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U.S. Foodservice featuring fresh produce items for 2011 season

ROSEMONT, IL — Fesh produce is a featured category for the U.S. Foodservice marketing program in 2011, according to Frank Swanson, category manager for produce for the Monarch Food Group, a division of U.S. Foodservice. The Produce News interviewed Mr. Swanson at the U.S. Foodservice headquarters, here, in offices that are almost literally at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

Mr. Swanson explained that Monarch manages all corporate operations. On the produce side, vendors are managed by an executive staff of four. This group involves Mr. Swanson, the produce director, Robert Ondrus, as well as a produce analyst and a produce specialist.

It is the produce buyers of U.S. Foodservice’s 62 divisions in the field who decide which headquarters-approved vendors to buy from. “We set up all kinds of vendors, which include brokers, growers and shippers,” Mr. Swanson said.

The Rosemont staff prepares educational information for the corporate sales team to share in their customer calls.

U.S. Foodservice customers range from small independent foodservice operations to huge corporations, Mr. Swanson said. One strength is service to the foodservice programs of the strong category of health care companies.

Fresh produce is a focus for U.S. Foodservice. “Every month we send our sales staff an item to focus on.” Beyond monthly features, there are products that are featured for an entire year. This year, produce is one of those items. This was driven by a corporate management recognition of the “opportunities produce brings to the table. We have more potential” for growth.

Produce is one of many items that U.S. Foodservice offers customers. Within the produce category, the sales force has “tremendous opportunities to grow. The information we give our salesmen is up to date and ahead of any customer. We tell our people, ‘Just convey the information.’ “

“Monarch” covers all of U.S. Foodservice’s private brands.

“ ‘Cross Valley Farms’ is our own fresh produce brand. We ship nonbranded product too. The brand we control is our backbone.” More than 50 percent of U.S. Foodservice’s produce sales are branded product. The Rosemont office sets up “Cross Valley Farms” packer-shippers. “We have many vendors we deal with nationwide. This involves a small number of branded vendors.

A stringent food-safety program drives the brand stipulations. “We hear from our suppliers that our competitors don’t require the same specifications. Well, we aren’t them. We are GFSI-compliant and we hope going forward, the whole industry is. We hope that will be the norm some day.”

The brand “is a cheap insurance policy to protect our name — U.S. Foodservice — and your name when you sell to your customers.”

The food-safety regimen includes a recall program, of course. “We very tightly control food safety recalls.”

Packers of the “Cross Valley Farms” brand receive advance notice to pack to order. When vendors pack the brand, they are guaranteed a sale and know the shipment date.

U.S. Foodservice produce buyers make decisions that are driven by customer needs. “We first have to have the need” before the corporate office considers suppliers. That need “is internally driven by a customer or division looking for a product. If there is a need a divison would ask us to set it up. There are only a few items that have not been set up. After a produce item is in the system, any division can buy it going forward.”

Mr. Swanson said that his firm wants multiple vendors in all categories, but the is a very limited amount of vendors packing branded commodities for U.S. Foodservice.

In the 62 U.S. Foodservice divisions nationwide, “somebody in each division buys produce. Some divisions have extensive staffs” to buy produce. All divisions at a minimum have a buyer and a quality inspector. “At a maximum, I would guess, we have multiple inspectors, multiple buyers and one manager,” with those offices working day and night.

“At U.S. Foodservice, we want to grow our own produce business with the highest quality and safety standards so the customer can feel comfortable everyday and expand their usage.”

He added. “I would love to convey to our customers that produce is a way to lower food costs by increasing the use of fresh produce. Fresh produce is very expensive if you’re eating what is out of season. But if you’re eating what’s fresh in season 12 months a year, it is a very healthy and economical way to lower food costs. We are slowly getting that message out. The produce industry is labeled as ‘expensive.’ But that is not at all true if you focus on the right items.”

If there is a strong apple supply, the U.S. Foodservice staff promotes featuring apple pie to their customers. Weekly promotions “steer them automatically to those items.”

Mr. Swanson said his firm felt a declining economy “but not as severely as others. We didn’t maintain the spike we were on, but we fared rather well. We have tremendous potential. We are the second largest broad-liner and we have a tremendous amount we can gain from.”

He declined to say what value of produce is purchased by U.S. Foodservice, but he noted that produce is the lowest-average cost package in the company. “To sell that many dollars is mind-boggling.”