From left: Jane Chedester, Field Rep, Office of Sen. Lamar Alexander; Joe Woody, Area Director, USDA Rural Development; Lisa Mensah, Under Secretary. USDA Rural Development; Patricia Bible, CEO, KaTom Restaurant Supply; Allen Robbins, Treasurer, Sevier County Electric System; Randy Drew, Chairman, Parc Pigeon Forge

KaTom to Build Learning Hub with $2M USDA Grant

Good News? On Tax Day?

How was your day?

Ours was brand new.

April 15 sits crater-like between the two busiest dining-out days of the year: Valentine’s and Mother’s. The weather’s neither winter nor summer—and since “spring” can bring blizzards and heatwaves, it’s not anything else, either. Nothing predictable, anyway. People still aren’t going out. In spite of mounting pent-up demand, it remains too risky to open a patio or add staff.

Into this trough, throw the national bummer that is Tax Day and you have a no-reservations, low-traffic kind of anti-occasion that only marketing people could love. And not even fast-food freebies can redeem April 15 when it falls, as it did this year, on a Wednesday.

All this is relative, though. The truth is, the restaurant business is flourishing. Forecasts by the National Restaurant Association say 2015 will be the sixth consecutive year of real (inflation-adjusted) sales growth for the industry. Bureau of Labor Statistics show foodservice employment has grown twice as fast as overall payrolls since the end of the recession.

This year, food costs are up but gas prices are down. For investors, owner/operators, chefs, and suppliers alike the competitive stakes are matched by a growing variety of niches, product mixes, and daypart options; by wider access to new technology and more data; and by better channels for engaging customers and whole markets.

For customers and their ever-more-educated palates, the restaurant experience has become a rainbow of choices of products, services, delivery, and price.

Breakfast with KaTom

USDA-Sec-Lisa Mensah-Sevier-County-Mayor-Larry-Waters

USDA USec Lisa Mensah, with Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters

At 9 a.m. on April 15, 2015, KaTom was serving breakfast—homemade energy bars, cinnamon rolls, crispy salmon-in-pastry rounds, fresh fruit and honeyed yogurt—in the shiny-bright demonstration kitchen of Chef Supplies by KaTom, the retail storefront located at our headquarters in East Tennessee. Our guests were community, industry, and government dignitaries and friends, from the spheres of federal and state rural development, regional tourism, county services, and local nonprofits and media.

KaTom CEO Patricia Bible introduced USDA Under Secretary Lisa Mensah, in Tennessee for the day on a roadshow of 17 states where the agency’s Rural Development Initiative has awarded grants to 31 organizations for economic development of their small rural communities.

Mensah finished a swallow of orange juice. “Now that I’ve tasted all four food groups,” she began, laughing.

lisa-long-iced-rolls

Part of Redbud Deli’s gorgeous baked offering

When the gathering ended an hour later, so had the rain. And Mensah, Bible, and KaTom’s community partners had shown us how an empty two-story concrete shell—that space out back where we had the KaTom holiday party?—would become a job site, a training ground, a foodservice lab, a business incubator, a platform dedicated to the future of our industry.

With the USDA’s interest-free $2-million-dollar loan, KaTom is building a one-of-a-kind “intelligence center.” Plans describe a suite of modular production and service minilabs where chefs, someday-chefs, and others from numerous foodservice sectors can learn, test, develop, and ply their trade under realistic working conditions—all the while deepening our understanding of foodservice from multiple stakeholders’ points of view.

It’s an enterprise that reinvests in local talent, regional tourism, a nationwide explosion in taste and food appreciation, and the refinement of the global supply chain. And it signals years to come of bright, springlike days, busy kitchens, smiling diners. And happy April 15ths.

Elaine Evans
Elaine Evans Elaine Evans is thrilled to blog for KaTom, where her work in restaurants, bars, catering, and artisanal food has caught up at last with her career in journalism and public relations writing. Connect with Elaine Evans on Google+