IFMA’s Chain Operators EXchange (COEX) brought several hundred operators, food manufacturers, suppliers, and industry service providers to Kansas City, MO, March 3 to 5. This annual IFMA event was coordinated by a planning committee of 40+ operator companies to address issues shared by chain operators and offer opportunities to explore potential new business relationships through the event’s built-in networking sessions. 

The conference theme, Evolution Engaged, was explored in remarks by IFMA’s 2024 board chair and president of Custom Culinary, Ben Wexler. “IFMA has been focused on the transformations happening across food-away-from-home to create a more responsive strategy to help everyone in the industry," said Wexler. “‘Evolution Engaged’ is our way of saying that change can be leveraged for positive results.


When the doors of the COEX general session opened, attendees were welcomed by a shared stage performance from nine women representing the food-away-from-ome ecosystem. They included manufacturers: Lauren Lopez, Teri Trullinger, and Reilly Berk; distributor Diane Chandler; operators: Jessica Shelly, Toni Watkins, Annica Conrad, and Bernice Radaideh, and IFMA’s CFO, Jennifer Tarulis.  


At the heart of our industry lies the unbreakable bond between the operator community and the strength of manufacturers and the supply chain,” said Chandler in her part of the presentation. “This synergy among and between us fuels not just businesses but our collective ambition to serve, innovate, and excel.” Trullinger referenced Women's History Month in her remarks and added, "Through IFMA we really can continue breaking down barriers and building bridges, not just for women but for everyone. Together, we can create a legacy of leadership that is characterized by resilience, innovation, and inclusivity."

Then the general sessions began with a keynote from Josh Linkner, the co-founder and managing partner of Muditā Venture Partners and creator of the Find-A-WayTM five-step innovation framework for cultivating organizational ingenuity. He caught the audience's attention with advice that included: 

  • “Start before you’re ready. Don’t lose opportunities by waiting for the perfect time.”
  • “Seek out the unexpectedly oddball solution. We’re hard-wired to be creative; allow for unorthodox approaches.”

During the following session, IFMA Senior Vice President of Member Value, Mike Schwartz, moderated a panel discussing how to optimize margin. The conversation built off the Margin Optimization Model created by the IFMA Restaurant Foodservice Leadership Council late last year. McDonald’s Senior Director of U.S. Menu Strategy, Chef Chad Schafer shared, “We never start a project without customer insight data that comes from every source available. We also know we’re not effective without understanding our supply chain partners.” Jodie Conrad, Chief Marketing Officer from Donatos Pizza, added, “We must keep the customer experience in mind and remember there will always be places where you need the direct human touch to engage your guests.” 

A highlight of Monday’s general sessions was a dialogue between CEO of Brinker International, Kevin Hochman and IFMA President & CEO, Phil Kafarakis
about Brinker’s efforts to evolve and meet current consumer trends. Hochman explained that Chili's and Maggiano’s focus on the ongoing journey of service as they “make every effort to remain relevant, memorable, and distinctive” in the minds of their customers. 

Hochman went on, “We stay close to our ‘Heart of the House’ employees, asking them for recommendations to streamline unnecessary tasks to focus more on the guests...You win by making sure your product is good and by meeting your guests where they are."

COEX closed the Monday General Session with the much-anticipated Menu-a-thon. The session kicked off with a review of current food trends from Technomic’s Director of Menu Research & Insights, Lizzy Freier. Those trends were then brought to life in dishes presented by chefs from eight companies in dialogue with Chef Mark Garcia.  

Menu-a-thon included the creations of:  Chef Alvaro Lima from Unilever, Chefs Steve Logan and Trever Defelice from Ventura Foods, Chef John Csukor from Entegra, Chef Thomas Wenrich from Tyson, Chef Renate DeGeorge Vujic from Custom Culinary, Chef Jill Houk from ofi, Chef Aneesha Hargrave from Impossible Foods, and Chef Beau Batchelor from Wayne-Sanderson-Farms.

High energy, face-to-face networking took over the afternoon as attendees participated in Operator-Hosted Speed Meetings. In rotating 10-to-15-minute blocks, more than 100 operator companies shared their key goals and needs with small groups of suppliers. Speed Meetings create opportunities to have first contact with multiple potential new business partners.  

