Pundit Interviews

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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

Would It Make Government Relations More Effective?
Will PMA’s Rebranding Be An Obstacle?

There is always a lot of hub-bub when word leaks out that PMA and United are discussing merger. These discussions have been on again and off again for a long time. The current discussions are a continuation of the effort we discussed here.

There is much industry support for a merger this time around. The discussions have been set up with professional moderation so there  is a much higher likelihood of success as “partisan” and staff concerns are less likely to interfere with the process. Our general sense is that the grower-shipper community, which pays the bills, is fighting hard this time to  achieve economies. The retailer/foodservice operators are less sold. But even they have been encouraging the process.

There are many pros and cons to a merger proposal, but to anyone paying attention, it has been clear for some time that PMA executives have decided that whatever the future may bring, PMA will not feel constrained in its activities by any need to provide room in the marketplace for United.

We saw that very clearly at the recent PMA convention in Atlanta where much attention was paid to the new PMA FIT Emerging Leaders Program, which is positioned similarly to United’s longstanding Produce Industry Leadership Program, and in its fixed time frame and university affiliation, in this case with Thunderbird, is suggestive of United’s longtime Executive Development Program done in conjunction with Cornell. There are, of course, many differences in the programs but there is little question that if there was only one association, there may have been improvements to one program or another but there wouldn’t have been a whole additional program.

This has actually been going on for a long time. Following the Spinach Crisis, when PMA’s ability to be fully relevant was limited because United employed both David Gombas and Jim Gorny, both PhDs with relevant experience in food safety and PMA did not employ anyone with those credentials, PMA decided that it also needed a PhD. And so PMA decided to hire Bob Whitaker. Bob is a great guy and highly competent, but his hiring was also PMA saying that it recognized no boundaries in which it was obligated to allow United space to be preeminent.

This is not surprising as all these organizations are membership organizations, and not all PMA members belong to United. So PMA has a conflict between serving its members and identifying itself as part of a larger group of produce associations.

The thing to understand about these actions is not that they are bad — maybe the industry can use another leadership program or needs another food safety person — but that the motivation is really part of a brand-building effort by PMA. An effort that long precedes the new logo and look unveiled in Atlanta.

PMA did not hire a food safety expert because it was dissatisfied with the work done by David Gombas and Jim Gorny during the spinach crisis. It hired one because PMA executives felt a need to make sure the association was more relevant and engaged during such a crisis and that PMA should be able to advise and assist its own members on such issues. Of course, intentional or not, the effect of this course is to make membership in another association less important. If PMA can meet all its members’ needs, then other associations will probably suffer.

During the course of many years of discussion over the possibility of a PMA/United merger, perhaps the most vexing issue has always been the question of representation in Washington, DC.

PMA’s strength has always been its affiliation with the buyers, and the core question has always been whether it is possible to develop a structure that maintains this affiliation — and the large sums of money that thus flow to PMA through its trade show and similar programs — while simultaneously advocating for production agriculture in the corridors of the Capitol.

Many producers look back at the single greatest incidence of produce industry advocacy, the establishment of the PACA Trust provisions which give produce sellers preferential claims over other creditors, and wonder, quite reasonably, if an organization dominated by retail influencers would have ever been able to make such a thing happen. Indeed some wonder if such an organization would have even allowed such a law to pass.

This is why so many producers reached out to us with deep concern when PMA recently trumpeted that it had held a big meeting with important mucky-mucks in Washington, DC.

The whole exercise was explained as an exercise in “brand building.” But the brand being built seems to have been the PMA Brand — not a more general produce industry brand. After all, PMA could have invited representatives from United, WGA, FFVA, TPA, Northwest Horticultural Council etc., to attend the same meeting. That it did not sends a strong message that PMA is focused on its institutional priorities, not viewing itself as part of a larger produce ecosystem in which an organization such as United must have a place.

