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MONTEREY, CA — Perhaps stretching the definition a bit, the Organic Produce Summit featured back-to-back-to-back-to-back keynote speeches during its educational session, each with the unmistakable theme that organic produce sales continue to rise and this trend is no fad.

Longtime organic pioneer Tonya Antle, co-founder and executive vice president of the Organic Produce Network, served as the moderator of the session and remarked about the tremendous growth in the $14 billion organics category. She has devoted much of the last three decades advancing the category and her pride in its development is evident.

Registered dietitian Ashley Koff kicked off the keynote presentations with an unabashed endorsement of organic produce. She told the suppliers and the marketers in the room that they should be promoting this sector as being “better” for consumers. She argued that while it is not perfect, organic produce is better nutritionally, and she is a huge believer of a plant-based diet and all the better if those plants are grown in an organic fashion.

A retailer roundtable discussion followed that included Dave Corsi of Wegmans, Heather Shavey of Costco and Chad Miller of Sprouts. There was a consensus among the panelists that organic produce sales continue to increase and their respective shoppers continue to express a preference for the category.

Shavey said Costco has expressed its commitment to the sector and it has done so to serve the desire of its members. The club store’s members have expressed their desires through their purchases. Costco continues to grow the category with more choices.

Sprouts has been involved in the category since its inception and it has 292 stores serving the needs of organic produce-inclined shoppers. Miller took the audience through the growth of the category, which started with carrots and bananas and evolved next into salads and wet rack items. “Our biggest struggle right now is getting enough supplies to fill demand,” he said.

Wegmans has the same issue. Corsi said the company is helping to address the supply issue by operating its own farm as a laboratory for would-be organic growers. Local growers are invited to the farm to learn organic farming techniques and best practices that they can incorporate in their own operations.

Though demand does exceed supplies for many organic produce items much of the time, there are periods of oversupply where prices dip. While growers tend to be quite concerned about this supply-and-demand truism, the retailers took a more pragmatic approach.

Shavey said low markets tend to resolve themselves fairly quickly and noted that lower prices can help expose more people to organics and ultimately grow the category.

Corsi is much more concerned about lack of organic supply than oversupply. “How are we going to keep up with demand,” he wondered, noting that it continues to increase.

Speaking of the unmistakable presence of e-commerce in the retail environment, Miller noted that it is currently having a much bigger impact on the grocery side of the business and not as much on the perishables side. “Consumers still want to come into the store and touch the produce they buy.”

Corsi said it is a very important change in the retail sector but the progressive retailers will adapt.

“Look back 25 years when Walmart entered the business with its Super Centers. That was a big change, but it made us better,” he said. “This is also a big change, but we need to embrace it and we need to be in that space.”

Shavey said Costco is also operating in the e-commerce space quite successfully. But speaking of the impending acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon, she indicated that it might not be as smooth sailing as some might think. She noted that operating in the brick-and-mortar world is a “tough business.” It’s far different than the business model that Amazon has seemingly perfected.

The third keynote presentation was by the founders of The Organic Coup, which is the first fast food restaurant chain to be granted organic certification.

Founders Dennis Hoover and Erica Welton, who both worked at Costco for many years, took the audience through their Costco careers of growing the organic category and how that led to the opening of their fast food chain.

They started with one store two years ago and now have nine operations in the San Francisco Bay area. They are projecting 30 locations in the next 30 months and 10,000 in the next 20 years. Just as they saw organic sales explode in the retail side in the last 10-15 years, they are expecting fast food to be the next arena to experience rapid growth in the organic category.

The final keynote speaker was David McInerney of FreshDirect, an online grocer operating in three East Coast markets. Since the company was founded at the start of this century, it has experienced exceptional growth and has seen its organic offering and sales act as drivers for that growth. Currently about 35 percent of its sales are organic with organic produce sales in the 45 percent range. McInerney, a co-founder of the operation, said about 75 percent of its users buy organic products.

He used a story about small organic eggs to illustrate his philosophy of thinking outside the box to increase sales and add value for the supply side of the business.

A visit to his organic egg supplier revealed that very early in a chicken’s typical egg-production life of one year, small eggs are the usual outcome. According to the farmer, these undersized eggs have a brighter yolk and are better tasting, but, alas, they are too small for the retail market. Instead they are cracked and sold to processors at a huge discount. FreshDirect began paying full price for these eggs, marketed them as a better tasting opportunity and sales took off.

But while McInerney appears to be a big proponent of organic produce, he is a bigger proponent of all produce. He worries that the focus on “organic” over “conventional” confuses the consumer and steers them away from better-for-you conventional grapes, for example, toward organic Doritos or Oreos made with organic flour simply because the word “organic” appears on those labels.

He takes umbrage with the use of the word “conventional” to describe produce not grown under organic conditions. What farmers do, he said, is not “normal,” “usual” or “standard” — all synonyms for conventional. He believes what they produce is exceptional, whether organic or conventional.

McInerney wants to see more produce consumers. “We need to draw more consumers to produce, not just upgrade them from conventional to organic. We need more people eating more produce.”