IFMA offered attendees another chance to engage with one another while getting a taste of some fantastic Kansas City dining establishments Monday evening. Three restaurant options were offered, from Kansas City barbeque to trendy steakhouses. Networking over a delicious plate of local cuisine is one of the highlights of COEX. The Dine-Outs were sponsored by Entegra, Kellanova, Pepsico, and Tyson. 

COEX included education sessions on Sunday afternoon and breakouts Monday just prior to the Speed Meetings. These were very popular with attendees and covered:

  • “Strengthening the Supply Chain” with Joe Hinton from Focus Brands, Carl Mount from Zaxby's, Sara Burnett from Tropical Smoothie, and Anissa Mandell Chance from ARCOP
  • “The Role of the Menu in Driving Traffic” with Amy Alarcon from Popeye's, Rick Petralia from Freddy's Frozen Custard, Jeff Hetsel from Cicis Pizza, and Nancy Kruse from The Kruse Company
  • “Satisfying the Appetite with Data Transparency” with Jeff Cowan from GS1, Lindsay Savage from Georgia Pacific, and Steve Reiling from Ben E. Keith

Sponsored education sessions included:

  • “How Operators are Transforming Their Supply Chain” with Peter Rosenberg from Buyers Edge Platform. Sponsored by Buyer’s Edge
  • “You Decide: Addressing Operation & Procurement Trends” with John Csukor from Entegra; Lauren Lopez from Rich Products; Michael Schatzberg from Branded Hospitality; and Sarah Stewart Schultze from Dairy Queen. Sponsored by Entegra
  • “Seven Big Adjustments Restaurant Chains are Making” with Kinetic12’s Tim Hand and Bruce Reinstein; Jodie Conrad from Donatos; Matt Jalove from Sinelli Concepts; Alex Ostrowski from Bloomin Brands; and Debbie Pagliai from Bagel Brands. Sponsored by Kinetic12
  • “Actionable Intelligence from Chain Activity, LTOs and Location Level Pricing” with Datassential's Megan Lynberg. Sponsored by Datassential.

New this year was a pre-scheduled meeting format on Tuesday morning for manufacturers and operators to connect based on mutual product interest. Nearly 50 manufacturer companies had the chance to host rounds of meetings with operator decision-makers – meeting new potential business partners or strengthening existing relationships.

General Sessions on Tuesday opened with a celebration as the Director of Student Dining Services at Cincinnati Public Schools – and last year’s IFMA Gold Plate winner – Jessica Shelly made the announcement of the 2024 IFMA Silver Plate Award honorees. Half of this year’s eight winners were on hand to accept a champagne toast in their honor. The 70th Annual Gold and Silver Plate Award Celebration will be in Chicago on May 18. You can review the winners and buy tickets for the event on the IFMA website.

The award announcement was followed by an exploration of the competitive marketplace with Jami Bond from Goodcents, Jon Corto from Buffalo Strive, and Cherry Cansler from Networld Media Group. Bond passed on a common theme from the session, “Competition is now coming at us from just about every direction. But we know we can learn from all of our competitors to improve.” 

COEX also brought some experts together to discuss the new FSMA Rule 204 regulation and implications for its implementation. Jeff Cowan (GS1), Ryan Peters (Chick-fil-A), and Annemarie Vaupel (Hormel) were on hand with actionable advice. Vaupel made it clear, “Compliance is a process that will take a lot longer than you might think. Get started now if you haven’t already.” 

Jack Li from Datassential closed COEX with a data-driven look at consumer behavior and foodservice industry growth patterns. This research can help operators get a better understanding of how best to generate traffic and how their business can capitalize on consumer demands. And it’s fascinating!  

COEX was filled with these kinds of insights. What a conference! 

Phil Kafarakis, IFMA’s President & CEO, expressed gratitude to everyone attending COEX 2024. “This year IFMA has revised its membership structure for the first time since our founding to include operators and the supply chain as members in our association. COEX is an ideal venue to see the interdependency running across our entire industry and IFMA is committed to providing ongoing opportunities for cross-functional collaboration. It was really inspirational to see just how quickly our ecosystem comes together to address common issues, share innovations, and just get business done!” 

IFMA will be back in Kansas City next year, March 2-4 for COEX 2025 – we hope to see you there!  
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