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Flavor and communication keys to doubling produce consumption in foodservice

by Rand Green | August 04, 2010
MONTEREY, CA — At the Produce Marketing Association's 2009 Foodservice Conference & Exposition, PMA President Bryan Silbermann announced a new collaborative initiative among three industry associations with the objective of doubling produce consumption in foodservice over the next decade.

That effort is well underway and continues to be a major focus for the association. At the opening general session of the 2010 PMA Foodservice conference, Mr. Silbermann and a panel of six top foodservice and supply chain executives talked about the progress that is being made and what more is needed to make the realization of that goal a reality.

It was the consensus of the presenters that serving foodservice patrons better-tasting produce and doing a better job of telling the industry’s story from farm to table are keys to increasing produce consumption.

From sustainability to food safety, the industry has a good story to tell, but it is a story "we don’t tell particularly well," said Mr. Silbermann.

Together with the National Restaurant Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association, “we have spent the past year … building the chassis for the vehicle that is going to carry us along this highway over the next decade,” Mr. Silbermann said. “We have created an operational plan” that all three associations are integrating into their work. “A joint message platform has been created and is already in use, and an integrated educational strategy is in place with programs already featured at NRA and PMA events.”

Last year, a think tank comprising industry leaders “from growers to distributors to restaurant operators to culinary institute representatives” met to identify and prioritize “key issues that were holding us back and strategies to move us forward,” Mr. Silbermann said. A similar think-tank session was held Thursday, July 29, just prior to the foodservice conference. “We took a new approach at how we looked at the business of produce in foodservice,” challenging existing perceptions in the search “for new opportunities to increase the use of produce in foodservice.”

“We realize that for us to be able to double the consumption of produce over the next 10 years,” the industry must “provide a higher flavor profile on a consistent basis,” said Maurice Totty, senior manager for produce at Foodbuy LLC. “We are going to reach this goal simply by focusing more on the flavor of products.”

Paramount Citrus, after 100 years of focusing on the external appearance of its fruit, has come to realize that “if we don’t satisfy [consumers] with an eating experience, we have failed,” said David Krause, president of the firm, which is now focusing its research on changing “that internal attribute of the product so that it does satisfy the consumers in a way that has them coming back.”

But it is not enough just to grow flavorful produce. “I think there has been a lot of work done to deliver a flavorful item to the restaurant,” said Tina Fitzgerald, director of produce and corporate responsibility at Independent Purchasing Co-op/Subway. But sometimes “a grower can deliver something absolutely wonderful,” and by the time it gets through the supply chain to the end user, “it can look horrible.”

In order to get people excited about produce, “we are going to have to affect the flavor profile,” said Mark Borman, president of Taylor Farms California in Salinas, CA. But thinking about “the specifications we use every day to produce products for different restaurants for different uses, I can’t remember flavor being a component of any of those specifications.”

In order to successfully reduce the protein serving on a plate and replace it with more produce, “what you have to capture is the mind and interest of customers,” said David Parsley, president and chief executive officer of Centralized Supply Chain Services, the buying organization for Applebee’s and IHOP. “The answer to that is to serve something that has such flavor” that customers prefer the produce on the plate to the meat.

During the think-tank discussions, there was “a lot of debate” about whether chefs or foodservice operators would be open to have a distributor say, “We are not going to have those peaches or that melon today because we don’t think it meets our taste expectations,” said Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative. It would take courage, he said, for a grower or distributor to tell that to a customer.

“One of the common themes” heard through all of the think-tank discussions “was the idea of telling our story better and bringing the romance back to produce,” said Mr. York.

“Farmers by nature have to be sustainable; otherwise, we are out of business,” said Mr. Krause. “We are trying to do the right things, and our expectation is that we do the right things.” But even though there is a good story to tell, “we just don’t tell a very good story up and down the chain. If we are going to reach this audacious goal” of doubling produce consumption in foodservice, “we are going to have to get better at telling the story from the ground all the way up to the consumer.”