One of the biggest casualties of the COVID-19 era has been the foodservice industry. In some parts of the country, the struggle continues. But between the relaxing of mask and social distancing rules, the slow return of “normal” life, and the dissipation of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, there are hopes that the restaurant industry can make a turn for the better.

Independent Processor spoke with Chef de Cuisine Ray Wells, head of Turning Stone Resort Casino’s TS Steakhouse, located in Verona, N.Y. Chef Wells discusses how his steakhouse is faring and what the outlook is for the foodservice sector in general.

Independent Processor: How do you expect the foodservice industry in general to perform in 2022, now that the COVID pandemic is starting to get under control?

Chef Roy: Few industries have weathered the dramatic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic quite like foodservices and hospitality. The past couple of years have presented us with many complex challenges, but our industry is composed of passionate and hard-willed individuals; we never throw in the towel. Through it all, we have risen to meet the moment head-on, adapting and innovating to satisfy safety conditions and patrons far and wide. And while the pandemic has proven to remain unpredictable, even now, nothing will shake our commitment to bringing guests the absolute best food, service, and experiences possible.

What have the last couple of years been like at Turning Stone? Did you have to change your menus to accommodate for changes in dining habits?  

Like everyone in our field, we have not been immune to the challenges of the past couple of years, but we have pushed through. Maintaining the health and safety of guests and staff has always been the top priority for our resort and restaurant venues, and we have been able to do so while continuing to deliver the high-quality dining experiences we strive for. As a result, we have consistently remained busy and even earned several top honors across the resort that include a Forbes Four-Star Award for the TS Steakhouse, along with three other Four Star Awards, three AAA Four Diamond Awards, the Condé Nast Johansen Award for Excellence, and more. Part of the exceptional guest service we offer includes regularly updating the menu for every season so guests always enjoy a range of fresh and exciting offerings.

Have you seen the steak category changing over the past couple of years? Are consumers ordering anything new or different than they have in past years?

The primary changes I have seen in the steak category are the increases in prices. Outside of that, supply chain issues and staffing shortages have affected the portioning and breaking down of cows. While some cuts have been hard to find depending on the need, the menu at TS Steakhouse has not been greatly impacted, and we have been able to continue providing our excellent dining experiences for our guests.

Are there any parts of the protein industry (red meat and poultry) where you’re seeing growth in restaurant offerings? What will be the hottest menu items over the next year?

With guests looking at restaurants and menus before they arrive, they typically have an idea of what they want when they come through the door. However, there are still a lot of guests who will try new things, including more exotic menu items such as octopus or quail. As far as hot menu items, I don’t necessarily see one singular dish as being the hottest, but I think more people will begin to try new dishes – for example our A5 Japanese Kobe strip cooked on a Himalayan salt block, which is currently on our appetizer menu.

Are you seeing popularity in plant-based protein items?

It has been interesting to see the rise of plant-based proteins in recent years, and Turning Stone’s restaurants are always looking for ways to incorporate new menu items and exceed guests’ expectations for quality and variety. Still, fresh, local, seasonal ingredients in both classic dishes and innovative preparations have always been – and likely will always be – what’s most popular at Turning Stone. Our guests return again and again for their favorites but are always willing to try something new. 

Given labor shortages in the foodservice industry, how can restaurants adapt and maintain success? Will the labor issues affect the types of food offered on menus or the way they’re prepared?

Labor shortages are definitely an issue that has disrupted the restaurant industry, especially over the past year. When restaurants are short-staffed, they may need to adapt by adjusting menu offerings to include items that are not as prep-heavy, or that take two days to cook or have additional steps to process. I think many restaurants have to start looking at the whole protein or vegetable they want to incorporate into their dishes and consider ways to utilize every part from top to bottom to reduce waste. Another idea to explore would be adding more family-style options. For example, instead of serving six individual plates, families could share a beautiful cassoulet dish with a braised pork shoulder as an appetizer.