State restaurants to promote use of Jersey Fresh products

New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Charles M. Kuperus and the New Jersey Restaurant Association unveiled a new signage program that will notify restaurant patrons that the Garden State's bounty is being served in an establishment.

Over the next few weeks, signs will be going up in New Jersey restaurants that proclaim they are "proud to serve New Jersey- produced-and-harvested products when in season." The signage will appear as customers enter a restaurant and will bear the "Jersey Fresh" and "Jersey Seafood" logos. Pictured on the signs is a plate with a New Jersey seafood entr?e and Jersey Fresh produce on the side.

"New Jersey restaurateurs know that locally grown and harvested Jersey Fresh and Jersey Seafood products ensure their diners are getting the freshest taste experience," Mr. Kuperus said in a release. "By displaying these new signs, restaurants show their commitment to providing customers with the highest-quality food while also supporting our Garden State farmers and fishermen. This effort further reinforces that, from the farm to the table, New Jersey's agricultural products are the cornerstone of any good meal."

The New Jersey Restaurant Association membership approved a resolution last year pledging to work with the Department of Agriculture to offer customers New Jersey produce and seafood when in season and available. The association is a 1,200- member trade association representing restaurants in the state.

"New Jersey's restaurant and hospitality industry is a fantastic network of quality, diverse operations that can benefit from using local products and promoting the Jersey Fresh and Jersey Seafood brands," Deborah Dowdell, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, said in the statement. "The Jersey Fresh program provides a win-win situation for the foodservice industry, our farmers and the state. The NJRA is proud to be partnering with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture on this effort. It's a continuation of our commitment proclaimed in last year's resolution passed by the NJRA Board of Directors to promote and encourage the use of Jersey Fresh products."

The first sign was placed in The Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick, NJ. Owner Betsy Alger, who has been committed to using locally grown and harvested products in her restaurant, said that restaurants in the state do not have to look far to find what they need to provide patrons with fresh, unique dishes.

"New Jersey has a heritage of local farms that provide a wide variety of fruits and vegetables - from our delicious peaches, blueberries and cranberries to our famed beefsteak tomatoes and corn," Ms. Alger said in the release. "Our customers appreciate the quality and just-picked freshness of the local products that we use on our menu. Our staff is proud to work with ingredients that are, without a doubt, as fresh and as real as can be."

"Restaurant owners can only benefit by utilizing the agricultural resources right at their doorstep," Mr. Kuperus added. "It is a partnership that will pay off for both the producers and those who make a living preparing food. Patrons also are the winners because when they see that a restaurant is serving Jersey Fresh products, they will know the establishment is committed to the high quality standard and fresh taste Jersey Fresh demands."

FPFC Expo to focus on health

With a theme of "Health Odyssey," the 2006 Fresh Produce & Floral Council Expo is expected to attract more than 1,000 attendees to hear the latest on nutrition information and peruse the booths of 170 exhibitors.

The one-day event will be held July 11 at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, CA, beginning at 7 a.m. with the Retail/Foodservice Education Seminar and the concurrent Floral Education Seminar. The Retail/Foodservice Seminar will be conducted by a distinguished panel of guests who have been asked to provide specific information that can be incorporated into the job of every retailer and foodservice operator.

One of the factors that sets the FPFC Expo apart from other industry events is that the target attendees are in-store personnel. These are the front-line people who directly engage the consumers that buy the industry's fruits, vegetables, nuts and flowers.

The moderator for this panel will be California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura. His panelists include Produce Marketing Association President Bryan Silbermann, United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association Vice President Lorelei DiSogra, Del Taco Executive Vice President Janet Erickson and Dr. James Rouse, creator of the Optimum Wellness Program. The topic for the seminar is nutrition.

On the floral side of the program, presenters have been asked to discuss care and handling, trends, and the merchandising of fresh floral products at the retail level. Sherine Iskander of the Gelson's/ Mayfair Markets chain will serve as the moderator. Her panel consists of Rene van Rems of Rene van Rems International, and Cindy Smith, a floral designer with Mark's Garden. The floral presentation also attracts many in-store floral designers and, consequently, the panelists will spend a good deal of their time discussing trends in that area of the business.

A floral design contest, with dozens of local floral designers from the mass-market environment, is always one of the highlights of the day. The designers each receive a surprise package of floral items and are given a specific amount of time to create a centerpiece.

In-store produce department managers and personnel as well as the foodservice produce experts also have a chance to compete during the day's activities. Produce 101 will have teams of contestants from various venues answering questions about the products they sell. The contest is designed to not only test the knowledge of the participants but also to impart information to the attendees.

Another educational aspect of the day will be the always-popular chef demonstrations. Numerous chefs selected from the FPFC membership list will create an array of recipes using fresh produce. This program is designed to give the foodservice attendees some fresh ideas and also whet the appetites of all the participants.