Meijer's spring Simply Give campaign set a record with more than $3 million -- or 33 million meals -- to stock the shelves of food pantries across the Midwest, making it the most successful campaign in the program’s nine-year history.

The spring success came on the heels of a record $1 million donation to the program during the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give, and a record-setting year in 2016, Cathy Cooper, senior director of community partnerships and giving, said in a press release.

“The Simply Give program is making a difference in the communities we serve, and we are so thankful our customers continue to stand with us and support this incredibly worthwhile effort,” Cooper said. “It’s inspiring to see friends and neighbors coming together to help feed our hungry neighbors.”

The Grand Rapids, MI-based retailer began its Simply Give program in 2008 as a way to help local food pantries throughout the Midwest achieve their mission of feeding hungry families. Since then, nearly $32 million -- or 352 million meals -- has been generated for food pantries.

The program runs three times a year when food pantries need it the most: spring, fall and holiday.

During each Simply Give campaign, customers are encouraged to purchase a $10 Simply Give donation card upon checkout. Once purchased, the donation is converted into a Meijer Food-Only Gift Card and donated directly to the local food pantry selected by the store for that campaign.

With a new pear crop nearing for Stemilt Growers in Washington state, the long-time pear leader is urging retailers to jump start their pear categories by planning the first round of Rushing Rivers pear ads for early September back-to-school timing.Stemilt-Bartlett-Pouch-4lb

The Northwest pear crop is expected to be down slightly over last year, yet important to promote early and often during the fall and winter months. Stemilt starts harvest in early August with its signature Tosca pear. With Italian roots, Tosca has similar qualities to Bartlett but a more exotic flavor. It also has the advantage of coming off the tree ahead of Bartlett, and is a great specialty pear to start filling produce shelves with pears early on.

“Tosca is a Stemilt exclusive variety and available both organically and conventionally,” Brianna Shales, Stemilt communications manager, said in a press release. “It’s a great variety to kick off the season with and because it comes off the tree during that time that parents are thinking about what to put in kid lunches again, is ideal to carry in our Lil Snappers kid-sized fruit pouch bags.”

Soon after Tosca, Stemilt will start harvest of its Bartlett pears and is recommending that retailers continue to power their pear sales early by loading a first round of pear ads with bulk and bagged Bartlett’s the last week of August. This aligns well with early September’s back-to-school rush and should also include Starkrimson pears, a red variety.

“The first ads on Bartlett and Starkrimson help set the tone for the pear category, and it’s important to hit the ground running by promoting great tasting fruit in a big way,” said Shales.

Stemilt uses its RipeRite ready-to-eat program to ripen summer pears for instant sales and increased repeat purchases at retail. The company has an array of packaging options to help retailers segment the summer varieties of Rushing Rivers pears available.  Bulk promotions on Bartlett and Starkrimson are a must, while larger four-pound Rushing Rivers pouch bags are an ideal way to boost the purchase size of pears at the beginning of the season. Because of the timing with back-to-school, both conventional and organic Lil Snappers are smart items to carry in early September.

“Lil Snappers make it easy to merchandise your department around the back-to-school theme,” said Shales. “They are offered in the ideal three-pound size in order to pack one pear in two kid lunches all week long, and ready to merchandise in a DRC. We also have display bins that designed to be placed at check stands to drive that impulse purchase that parents so often make.”

Beyond their ease in merchandising, Lil Snappers are also a proven way to build sales of pears. According to a Stemilt Fruit Tracker study that compared a three-pound Lil Snappers bag user, a two-pound bag user, and the U.S. composite, which includes all bag pear sizes, Lil Snappers three-pound pears can sell 225 percent more volume and drive 152 percent more dollars than two-pound bags can, and 169 percent more volume than the U.S. composite.

“In this analysis of Nielsen scan data, we looked at two retailers who were both engaged in their bag programs, but carried different bag sizes. We also compared Lil Snappers to the U.S. composite, and the results overwhelmingly favored Lil Snappers and their three-pound size as the right package to build both volume and dollar sales of pears,” said Shales.

After getting a robust Lil Snappers pear plan in place, Shales recommends that retailers utilize the Rushing Rivers brand and its two famous locales as a story platform to build pear displays around. Stemilt grows the majority of its pears in the Wenatchee and Entiat River valleys, which are mountain rivers surrounded by alpine peaks and recognized around the world as the best grounds for growing pears.

“Rushing Rivers is an opportunity for retailers to share with shoppers the amazing locale that their pears call home. These locales are our family growers have farmed pears for multiple generations, and the reason why Stemilt pears stand out above the rest,” said Shales.

ANAHEIM, CA — Bill Coombs of DLJ Produce and Lane DeVries of The Sun Valley Group were honored with the annual produce and floral achievement awards, respectively, by the Fresh Produce & Floral Council at its Southern California Expo, held July 18 at the Disneyland Hotel, here.Marcus-AllenFPFC Expo attendees lined up at the Idaho Potato Commission booth for a chance to meet NFL legend Marcus Allen, who was the keynote speaker at the July 18 event in Anaheim, CA.

