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TAMPA, FL -- The Southeast Produce Council's sixth annual conference and trade show drew more attendees and more expo booths than ever before, while keeping the small, friendly and casual atmosphere that has made the event so popular in the past among attendees and exhibitors alike.

"The council will be putting together a post-conference survey within the next week or so," SPC Executive Director Terry Vorhees told The Produce News Monday, March 9. "But overall, it looked pretty good."

Preliminary numbers indicated that attendance was "well over 1,200" and could be "right around 1,300," said Mr. Vorhees, compared with the 1,000 or so people who attended last year's event in Orlando, FL. This year's trade show drew about 193 exhibitors, up from last year's figure of 162.

The event, known as Southern Exposure 2009, began as usual with a golf tournament, held this year Thursday, March 5, at the Lake Jovita Golf Club. The foursome of Nate Branch, Will Graves, Sam Harden and Dug Schwalls from Southern Valley posted a 15-under-par score of 57 for first place on the south course. Chris Cervini of Lakeside Produce, Dave Yaeger of Tippmann Group, John Killeen of Muranaka Farm and Tom Mara of Bozzuto's Inc. comprised the winning team on the north course with a score of 61.

Field tours Friday morning allowed attendees to visit Driscoll Strawberry Associates' facility in Dover, FL, followed by the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research & Education Center, concluding with a visit to the Sweetbay Supermarket in Riverview, FL.

A huge crowd enjoyed great food and lively music at the "Old Key West" gala opening party Friday evening.

Two workshops were held Saturday morning.

Ronnie L. De La Cruz of De La Cruz Consulting & Training moderated the first workshop, "Defining Locally Grown: How to Strengthen the Connection to our Farms." The four panelists were Jeff Parker of Ukrops Supermarkets; Tony Merola, a well-known chef and produce industry veteran; Michael Gonzalez of Sysco Produce; and Adam Lytch of L&M Cos.

Mr. Parker said that Ukrops, which was founded in 1937 and currently has 27 retail stores, defines "locally grown" as "produce grown in the state of Virginia." The retailer currently works with 15 local growers, said Mr. Parker, who showed slides of some of those growers in his presentation.

The retailer often displays local produce in the foyer of stores, right as consumers enter, and holds "Meet the Grower Saturdays" during the season so that consumers can forge a connection with farmers.

Mr. Merola told those in the audience that "chefs are looking for variety, colors and freshness." They are also looking for more maturity in their produce, which often means more flavorful produce, as opposed to some supermarkets, which may be looking for items with longer shelf life.

Mr. Merola also noted that farmers markets are good places for chefs to develop relationships with farmers, adding that farmers' names are more often being added to menus to give consumers an added connection to local items.

Mr. Gonzalez said that at Sysco, the term "locally grown" generally means produce that comes from within a 250-mile radius. He added that locally grown produce benefits the environment, the community and the economy. "Our motivation is to preserve the environment and meet the demands of our customers," he said.

Mr. Lytch said that locally grown produce has a perception as "fresher, tastier and more nutritious." The trend also fits nicely with the increased emphasis on "going green."

Among the struggles with the locally grown trend, Mr. Lytch mentioned smaller economies of scale; consolidation and logistics issues; inconsistencies of supplies; and food-safety requirements. Among the benefits, he mentioned supporting the local economy; fresher products; and maintaining consumer confidence.

Bruce Axtman, president and chief executive officer of The Perishables Group in Chicago, moderated the second workshop, "Consumers Dig Deep - State of the Economy," which featured a panel consisting of Todd Hale, senior vice president of consumer and shopper insights at the Nielsen Co.; Eugene Loudon, director of marketing at Dovex; and Peter Kohutanycz, senior director of consumer and business insight at Stop & Shop and Giant Supermarkets.

Mr. Hale said that while the industry is in the middle of challenging times, there are good opportunities. For example, people are in a "cocooning" mode and spending more time at home, "and that's a good opportunity for produce."

He also said that there is a change in consumers' buying practices. "We're on the verge of a potential fundamental shift in how consumers buy food. We're seeing a trading down [effect], and consumers are fulfilling their basic needs over discretionary needs."