Government relations in the produce trade is a tricky wicket. One industry leader, who is opposed to a merger, thinks that hope of a merger making for more effective DC representation is mostly wishful thinking. As he explained:

Bottom line: United (or any industry-wide product lobbying group for that matter) is destined to be ineffective for one reason…lack of money. This, in my humble opinion, is a hurdle that can never be cleared. Our industry members all operate out of self-interest. Some of us try to operate out of “enlightened” self-interest, but it’s self-interest nonetheless.  If we industry members all were producers of say Michigan Apples and we needed money for lobbying, it would be a distinct possibility to raise the money needed for an effective lobbying program. However, when the challenge is to raise money to lobby on behalf of projects that may be completely off the radar screen of the majority of members, then fund-raising becomes problematic. Without money, our industry becomes tangential at best for politicians. 

There are, of course, different levels of effectiveness. We have no doubt that United and many other industry groups have been effective at changing legislation and regulations in a way more beneficial to the industry.

However, it is true that the diverse nature of the industry means that nobody has the money to really play effectively in the electoral cycle. For example, the top public policy issue for the trade in this election cycle was clearly the battle the industry fought to keep food safety regulation on a level playing field. The trade lost that battle. In the end, the exemption known as the Tester Amendment — after Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana – allowed certain small farmers an exemption from food safety rules.

PMA and United both opposed the final bill with the Tester Amendment. FMI and NRA supported it — they cared more about being seen as pro food safety than supporting production agriculture — and it ultimately became law.

It was all a convoluted last minute push in the lame duck session. If there had been more time, there actually is some question as to whether PMA could have taken that position. After all, how many supermarket CEOs — aligned with FMI’s position — would have to demand that their Produce VPs resign from the PMA board before the association would adopt a neutral position?

Of course, proclamations are nice but the aftermath of the whole battle shows that the produce trade just isn’t really structured to pay the ante necessary to compete effectively in Washington. Senator Tester made himself Enemy #1 with his amendment and effective advocacy for it. What is the produce industry doing to persuade other senators that they should never put themselves in the position of opposing the produce industry? The answer: almost nothing.

In this situation, a strong advocacy group would have drafted a credible primary opponent and funded him to the gills. It would have been running negative advertising against the senator for months now. Should Senator Tester politically survive a primary battle, a credible political effort would switch to generously funding his GOP opponent and making independent expenditures to weaken Senator Tester politically.

Although it would be nice if such an industry effort defeated Senator Tester — in the primary or the general election — that is not necessary.

In today’s special-interest-driven politics, high-powered, well-financed interest groups want to send a message to the other senators and representatives that they should go oppose some other interest group. They want to establish a “rep” — that if you mess with us, you will  be opposed, you will have to spend your life raising money, fighting allegations, etc. You will face well-financed primary and general election opponents, there will be bountiful independent expenditures made against you, on and on.

This is not pretty and not the elevated politics we would hope for our country, but it is the reality in American politics today.

Whether a merger actually occurs may well be related to a key issue for all trade associations in a globalized world. PMA has long had an effort to globalize. Is true globalization compatible with  representing the industry before the US Congress?  

Farmer Lee Jones To Keynote
IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum
At The New York Produce Show And Conference 

We just recently received a little note regarding our coverage  of the Cantaloupe Crisis:

I think you have done a great job at examining the Cantaloupe Crisis - thumbs up.

—Karl Kolb Ph.D.
Chief, Science Officer
The High Sierra Group
Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin

It was a little “blast from the past” for us, as we haven’t heard from Karl since June of 2008. He usually weighs in on food safety issues, though, and we’ve been pleased to share his insight with the industry in pieces such as these:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Marketing Agreement Limitations

Pundit’s Mailbag — Farmers Are Not The Cause Of Food Safety Problems

Pundit’s Mailbag — Assume Product Delivered ‘Dirty’???

Well playing “produce geography” is fun and it turns out that among the various roles Karl plays is food safety consultant to a small, but certainly not obscure, farm in Ohio that is known as The Chef’s Garden.

The public face of this operation is Farmer Lee Jones, who speaks widely and frequently on topics related to farming, sustainability, chefs and similar topics.

His operation, which sells to chefs and direct to consumers, often via overnight delivery services, is a far cry from the massive farms that make up today’s mainstream produce industry.

To some, that would be a good reason to exclude him from any role in The New York Produce Show and Conference or the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum, but to us the exact opposite is true.

One of the great difficulties in any industry is breaking out of the rut of everyone going to the same events, hearing the same people and reinforcing the same beliefs and prejudices.