The one-day expo, which is the longest-running regional produce show in the United States, attracted 1,700 attendees, and more than 250 companies filled 196 booths. The event included an upbeat keynote address by Marcus Allen, one of the best and most celebrated running backs to have played at the collegiate and professional levels.

Last year’s recipient, Rich Van Valkenburg of Van Valkenburg & Associates, presented the Normal H. “Buz” Bolstad Produce Award to Coombs citing his long career in both the retail and wholesale ends of the business.

He noted that Coombs joined DLJ in 1996 and helped grow the company from a small brokerage to a powerhouse regional shipper. Today, he serves as the president of the Long Beach, CA-based firm.

A choked-up Coombs thanked his father for introducing him to this wonderful industry and his wife and family for offering constant support. He added that he was “humbled by the honor.”

Chris Robinson of The Pinery presented the FPFC Floral Achievement Award to DeVries detailing his journey from his native Holland to his current position as a leader in the floral industry and president and chief executive officer of Sun Valley.  He said his dedication to “quality and customers service” has driven his success for more than 30 years.  

DeVries called it a “great honor” and thanked his team at Sun Valley for making it possible. He noted that he has seen the percentage of U.S.-grown flowers sold in the country drop dramatically over the years, but added that the situation is starting to change as more shoppers are asking for locally grown products.

Allen chronicled his rise from a San Diego kid to a National Football League superstar, stating that he envisioned his success along the way, even dreaming when he was only 11 years old that he would win the coveted Heisman Trophy in college, which he did.

His speech was basically an endorsement for positive thinking and supportive parental role models, and he urged each attendee to treat their children like a gas tank, filling them up with love each and every day. He also noted the power of teamwork and said there is no such thing as failure. He said “failure is your friend” and is only the result of lack of information or lack of experience, both of which can be remedied.

FPFC President Carissa Mace said the expo has enjoyed a very long and successful run, but the 2018 version will include several major changes to make it more exhibitor- and attendee-friendly.

Education sessions during the expo will be added next year for floral and produce store-level staff. Additionally, there will be a pre-expo event at Disney’s California Adventure featuring a buffet dinner, hosted bar and private access to specific parts of the theme park.

Senior-level retailers, show sponsors and exhibitors will be provided tickets to the event. These retailers will also receive one hotel night compliments of the FPFC. The 2018 expo will be held July 16-17.

With the theme Salad Revolution, Mann Packing will launch two new salad blends at the PMA Foodservice Expo in Monterey, CA, July 30.

RomaBlend and Red RomaBlend both feature a combination of chopped Romaine and Mann’s popular Arcadian Harvest petite mature lettuce leaves, resulting in salad mixes with more loft, texture and interest than either chopped Romaine or spring mix alone. All-green RomaBlend is sweet and mild, with great forkability and plate presence. Colorful and velvety, Red RomaBlend contains red Arcadian Harvest components, including red butter lettuce for a softer texture and high-end visual appeal.Manns-Chef-Panel-2017Justin Cogley, Kari Bernardi, Tony Baker, Aaron Sears and Tucker Bunch from Mann's chef panel.

“We created RomaBlend and Red RomaBlend in response to customers who told us they were blending their own chopped romaine and Arcadian Harvest in-house because of its heartiness, loft and great flavor,” Cody Ramsey, director of foodservice sales at Mann’s, said in a press release. “To top it off, these blends are less expensive, with more servings per case, compared to chopped romaine alone.”  

In conjunction with the launch, Mann’s is also announcing its new Chef Panel. A group of Central Coast and San Francisco Bay area chefs from a wide range of culinary backgrounds, the panel will meet with — and cook for — the Mann’s foodservice team on a semi-annual basis to provide feedback and insight on new products and trends. For its first session, the chefs were asked to create a recipe based on the theme "Rethink the Caesar” using RomaBlend.

Members of the chef panel include Tony Baker, executive chef at Montrio Bistro in Monterey; Kari Bernardi, raw and vegan chef and instructor; Tucker Bunch, research and development chef for Sweet Earth Foods and former chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America; Justin Cogley, executive chef at Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel; and Aaron Sears, executive chef at Umami Catering in San Mateo

Chef Baker will be serving samples of his Not-Just-Any RomaBlend Caesar recipe at Mann’s booth — No. 1008 —during the PMA Foodservice Expo. Visitors to the booth will receive a recipe guide showcasing all of the panel’s innovative RomaBlend recipes.

Also available at the booth will be Mann’s Salad Revolution, an in-depth report based on information from Datassential. It summarizes the most recent trends in salad consumption, menu and daypart developments, generational salad favorites and salad green preferences.

“The theme for our booth this year is Mann’s Salad Revolution, which I think is very appropriate,” Gina Nucci, director of corporate marketing at Mann’s, said in the press release. “Between our new salad blends, our chef panel, and cutting-edge research, we’re helping our customers take salads to a whole new level."