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IFMA’s Chain Operators EXchange (COEX) took its 2023 theme — Elevating the Experience — to heart and delivered a remarkable event in Tampa, Florida, March 5 to 7. IFMA brought together a planning committee of 40+ operators to create a COEX agenda that offered unexpected thrills, eye-opening information, and unsurpassed networking for attending chain leaders and food manufacturers. 


One of IFMA’s major annual events, COEX 2023 had record attendance, up 25 percent from the prior year — and the energy level was off the charts!  


It all started when the doors opened, and local dancers from the Bay Breaks Crew took to the stage and brought the crowd to its feet. As Chief Customer Officer at PepsiCo Foodservice and IFMA board member Hugh Roth said in his welcoming remarks, “That opening performance is just one...example of how we at IFMA plan to help elevate and accelerate the value we bring to your business and brands.” 



Operator Planning Committee Co-Chair and CEO of Hopdoddy, Jeff Chandler reiterated that in saying,This year we have even greater COEX attendance and an even more exciting agenda. We are definitely elevating the experience!” 


The general sessions looked at issues that impact businesses across segments. Monday opened with remarks from futurist Anat Baron, CEO of the technology firm Stashwall. Baron spoke on the topic, “The Next Great Transformation,” outlining the emergence of AI and how it will impact all of us. 


“Flexibility will define success in this decade,” she said, “There are immense opportunities in how humanity and artificial intelligence can work together...But we must remember that as we live in an ever more digital world, our human interactions become more important than ever. And AI can actually make us more human.” 


Chief Economist at Coca Cola North America, Carlos Herrera, then discussed the post-pandemic economic outlook.My personal mantra is ‘Practice optimism,’” he shared. However, consumer sentiment has not recovered to pre-2020 levels. “...in fact, it's worse now than at the height of the pandemic,” Herrera admitted, “yet, employment is high and we’re the wealthiest we’ve ever been... it’s strange...people feel personally OK but think the world is messed up.” Herrera went on to say that though there may well be a mild recession, “Overall the prognosis is good. So don’t panic, the industry is strong and we can be optimistic.” 


Before the morning break-out sessions, a panel reviewed the state of the supply chain. Insights came from Senior Vice President Supply Chain at Focus Brands and Operator Planning Committee Co-Chair, Anissa Mandell Chance; President of Skyline Chili Purchasing Co-op, Tom Hannon; and Senior Vice President of Procurement at Performance Foodservice, Scott Barnewolt. All agreed that greater transparency and open communication are keys to success. As Hannon explained, “We’re working now to improve visibility across the supply chain to fix any problems before they get to operators.” 


A highlight of Monday’s general sessions was Collaborative Conversations - dynamic discussions on developing strong and diverse leaders, as well as attracting and retaining talent. The session was designed to allow attendees to learn from each other and share their own experiences about what works and what doesn’t in their businesses. Attendees answered poll questions to get their conversations started. It was moderated by members of IFMA’s Next Gen Execs program: Senior Manager of National Chain Strategy and Channel Marketing at The Hershey Company, Al Adams; and Assistant Vice President of Industry Relations at Ecolab, Shelly Garner.  


High energy, face-to-face networking took over the afternoon as attendees moved to the much-anticipated Operator Speed Meetings, which drew record attendance from chains and on-site operators alike. In rotating 15-minute blocks, operator companies hosted dynamic and intimate chats, sharing their key goals and needs with suppliers. It was a lively, fun way to connect with potential new business partners. 


IFMA offered attendees another chance to engage with one another while getting a taste of some premier Tampa dining establishments Monday evening. Three restaurant options were offered, from traditional Spanish/Cuban cuisine to trendy upscale to waterfront views. It was a night to remember! 


Tuesday sessions began with a research-driven presentation from Datassential's Jack Li on recent evolutions in the restaurant landscape — including hyper local trends and consumer attitudes toward flavor, menu pricing, and value. 


Li told attendees that consumers report that they discover new dishes 65 percent of the time at restaurants, indicating that they are willing to experiment with innovative menu options. Operators should also be aware that projections point to accelerated rates of menu inflation for the year, but consumers say they expect to see some enhancement to dishes if higher prices are set. 


An exciting conversation with operator leaders followed this. They focus on appealing to values-based consumers by “walking the walk” at their own companies. As CEO of The Halal Shack, Jamal Rasoully said, “We don’t think of it as a marketing function we see it as sharing our values with others...company values need to be identified and promoted internally first.” Annica Conrad, Chief Brand Officer at City Barbeque, echoed those sentiments, “Our goal is actually to create happiness for our guests. We ground our planning in that.” 


Tuesday’s general sessions ended with QSR executives Lisa Ingram, President & CEO of White Castle; Joe Saracino, SVP, Brand Strategy, Advertising and Media at Chick-fil-A; and Rick Silva, President & CEO of Culvers joining IFMA CEO Phil Kafarakis for a discussion on delivering the best guest experience. As Silva said, “We are all in the ‘People Business.’ Our teams and great food are our foundation.” When asked about emerging technologies, Ingram made a similar point, “Our team members are the backbone of our brand. When we eliminate mundane tasks that teams don’t need to do, it frees them to enhance the consumer experience.” 


One of the highlights of COEX was the much-anticipated reveal of the 2023 Silver Plate Award winners Tuesday morning. IFMA was thrilled to have 2022 Gold Plate Award winner Lance Trenary, CEO of Golden Corral, make the announcement. He spoke about the honor of receiving the industry’s most prestigious recognition and what it meant to his whole team. Trenary then welcomed our nine new Silver Plate Award honorees, who will be inducted into the Gold & Silver Plate Society of winners in May. See the full story and the Silver Plate Class of 2023 here.



Ending on a tasty note, COEX closed with IFMA’s Menu-a-thon. The session was framed by a review of current food trends from Datassential’s  Vice President of Sales, Megan Lynberg, a 15-year veteran of the restaurant industry. Those trends were then all brought to life in food demos by IFMA members and served as lunch for attendees, making for an engaging and delicious close. 


Phil Kafarakis, IFMA’s President & CEO, thanked all the attendees and told them, “As we continue to work to improve IFMA to better serve our industry, we hope you take what you learned with us here at COEX and use it to elevate the experience for your businesses, your teams, and your customers. We hope to see you at future IFMA events and at COEX again next year!”   


IFMA will host COEX 2024 from March 3-5, 2024 in Kansas City, MO.