It is a fine line though — step too far afield and it can be hard to see the relevance. Besides, not many busy executives have time to run off to events outside the industry.

So we think one of the ways we can provide a service is to identify people similar enough to the mainstream industry to be highly relevant but different enough to provide new perspectives and novel ideas.

We have already defined the nature of the new IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum, with this piece, and we explained how Amy Myrdal Miller of the Culinary Institute of America will lead us in an ideation exercise to help move produce consumption to half the plate in a piece you can find here.

Now we are thrilled to announce that Farmer Lee Jones has agreed to keynote the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to meet with Farmer Jones while he was lecturing to students at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, and he agreed to take time out of his schedule to sit down with her:

Farmer Lee Jones
The Chef’s Garden
Huron, Ohio

Q: From your humble family’s farming roots in Huron, Ohio, you’ve become somewhat of a celebrity in your iconic overalls and red bow tie — this year becoming the first farmer to receive the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who” award for significant and lasting achievements and contributions to your profession. Did you ever imagine you’d be a judge on the Food Network program Iron Chef America? What inspired you to become a pioneer in the sustainable agricultural movement with an innovative artisanal farm and learning center that draws a global following of renowned chefs?

A: I don’t really consider myself a celebrity. My father always said you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. On his best day, he wouldn’t put on a $100 suit. We’re proud of being farmers and not boastful. Produce is a tough business. As a young boy, I would go with my Dad to deliver produce to the wholesale market; he worked so hard I would be pounding on his shoulder to wake him up.

People have lost an understanding of the source of where their food is coming from. It used to be people got produce from the farmer’s market. In this area, historically the population is rich in ethnic diversity. Each culture had its own grocery store — Ukrainian, Russian, Italian, Jewish, Hungarian. Grocery store buyers had relationships with the farmers, partnering on how they wanted product grown and harvested at certain stages for flavor, not in tons per acre.

Women shoppers came from Europe and told the grocery buyer they wanted Kohlrabi; an emblematic example of a larger, widespread phenomenon. Eventually small stores and small farmers were pushed out. We lost the connection between the buyers and the farmers as the chain stores came into play. We’re starting to see signs of a reconnection. Still, the Census report came out, and family farms are no long represented; they’re in the “other” category at less than one percent. I’ve been relegated to “other”.

Retailers have done a good job of marketing a nice picture of Joe Smith Farmer holding his hand out with vegetables, alongside his family and dog. Retailers might carry those out to the consumers but the other 4,000 items are coming from Mexico or third-world countries. The demand is to decrease the price of food. We got off of that bandwagon. We were forced into that.

Q: Forced in what way?

A: We faced a tragedy. We were farming commercially and a hail storm wiped out all our farms. I was 19-years-old, and I watched 25 years of my family’s work being destroyed in one day. At 19, it was hard to understand how this could have happened. My parents were non-smokers, non-drinkers, went to church on Sundays and worked hard.

Farmer Lee Jones with his father Bob, Sr., and Bob, Jr.

When we lost our farm, we had to start our family business all over again. Farmers save everything. I remember that one of our trucks at the Sherriff’s sale didn’t get a bid. One person drove and the other in the passenger seat used duct tape to hold the ceiling up! There was no money; those were tough days. It was a turning point in how we would approach doing business.

Q: So you looked to reinvent yourselves?

A: In Western culture, we are constantly treating the symptoms. Eastern culture starts with farming the soil. We made the decision to abandon the traditional farming principles. For years and years, the primary goal has been to increase yields and shelf-life. We chose to focus on flavor and innovation in a sustainable agricultural environment.

We believe there is a direct correlation between the way we farm and the health of our nation. And we need to work with producers on changing the ways product is grown. The fact is that we have the highest healthcare costs, childhood obesity, diseases, sicknesses and allergies and these are not sustainable.

We’re continually looking at ways to become more sustainable, new technologies with old-world techniques. Geographically, we’re 2.9 miles inland from Lake Erie, which creates a microclimate. Water temperatures can be 75 degrees. During the winter, it keeps us from having the killing frost, facilitating ideal growing conditions.

Q:  How have you capitalized on this within your sustainability umbrella?

