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MONTEREY, CA -- The Produce Marketing Association's Foodservice Conference & Exposition, held here July 30-Aug. 1, set a record for attendance with registrations "approaching 1,700," according to PMA President Bryan Silbermann. One hundred and fifty-three exhibitors participated in the expo, which is also a record.

The three-day event kicked off Friday, July 30, with a PMA Foundation for Industry Talent golf tournament benefiting the Nucci Scholarship for Culinary Innovation. An opening reception that evening and a women's networking event Saturday evening were among the social highlights of the event.

Saturday morning prior to the opening general session, PMA FIT, which has a mission to attract, develop and retain talent for the fresh produce industry, held a 5K run-walk. Entrants from Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, CA, finished in the top three in both the men's and women's divisions.

Speakers and panelists at a general session and workshops on Saturday and Sunday covered a range of topics such as sustainability, food safety and traceability, and the locally grown trend, as well as other industry trends that influence the profitability of foodservice operations, the need for agriculture to do a better job of telling its story, and what can be done to achieve the goal announced at the 2009 PMA foodservice conference of doubling produce consumption in foodservice by 2020.

As in recent years, attendees came out in droves to hear well-known chefs discuss their careers and the role produce plays in their operations. This year's lineup featured Rick Bayless, chef-owner at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, a successful cookbook author and host of the PBS series Mexico - One Plate at a Time; Bill Bloxsom-Carter, executive chef and food and beverage director at the Playboy Mansion; and Eric Justice, director of culinary operations at Pei Wei. The session was moderated by Robert Danhi, consulting chef for PMA.

Following the chefs' panel discussion, attendees adjourned to the next room to watch the chefs at work using blueberries, avocados and kiwifruit in various savory and sweet dishes, which were made available for all to sample, courtesy of culinary students from the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales, who assisted the chefs.

The expo, where many produce companies unveil new items and products designed to attract the attention of foodservice operators and buyers, was held Sunday following the chef demonstrations. With uniformly sized booths, the one-day expo had an intimate feel but with high energy -- and this year did not disappoint. Both new and veteran exhibitors said that traffic was strong and that the buyers and operators in attendance were eager to make new contacts.

Jim Provost of I Love Produce in Kelton, PA, said that the show is a "good forum for people to learn about products and try new things."

Margaret Wigfield of the Yerington, NV-based onion shipper Peri & Sons, which was a first-time exhibitor, said that she found it to be a "great show that is a lot more intimate" than PMA's Fresh Summit.

At the Gourmet Gardens booth, where Peter Currey was promoting the company's line of squeezable herb tubes, attendees were "showing a lot of interest in our products, especially buyers from major chain restaurants, because we offer a product that has good food safety and convenience," he said.

Louis Hymel of Spice World, which was promoting its new 20-ounce squeezable garlic, said that he received "a lot of great feedback" from buyers who stopped at the booth. The squeezable garlic "is geared for a foodservice operator to put on the table. It takes garlic from an ingredient to a condiment."

At the Melissa's/World Variety Produce booth, Marketing Director Bill Schneider said that people showed a lot of interest in the company's tropical products. While he admitted that white tablecloth restaurants are the company's typical foodservice customers, he said that buyers from Sysco and U.S. Foodservice had expressed interest in his line of products at the show.

Mastronardi Produce, which is based in Kingsville, ON, and has a division, Mastronardi West, in Salinas, CA, used the expo -- its first -- as a way to introduce its new foodservice division and make some contacts. The division is headed by Dean Taylor, who said that attendees showed strong interest in the firm's cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes and peppers as well as its Kumato brown tomato variety and its tomato medley pack.

Lindsey Martinez of Boskovich Farms said that "traffic has been great throughout the day, with good quality attendees. The return on investment for the show was outstanding."