Mr. Kohutanycz added that in the second quarter of 2008, when gas prices were high, there was an increase in larger trips to supermarkets and a decrease in smaller trips, meaning that consumers likely were buying more during individual trips in order to conserve fuel. During the second and third quarters of 2008 and continuing to the present, however, the trend has reversed and the number of smaller trips has increased.

"Now, smaller trips are winning out," said Mr. Kohutanycz. "Consumers are buying only what they need and don't want to overspend and [possibly] let things go to waste."

Continuing on the frugal theme, Mr. Loudon of Dovex said that consumers have been buying smaller-size fruit in both bags and bulk, commenting that smaller fruit is not wasted as much as larger fruit.

"As a retailer, you have to know your demographic more than ever," said Mr. Loudon.

The workshop featured preliminary data based on research conducted by The Perishables Group from data garnered from Stop & Shop and Supervalu. Mr. Axtman said that the second part of the data would be released during the United Fresh show next month in Las Vegas.

Next up was the keynote luncheon, where Ferdinand S. Duda of A. Duda & Sons Inc. received the council's second Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by The Produce News, a co-sponsor of the award.

Also at the luncheon, Harold Lloyd, author and entrepreneur, delivered the keynote address, "Riding the Wave of Change."

The trade show took place Saturday afternoon, followed by the closing reception Saturday evening.

Asked for his preliminary assessment of the event, Mr. Vorhees replied, "Every year we look at ways we could improve and at the same time keep the things that made it successful in the past - the size of the show itself and also keeping it attractive to the people" who walk the show floor.

The highlight of Southern Exposure every year "is definitely the exposition," he stated. "I had so many exhibitors come up to me -- and particularly people who were exhibiting for the first time -- to say how much they really enjoyed the conference in general and particularly the expo."

Concerning the numbers, "We did increase the expo a bit this year, but we also increased the attendance of retail and foodservice buyers," he said. "So I am really pleased." As to keeping the expo to a size that exhibitors and attendees prefer, he declared: "When we look toward 2010, this show is capped at 200 [booths]. Two years from now or 10 years from now, it's going to be no more than 200."

Exhibitors seem to agree wholeheartedly.

Dave Austin of Mission Produce, which has exhibited at Southern Exposure since the first show, likes the "great retailer support, intimacy" and relaxed atmosphere of the event. And the size of the expo allows him "the ability to spend more time with retailers."

Ronnie Cohen of Vision Import Group LLC in River Edge, NJ, a first-time SPC exhibitor, which has been operating for close to a year, found the conference to be a refreshing change from the bigger conferences held throughout the year.

"While we are a new company, my partners and I are not new to the industry," he said. "I was very impressed with this show. I have done the [larger shows like] PMA before, but not the smaller regional shows. It was a relaxed atmosphere, a great networking event, and there were a lot of buyers there. We are doing our follow-ups now, and I expect to see some results."

He added that the council "did a wonderful job organizing the conference. I'm definitely planning to attend next year."

"It's a good opportunity to mingle with customers and suppliers and the trade in general," Giorgio Fresh Co.'s Bill Litvin said. "Terry Vorhees and [SPC President] Tom Page do an outstanding job of putting together a great event." Brian Murphy of Goodness Gardens, a first-time exhibitor, said of the large number of retail buyers at the show, "That's what drew me here. That's what the show is all about."

Jose Obregon of the Hass Avocado Board likes the "personal touch to the show," adding, "It's a more relaxed, friendly show" at a "good venue." He also likes the fact that all booths are the same size, so the retailers and others walking the show floor "are good at stopping by all the booths."

Matt Seeley, vice president of marketing for The Nunes Co. in Salinas, CA, said, "This is one of the most impressive shows I have ever seen. I tip my hat to [the council]."

Kevin Donovan, national sales manager for Phillips Mushroom Farms, said, "This show has a terrific draw for an exhibitor. We have been exhibiting for six years, and it has gotten better each year."

Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development at Southern Specialties in Pompano Beach, FL, said, "This is a great show. We have been exhibiting every year, and this is the best yet. The turnout is great, and there is a significant buyer presence."

In a year that has seen trying economic times and challenges at every turn for the produce industry, Southern Exposure was a bright spot for those in attendance.

(John Groh contributed to this story.)