A: One third of our fields are planted in cover crops, specific compost crops that rebuild nutrients naturally, not chemically or synthetically. It’s a misnomer to put garbage in compost and get something miraculous coming out. That is an effort in futility. We use green manure. We don’t believe it is safe to use animal manures to rebuild nutrients. We work on the qualitative values and life of that soil so that it becomes healthier over the years. We believe that as soil is healthier, quality is better, which increases shelf life and retains a higher amount of antioxidants. That’s what sustainability is about.

We harvest solar energy, and look for other methods to reduce fossil fuels and ways to alleviate water usage. We use drip irrigation under the plastic right where we need it. We have a water crisis in this country.

Sustainability also involves ways to make labor easier. Weeds compete for available energy and nutrients. We’d rather get rid of them mechanically than chemically. Yet hoeing is one of the hardest jobs on the farm. We created a machine for people to eliminate weeds by lying down while picking them, which is more ergonomically comfortable and efficient. We have a labor-intensive business. It’s competitive. We have to keep innovating or we lose good people.

Environmentally friendly is a socially fuzzy expression. But economics is not a dirty word. You can’t be sustainable if you’re out of business.

Q: What are your thoughts about local?

A: The reality is farms are in local areas. Local doesn’t define quality. I know I create shock and awe when I say that. I’m not a great fan of local. That said, if you can get it from your backyard and it’s food-safe, that’s great. Food safety must be a top priority. We have to do everything we can to provide the safest food. Our technology includes handheld scanners for total traceability and just-in-time inventory management so that we are growing right before delivery.

I never hear anyone talk about the economic part of sustainability. Ninety percent of food consumed in the U.S. is produced in third-world countries with labor at prices like $1.35 a day.

Let’s not get wrapped up with definitions. Whether it’s within a 10-mile, 50-mile or 500-mile radius is less important. Local for me means farmers of like mind and philosophies.

We’re a little family farm, but that shouldn’t limit us to just selling to our neighbors. The local argument is not well thought out.

Q: Could you elaborate?

A: I have a chef I’ve been selling to in upstate New York for years. One day his general manager said to him, “We only want you to buy from local purveyors.” The chef apologized to me and felt badly. It turns out that the new local supplier that replaced us expanded his sourcing and was bringing product in from Ecuador, South Africa and Chile.

Ironically, the shortest, more local route turned out to be direct from the Chef’s Garden. By using this local supplier buying from all over the world, he actually increased the carbon footprint, fossil fuels to refrigerate during the transportation leg, etc. We need to take an open look at product lifecycles.

Q: How do your local views translate to the organic versus conventional options? Chef’s Garden describes its goals of producing in an “organic fashion.” What does this mean?

A: We don’t consider ourselves organic. Organic is an overused, bastardized word. Organic regulations have been a game-changer. The government took over the laws of what is defined as organic. We try to take a broader view.

Q: With family farms disappearing, what strategies have you taken to stay competitive?

A: We believe in family farms. But we consider ourselves an international farm. We developed the World Exchange Program to facilitate the global exchange of ideas and knowledge. At Chef’s Garden, we tend to be on the front end of curves. We have an ear with the best chefs in the world, garnering and sharing knowledge on what’s available from different countries.

We can’t compete in the commodity items. We have to look at ways to be different.

We have about 700 items; bok choy at 4 different stages of growth, petite asparagus in four different colors, one-inch cucumbers with the blossom still attached… how sexy is that? Can you imagine a sorbet finished off with that? Our goal is to help chefs stand out.

We have a trademark on iced spinach and iced vegetables as well. There is a tap root going into the soil and when it freezes, it allows it to rehydrate with the water going back in. We have a process of freezing and thawing and freezing and thawing that moves the sugar levels up. It can be thawed and frozen 69 times, each time enhancing the brix and flavor.

We can’t compete in garlic as a commodity or we’d get the crap beat out of us. The root of the garlic grows in lush soil and it’s tender and succulent.

We use molecular mixology techniques to produce little rhubarb stirrers, and horseradish shoot grown in the dark to put in Bloody Mary drinks.

Q: Is there a significant premium on such unique items?

