MONTEREY, CA -- A chef panel and cooking demonstrations, as well as several business speakers, and of course the trade show, attracted an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,700 industry members to the 32nd annual Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference, held here July 25-28.
The highlight of the conference is typically the scores of produce companies that show their newest products to the hundreds of foodservice industry representatives ranging from buyers to corporatechefs to chief executive officers, but this year the business sessions competed for top billing.
A chef panel consisting of three corporate chefs from the volume-feed sector gave suppliers some take-home information as to how to serve them better.
Darryl Mickler, senior director of culinary innovation for the Chili's Grill & Bar chain, told the audience of suppliers to keep him abreast of new products coming down the road. He said that creating new menu items at Chili's can be a long, drawn-out process, but he urged the crowd to "plant the seed" early and it just may result in a great menu item at some point in the future. Chefs are always looking for the next great thing, he said.
Stefano Cordova, senior vice president of food and beverage innovation for the Au Bon Pain chain, also asked for more collaboration from the farming segment to his level.
He said one thing he would like to see is more uniformity and more consistency in the fruits and vegetables he buys.
Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale University Dining, who feeds more than 11,000 students every day, spoke about improving quality and wondered why he has to have a specialty produce provider.
"Why can't my broadline distributor become our specialty produce distributor?” he asked. “What is so difficult about commoditizing quality?”
In a session titled Innovations & Menu Trends: Predicting the Next Big Thing on the Plate, Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential, which tracks such trends, revealed that kale is one of the fastest-growing menu items today. She said products go through four stages of menu development: inception, adoption, proliferation and ubiquity.
Datassentials will not start to track an item until it shows up on at least 5 percent of the menus of the 600 operators that it tracks. Currently, she listed many different items in each stage, including ghost peppers and trumpet mushrooms in the first stage; kale and Brussels sprouts in the adoption mode; and sweet potato fries, which has reached proliferation. Ubiquity is reserved for items on all menus such as salads, potatoes and tomatoes.
Carisa Miklusak, chief executive officer of tMedia Strategies, conducted another session titled Managing Your Digital Brand, where she tried to steer companies down the path of adopting some type of online strategy.
In general, Miklusak said the online strategy should be a reflection of what the company is offline. She said digital media is a way to connect to a company’s customers, but it should not be with a message that is different than what is projected with other marketing efforts.
Miklusak added that developing an online digital strategy is at its very core a three-step process that involves “Listening” as the first step, “Participating” in step two and “Creating” in step three.
Digital media for a company is much like being in a conversation with its customers, said Miklusak, and like any conversation, one must listen and participate before attempting to direct that conversation.
Once the show floor opened on late Sunday morning, July 28, the aisles were teeming with inspiration.
Mark Allison, senior manager of produce procurement of The Cheesecake Factory Inc., who was chairman of the conference planning committee, praised the PMA Foodservice Conference, saying, “This is the event I look most forward to every year, It’s exciting to see all the attendees and all the exhibitors, and it’s just a great place to be. Everyone has such a great time and there are so many great products to see.”
Others interviewed had equally great things to say.
Mike Aiton of Prime Time International said that foodservice is the fastest-growing portion of his company’s business, and participation in the show over the past few years has allowed the firm to “develop some great programs” with foodservice operators.
Alan Hindman of Monterey Mushrooms, who has been coming to the show since its inception, said it is a great opportunity to connect with current customers as well as expose the company’s sales force to potential customers.
This year Monterey Mushrooms, which is headquartered nearby, hosted a tour of its facility that worked very well. He said the turnout at the conference is always exceptional and this year has not disappointed.
On the other end of the spectrum was Dayna Brown, who is in marketing at West Pak Avocados and was attending her very first PMA Foodservice Conference. Brown called it an “awesome experience” and said she was meeting the right people.
Doug Meyer, who is vice president of sales and marketing for West Pak, said about 35 percent of its business comes from the foodservice sector and that percentage is growing. He noted that the conference seemed to be operating at “a higher level of buzz” this year, which he said seems to reflect a better economy.
Of course, as the economy improves, more people go out to eat and one should expect the foodservice industry to be in a celebratory mood, he said.
Vince Choate of Hollandia Produce said, “I love this show.”
Like the others, Choate said it is a great opportunity to see customers as well as introduce products to brand new buyers.
Marty Craner of B&C Fresh Sales noted that although the show has grown over the years, it has retained “that grass roots feel.” She said that all the right people are here from the produce industry foodservice sector, so it offers an excellent opportunity to meet potential customers and have face-to-face meetings with existing customers.
PMA Foodservice Chairman Allison of The Cheesecake Factory believes the uniform 10-foot-by-10-foot booths has helped the show retain that intimate feel.
However, he did note that it is bursting at the seams, as this year’s show included two separate rooms and exhibitors in the foyer. Even so, there is no hint that the venue will be changed as the dates for next year’s show (July 25-27, 2014) in the same location were already announced.
Bryan Silbermann, CEO of PMA, said no event the association holds has been studied more than the foodservice conference, and many options have emerged. Yet attendees and exhibitors are almost universally adamant that the current location should not be changed, and so it won’t.