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United Fresh Foodservice Award: Recognizing the best of the best for 10 years running

For 10 years, the United Fresh Produce Excellence in Foodservice Awards Program, sponsored by PRO*ACT LLC, has shined a spotlight on chefs and foodservice operations for their innovative efforts in using fresh fruits and vegetables on their menus.

Nominations will remain open for the 2017 awards until Jan. 15, 2017. Winners will be honored guests of the 2017 United Fresh Show in Chicago and will be recognized during the Retail Foodservice Celebration Dinner on June 15.Mary-Wright-RanaMary Wright-Rana

“Fresh produce continues to drive success for the foodservice sector, with chefs serving a critical role in encouraging consumers to explore produce items,” PRO*ACT President Max Yeater said in a United Fresh press release. “We are proud to continue to support this exceptional program as it celebrates 10 years of and honoring chefs who are making fresh produce the highlight of their menus.”

Mary Wright-Rana, director of marketing relations for PRO*ACT, said the inspiration for the awards came 13 years ago at the very dinner where the foodservice operators are now feted each year. “I was sitting with my boss, the former CEO of PRO*ACT, at the dinner and we thought that a similar award for chefs would be great.”

The idea gained momentum, and when PRO*ACT was given the opportunity to sponsor the award, it jumped at the chance.

Wright-Rana said it has been a rewarding decade, adding that the number of categories has expanded over the years to recognize winners in many different foodservice sectors. In 2017, winners will be recognized from eight different categories: Business in Industry; Casual and Family Dining Restaurants; Colleges and Universities; Fine Dining Restaurants; Hospitals and Healthcare; Hotels and Resorts; K-12 School Foodservice; and Quick Service Restaurants. Each winner is selected from the nominations for creativity and ingenuity when it comes to utilizing produce in their dishes.

The PRO*ACT executive has been particularly pleased with the increasing popularity of the effort. “In 2008, we had 59 nominations. For the 2016 awards we had over 880 nominations. It is great to see how passionate these chefs are about fruits and vegetables.”

Though PRO*ACT is not involved in the judging in any way, Wright-Rana said the chefs are recognized for how well they incorporate fresh produce into their creations, especially moving it to the center of the plate.

She said foodservice is still one of the most important drivers of increased fresh fruit and vegetable consumption, as home cooks like to recreate what they find in the restaurants and other foodservice locations they frequent.

“We are seeing fruits and vegetables take up a larger portion of the plate with the proteins moving to a smaller [role],” she said. “And we are seeing that in all the categories — the grab-n-go meals in universities and the home meal replacement kits.”

Wright-Rana encouraged industry representatives to engage with chefs as much as they can. “Chefs are very, very busy but they are always looking for the new thing and new ideas — especially the younger chefs. They welcome input from the industry.”

According to leading market research company Datasential, the inception of a culinary trend starts at the restaurant level, with fine dining chefs experimenting with different items.

As more chefs become aware of these trends in produce, the items begin to proliferate through a diverse number of formats, and more consumers become aware of them and start to demand them both at restaurants and at retail.

Knowing the key role chefs play in the promotion of produce to consumers, United Fresh offers a number of resources that help chefs and produce companies maximize the impact of fresh produce in the foodservice setting.

Developed by the United Fresh Retail-Foodservice board, Fresh Insights for Foodservice puts a quarterly spotlight on fresh produce items trending in the marketplace, allowing both chefs and their produce providers the opportunity to brainstorm on ways to enhance their menus.