ghost kitchen all the time, and I'll admit I knew what it was, but it took me a lot longer before I stopped and said, what exactly is a ghost kitchen? And so again, I think that's helpful.
Brian Berger: Yeah, and it's evolving. I mean, there's the innovation and creativity in the industry has just been amazing. So you're seeing different renditions of what that ghost kitchen could be as well.
Jonathan Havens: Yeah. I mean, we've had a guest come on from a restaurant association as one of our first episodes, actually. I'm sure you'll agree with me, but I've just been blown away by how innovative, and how strong the food and beverage industry has been. I mean, the challenges throughout COVID have been tough on everybody, but everyone has to eat and everyone has to drink water and everyone has to consume things. We really learned what essential services are and food and bev are really among those. So it's just been super impressive to me to see how people have pivoted, have kept businesses afloat, have really served the communities that they're in. So, it's nice that the areas that you and I have worked in for a long time are, I think, finally getting a lot more credit than they were given previously. So it's been nice to see that happen.
Brian Berger: It most certainly is. And there’s the collaboration that we've seen – we’ve partnered with other restaurant groups where we can go into their locations to provide those ghost kitchen services and really maximize the use of the quite costly real estate that they have. We've really seen efforts by the suppliers and distributors to really work together, to find ways, and find solutions. So it's been an extremely collaborative environment, which we're really excited about.
Jonathan Havens: Yeah. So I told you it was going to be quick. I know it's hard to believe, but we're close to the end of our time. I really can't thank you enough for coming on today. I got a lot out of this discussion. I know our listeners did as well. So for those that want to connect with you and your colleagues at JBH, where could our listeners find you? What's the best way to get in touch?
Brian Berger: Absolutely – through our website, which is JBHAdvisoryGroup.com. Most certainly can reach us that way, as well. My email is Brian.Berger@JBHAdvisoryGroup.com and happy to connect with anyone that has some interest. Jonathan, thank you so much. Really, really appreciate you inviting me on. It's been wonderful.
Jonathan Havens: Awesome. Thanks so much, Brian. For all of our listeners, we really appreciate you tuning in. Be sure to join us on the next episode of “Don't Miss a Beet.” Thanks so much.