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ORLANDO, FL — The Southeast Produce Council drew record attendance to its eighth annual Retail and Foodservice Conference & Expo, with SPC officials, attendees and exhibitors all declaring the event a huge success.

"We hit that 1,400 mark," SPC Executive Director Terry Vorhees proudly told The Produce News March 7.

The exact number looked to be 1,409, a record for the event known commonly as Southern Exposure, held this year March 3-5 at the Caribe Royale Resort & Conference Center, here. "The committees all work very hard to make this thing work,” he said. “My hat is off to all of them.”

More than 100 of the attendees got a chance to relax at an opening day golf tournament held on two championship courses designed by PGA great Greg Norman at ChampionsGate Golf Club near Orlando. It was the last chance any of them would get to slow down until late in the evening of Saturday, March 5.

Shuman at PFK
John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce and founder of Produce For Kids, announced during the Produce For Kids reception that the program had surpassed the $3 million mark in funds to benefit the Children's Miracle Network of Hospitals and PBS Kids. (Photo by Chip Carter)
Several hundred attendees turned out at 7 a.m. March 4 to board buses for a tour of DNE World Fruit Sales, Inc.’s Haines City, FL, packinghouse and nearby citrus groves, then on to the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agriculture Sciences Lake Alfred Research Center for a behind-the-scenes look (and taste) at new cultivars coming down the scientific pipeline.

At 5 p.m., dozens gathered in a banquet room at the Caribe for a reception celebrating the success of the Produce For Kids program, now in its 10th year. Council President John Shuman of Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA, and founder of PFK, announced that the program just passed a milestone, topping the $3 million mark in donations benefiting the Children’s Miracle Network of hospitals and PBS Kids.

An hour later, dozens turned to hundreds as the expo’s VIP reception got underway. Immediately following was the expo’s crowning event, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gala, where hundreds of attendees, some clad in copycat costumes of their favorite music icons, wined and dined and danced the night away.

But work started again in earnest the following morning as the March 5 workshops began at 8:30 a.m., with sessions on handling new products and utilizing social marketing.

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary W. Black was the guest of honor and speaker at the keynote luncheon that followed.

“Thank you for what you do,” Mr. Black told the assembled grower, shippers, transporters, retailers and foodservice buyers. "Thank you for putting food on our tables. We’re in challenging times, some may say the most challenging we’ve ever faced. That’s why it is important for us to all come together and speak with one voice. We must be watching each other’s backs and be unified as an industry.”

Following Mr. Black’s address, he and the officers of the council cut a ribbon to officially open the expo floor, and seemingly all 1,400 attendees scampered through and into the hall immediately. Although exhibitors at SPC are limited to 200, and booths are all an egalitarian 10 feet by 10 feet, attendees still had just over four hours to make the rounds and the pace was frantic.

But despite the whirlwind of activity, "It’s a wonderful show,” said Mike Shields of Central American Produce in Pompano Beach, FL. “It puts a lot of people together [in a] nice casual environment. The Southeast Produce Council does a great job of putting this event together.”

Said exhibitor Bobby Creel, head of L&M Cos. Inc. in Raleigh, NC, "There’s been a lot of traffic and a lot of good quality traffic, decision makers from some of the biggest buyers in the industry."

Said Jack Cain of Westlake Produce Inc. in Winter Haven, FL, another exhibitor, "We had a great show. We had a list of people who were coming and tried to make as many contacts as possible. The attendance has been great. As far as the amount of people you see and the quality, to bring this many retailers together in one place is great for the industry.”

Louis Hymel of Spice World Inc. termed the event “excellent” and “an incredible show.” He lauded the huge turnout and said, “Everybody loves coming to Florida at this time of year. This is just a real good show for us.”

Bob Besix of Country Fresh Mushroom Co. said that the SPC show “always has a good turnout,” adding, “Grower-shippers have an opportunity to visit retailers and foodservice one on one. You can see everybody in one day and spend time [with them]. We’ve had quite a few retailers stop by.”

Larry Narwold of River Ranch Fresh Foods said that “the crowd seems a bit thicker than last year.” There were “more retailers and a lot more foodservice -- and they’re all decision-makers -- all the reasons we come."

Al Finch of Florida Classic Growers and a past president of the Southeast Produce Council, said, “I think it’s fantastic. I’ve seen retail and foodservice attendance definitely up. [This event] has grown tremendously. This is the eighth show, and once again it continues to grow."

Harold Paivarinta of Jem-D International Partner LP has been exhibiting at Southern Exposure for eight years. “It’s been a great show for us. The growth has been amazing. The takeaway is far superior to bigger shows. With everybody having equal footing, you get plenty of one-on-one time with retailers.”

(Additional coverage of Southern Exposure will appear in the March 28 edition of The Produce News.)