A: Too many times the chef says your product is too expensive. But the challenge is providing value to the customer. People are ready for innovation and looking for the value, but we have to communicate why they are paying more.

Chefs are feeling growing pressure with health concerns to reduce the meat portion and increase the vegetables count. We are trying to develop new and exciting, sexy things chefs can do with vegetables to move them from the side of the plate to the center and increase demand. We’re encouraging chefs’ boldness in preparation of enticing new vegetables to put on the plate.

That movement is felt at universities. Students are interested in issues related to nutrition and health, not only in the curriculum, but are proactively seeking healthy, flavorful menus. University of Michigan invested $5 million in a culinary center, not that I'm promoting University of Michigan, I’m a Buckeye fan!

Q: College loyalties aside, how do you take that enthusiasm to a wider audience?

A: We started the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio, three miles from the Chef’s Garden. It is a collaboration between the farmer and chef. The most innovative and skilled chefs come for R&D. They experiment in the CVI Kitchen Garden to develop progressive techniques for growing and preparing flavorful varieties and to trade produce knowledge. It has become a vibrant learning center that also serves to facilitate numerous events. It’s an opportunity to work with the best chefs in the U.S. and abroad as well as the people from their innovation teams. We’re hearing from the top trendsetters. We want to provide a service to the industry, even if we may not sell to all of them.

We form symbiotic relationships and we learn from each other. Our visitors become like family members.

I’m not a cook. I’m a farmer, but I have been learning enough to cook some dishes. Wolgang Puck has been a huge ambassador visiting us several times. Charlie Trotter actually broke ground on the Culinary Vegetable Institute. 

I should also mention Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alain Ducasse. Thomas Keller has not made it to our farm yet, but we work with him.  Daniel Boulud has sent his chefs to visit, and we work with chefs at the Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental hotels around the world. 

Q: How did you get on Food Network’s Iron Chef?

A: I have no qualifications to be on Iron Chef except I like to eat. I went on thinking it was no big deal. As they would go down the line and ask each judge to give their opinion on the dishes, it came to me and I would freeze up. So at one point they said, Farmer Jones, you haven’t said anything. We’ll have you wrap up and give a full summary at the end. Thank God for editing! The show is broadcast to nine million people. They said we know you’re not a chef but we think it is important to hear a farmer’s perspective. I guess I did OK because they invited me back three more times.

Q: Is there any person that you still dream of meeting or working with?

A: Well, I want to meet Bruce Springsteen, so I hope he eats his produce. To answer you seriously, I didn’t get to meet Robert Mondavi. He reinvented the wine category. Riunite by the half gallon jug at the Ramada Inn was a big fancy day out to eat with our family. He changed the jug perception, learned from European influence and elevated wine to compete on a world class level, reaching varietal heights and producing the highest quality wines. We’ve looked to do the same thing in vegetables.

Chef Grant Achatz, on the list of the 100 most influential people, has been an inspiration to us in his pursuit of excellence and survival. He got tongue cancer and doctors recommended he remove his tongue, a devastating irony for a chef. We try to emulate his culture and philosophy.

One time I got a call from Julia Child. She said she was in a bind. She was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and needed heirloom tomatoes right away for her dinner party. I thought it was a crank call and was quite impressed by the authenticity in the voice of the imposter. Well, it turned out to really be her, and I still get shivers up and down my spine when thinking about that moment. She was a class act, rest her soul.

Q: As we conclude this interview, what brought you to the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York City to speak with students and at other culinary schools around the country?

[Editor’s note: Rick Smilow, CEO and President of Institute of Culinary Education, dropped by to share a few words about his admiration for Farmer Jones: “I’ve known Lee for about a decade and actually visited his farm in Ohio. He’s an American agricultural and culinary innovator of notable proportion. I keep being amazed. As a business manager and entrepreneur, I respect him. Family farms have become a dying breed and Chef’s Garden found a way to innovate and stay viable. When I visited, I was struck by the range of international perspectives to learn about modern techniques and cutting edge technology.”]

A: The Institute of Culinary Education has built an impressive reputation. All the instructors I’ve met are passionate and convey the highest culinary skills. They stay on their game. We do an event the third weekend in July, where they compete with the top chefs in the country, and they certainly hold their own.