Still another highlight of the day is the Keynote Awards Luncheon, which almost always features a speaker from the sports world. This year is no exception, with Olympic Gold Medalist John Naber taking the podium. Mr. Naber was America's top athlete at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal.

The awards luncheon will honor the winners of the floral and produce contests and will also see two industry veterans singled out for their contributions to the produce and floral industries. Always kept a secret until the event, the FPFC board of directors will award the annual Norman H. (Buz) Bolstad Produce Award and the FPFC Floral Achievement Award.

While the seminars, contests and awards help punctuate the day, it is clear that the exhibit floor is clearly what attracts the majority of attendees to use a vacation day to attend the event. For most in- store personnel, attendance at the event requires the use of a personal day off. But they are richly rewarded with scores of fascinating exhibits as well as a bag of products to take home at the end of the day. The exhibitors represent every facet of the produce industry, from the grower to the wholesaler to the distributor to many value-added companies and branded firms.

FPFC President Linda Stine said that this year the FPFC Expo Committee, headed by Patty Knoll of Tempkin International, made a concerted effort to attract more independent retailers and foodservice operators. The expo has always been very well supported by the larger chain operators, which is also the case this year.

But as independents have grown, especially in the retail environment, FPFC has focused extra attention on that community. As a result, Ms. Stine said that more individual retail and foodservice companies would be represented than ever before.

Colorado Western Slope cherries reaching appreciative consumers

DELTA, CO -- With a short monthlong window from mid-June to mid-July, sweet cherries from Colorado's Western Slope were hitting good volume during the third week of June.

According to Mike Gibson and Harold Broughton of United Marketing Exchange in Delta, CO, the crop was shaping up nicely as harvest neared, and he said that demand was very good.

United Marketing Exchange handles sales for Antelope Hill Orchards, a family operation overseen by Jim Hulteen.

Markets for the Delta County-grown cherries, which run four-to-one Bings over Rainiers, are largely within Colorado and the surrounding states.

"The Bings and Rainiers run close to the same time," Mr. Gibson said of the two varieties' shipments.

He said he expects the crop to clean up by mid-July. Mr. Broughton noted that neighboring Mesa County is seeing "more and different varieties" of cherries going in, and high-density plantings are also becoming more commonplace.

UK's largest retailer plans major move into Southern California

LOS ANGELES -- Some are calling it the British Invasion. First the Beatles, now this.

Tesco, the largest supermarket chain in the United Kingdom, is planning a major move into the U.S. market, beginning in Southern California and Arizona in 2007. The company made the announcement on Feb. 9, and it is a development that is certain to change the retail landscape here, although just what the nature of the impact will be remains to be seen.

Tesco, which dominates the British market with a 30 percent market share and is the world's fifth largest retailer, plans an initial capital expenditure of up to $435 million per year in the United States. Tesco has international operations, but this will be the company's first entry into the United States.

According to a March 1 article in Slate, an on-line magazine, Tesco plans to "slug it out" with Wal-Mart in California, "a state Wal-Mart has long planned to dominate."

Given that Tesco's planned format in California is an upscale convenience store, conceptually about as far from a Wal-Mart supercenter as possible, the notion that Tesco sees itself as going head-on against Wal-Mart might seem rather curious. But according to the article, Tesco's strategy is a preemptive strike against what it believes is Wal-Mart's next move.

"Wal-Mart has had difficulty penetrating the highly populated, higher-income coastal zones [in California] because the huge, cheap swaths of land on which it likes to park its big boxes are hard to come by," the article said. "Wal-Mart proclaimed [in 2002] it would open 40 stores in the Golden State in five years. So far, it has managed to open only 13."

Eduardo Castro-Wright, Wal-Mart's chief operating officer in the United States, "told the Financial Times last November that it is 'looking at the Neighborhood Market format as a vehicle & to service customers who need convenience for a key reason for shopping at Wal-Mart.' This may prove to be Tesco's real edge. Wal-Mart has always competed on price," according to the Slate article.

The Tesco Express neighborhood stores will stock up to 7,000 items, including fresh produce, and "will be the kind of places where foodies wouldn't be chagrined to run into their neighbors," the article added.

The Tesco Express stores will be similar in size to 7-Eleven stores, according to a March 3 article in the East Bay Business Times. "Perhaps in response" to Tesco's announcement, the article said, 7-Eleven plans to introduce fresh produce at some locations. Others have suggested that the Tesco concept will be closer to that of a Trader Joe's.

Not everyone thinks Tesco's expansion into the U.S. market will be successful. The East Bay Business Times quoted Ted Taft, partner in the retail consulting firm Meridian Consulting Group, as saying he would not be surprised if "five years from now, they won't even be here. I feel the best they can hope for here is to become a niche player."

Dale Liefer of Westlake Produce Co. said, regarding Tesco's plans to enter the California market, "Any time we see a new company come into our area, any time Westlake has a chance to sell a new customer, we're excited about it. That gives us an opportunity. I think a company their size will look to a company our size to do business with, so I think we have an advantage over some of the other suppliers."

Certainly other produce companies that already do business with major chains will be equally eager to offer their services as a supplier to Tesco.

But for many produce companies in the Los Angeles area that service retailers, the bread-and-butter accounts are not the major chains but smaller chains and independents, and particularly ethnic retailers catering to Hispanic and Asian demographics. Those stores are generally not in the same neighborhoods into which Tesco is going to be looking, so Tesco's arrival may have little impact on a substantial portion of the Los Angeles produce trade.

The continued growth of the smaller ethnic chains in Southern California is the force driving many Los Angeles-area wholesalers and distributors. Even for a company such as Westlake, whic does business primarily with the major supermarket chains, the smaller ethnic chains have also become "a point of interest for us," as the company is "pushing hard" to get a bigger share of that business as well, said Mr. Liefer.

Generally, the ethnic markets, and particularly those catering to Hispanics, are viewed as price conscious. But as they continue to grow, "you see a lot of changes, and they are upscaling their stores," said Ted Kaplan of Professional Produce. "Now they all want good quality."

The independent markets are "getting better," said Jesse Martin of Value Produce Inc. They are also "getting bigger," he said.

There are companies such as Ramirez Bros. that specialize in Hispanic items. Others, such as Progressive Produce, which started a Hispanic products business about a year-and-a-half ago, are responding to the growing demand from that sector of the market.

Business is "starting to pick up a little bit with more independents coming in," said Tom Espineda of Tom E Produce. Some of the smaller retail chains that Tom E does business with have recently picked up new stores that had previously been "an Albertson's or something that they had to close," he said. "We are seeing more of that happening here."

"Independents have really grown in the last four or five years," said Bill Vogel of Tavilla Sales Co. of Los Angeles. "The large chains are abandoning certain stores in certain neighborhoods. Independents are coming in and taking over and doing really good business, obviously at lower prices."

"Independents are doing well," said John Corsaro of The Giumarra Cos. "I think that is kind of the beauty of Los Angeles. &You've got so many different models from Trader Joe's to Whole Foods to Wal-Mart to Safeway and Albertson's," as well as the independents. "You've got a shoe for every foot."

(For more on the Los Angeles market, see the July 3 issue of The Produce News.)

Labor problems top issue for FFVA leaders

WASHINGTON -- With immigration reform in limbo, the border crackdown continuing and planting season around the corner, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association's top leaders see the continuing farm labor shortage as the most pressing issues facing growers today.

The association's top leaders met June 23-24 and the top issue on the agenda was the concern over dimming prospects for immigration reform in Congress.

"Labor is the most important challenge facing Florida producers today," FFVA Chairman Tony DiMare said during the two-day meeting.

Earlier this month, Republican leaders in the House announced plans to hold hearings on the issue around the country this summer, a move likely to affect the future of the already passed legislation awaiting conference.

Sally Tibbetts, a staffer for Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), told the association's board of directors that the House leadership's plan to hold hearings "isn't necessarily a bad thing" because it may help House lawmakers understand the Senate bill provisions.

The bad news, though, is the walkouts organized by immigrant workers to protest border security-only legislation may not have helped the cause, she said. After those images led nightly news programs, members of Congress received calls from constituents saying they didn't want a guest worker program in the bill.

Supporters of a bill that would contain a temporary guest worker program for agricultural workers are still hopeful that Congress can bridge the differences between the two versions of the bill.

The best chances may come after the election during a lame duck session.

But while the political battle for immigration reform has been splashed across the front pages of daily newspapers, a little known regulation proposed in June by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also may affect the labor crisis.

The Bush administration announced proposed rules that would make it easier for employers to verify employment eligibility and hold them accountable for the workers they hire. One regulation would change the rules for employers when handling so-called no-match letters from the Social Security Administration.

"Most businesses want to do the right thing when it comes to employing legal workers," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in announcing the new proposals. "These new regulations will give U.S. businesses the necessary tools to increase the likelihood that they are employing workers consistent with our laws. They also help us to identify and prosecute employers who are blatantly abusing our immigration system."

When a worker's Social Security number does not match the worker's name on tax or employment eligibility documents, the federal government sends out a "no-match" letter asking them to resolve the discrepancy. The government estimates as many as 10 percent of the more than 250 million wage reports the Social Security Administration receives each year don't match up.

The "no match" proposal -- now subject to a 60-day comment period -- would tighten the system and increase the responsibility of employers in situations when they receive a no-match letter from the SSA or DHS. It also describes "safe-harbor" procedures for employers to use in dealing with such a letter.

With the latest crackdown on border security and new regulations that tighten hiring procedures, many growers are taking another look at the ailing H2A program to find an adequate workforce, said FFVA's Ray Gilmer. The program may be "clunky" and require on- site housing, but it could offer an alternative, he said.

But one thing is certain: Growers need to pay close attention to these issues, he said. No matter what happens in Congress, there will be a different system for authorizing workers, he added.