I want to teach culinary students to expand their horizons about vegetables and production and see what’s possible and sustainable.

Right before coming here to lecture, I was in Harlem giving a presentation to an inquisitive group of 3rd and 4th graders. I couldn’t believe a third-grader asked if I rotated my crops. The curiosity about fresh fruits and vegetables was palpable. 

We believe reaching children is so important in increasing produce consumption. We developed Veggie U with a curriculum tailored around fighting childhood obesity and empowering elementary children. Veggie U is now in some 2,000 schools. It costs about $450 to put a program in a classroom. One chef had a great idea at his restaurant. At the end of the meal, when the check arrives, it includes a description of Veggie U and there’s a place on the check to donate to Veggie U. It’s just one chef’s idea of ways to inspire people, one bite at a time.

Q: In November, you will have the chance to provide insight at The New York Produce Show and Conference. There will be produce suppliers, distributors, retailers, foodservice executives, chefs and culinary students coming to talk about buying and selling produce. What are some of the key issues you think the industry as a whole should be talking about at a gathering of thousands of people all focused on improving the industry?

A: Losing our farm is always a reminder not to take our eye off the ball. Complacency is the beginning of the end. It is important to focus on quality, flavors, unique textures, and sexy product to help chefs differentiate the plate.

You can use the best ingredients in the world but if you can’t communicate to guests, you’ve missed part of the value. Retail is often by the purse; it’s like a pair of shoes you wear over and over, which can be different than a restaurant. Consumers are savvy and more aware of where produce is coming from, and if you can relay the back-story, you will add value to the experience.

I tell the staff of restaurants how important it is to know where product is coming from, and about the producer so they can share that with their customers.

I like to tell our story of a farmer nearby. I always had great respect for Mr. Frye’s rhubarb. He grew it better than ours. Farmers like to check what other farmers do. When he got too old to harvest, we harvested his rhubarb for him. When he passed away, he willed his rhubarb root to us. We kept his legacy alive and preserved his heirloom variety. We always sell it as Mr. Frye’s rhubarb and market the product with his name. The story is carried on and adds value to the customer experience.

At Chef’s Garden, we try to capture something special about each chef who visits our farm that we can share with others. And chefs put information about us on their menus. We like to build our brand where it adds value.

Q: Your trademark overalls and red bow tie certainly provide an unmistakable identity. If you don’t mind me asking, what does your closet look like?

A: In my closet I have 18 pairs of overalls, and they’re all the same color. It’s pretty easy getting ready in the morning. No need for distractions from my mission.

The story is amazing and, without a doubt, inspirational. We can’t wait to hear him in New York.

Some of the work that Farmer Lee Jones is doing — as with Veggie U, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children develop better eating habits via school programs — is right in sync with produce industry priorities and with the goal of helping children both learn to eat in a healthy manner and appreciate food and where it comes from. We find the whole project so inspiring that we just donated $2,500 to the project and became a 16 Carrot Gold Sponsor. You may want to consider making a corporate or personal donation to support the effort here.

He has titled his talk in New York, Farming for Flavor and Sustainability, and the broader question for us is what ideas and lessons we can draw from what Farmer Lee Jones believes, and how can we apply them in the mainstream industry.

We find his interview gives lots of points of entry. He is not dismissive, at all, on subjects such as food safety; not willing to endorse being a “locavore,” and not thinking that organic is an answer to all problems.

There are many points of engagement with his way of thinking and the broader produce trade.

Yet, we confess that his core story, of how commodity farming failed for his family and how they had to recreate the business with a focus on flavor, innovation and sustainability, reminds us more than a bit of what retailers have gone through as Wal-Mart has rolled out supercenters across America.

Unable to compete with Wal-Mart, retailers have focused on being everything Wal-Mart is not — high service, high perishables, high organic, etc. In many cases, these strategies have been highly successful for individual retailers.

Looked at from an industry perspective, though, these efforts have not so much provided a mechanism to compete with Wal-Mart, but, rather, have served as a mechanism to get out of the way of Wal-Mart.

So the question becomes: Is farming of the sort Farmer Lee Jones speaks of — with a third of the acreage in cover crops, destined to be plowed under to enrich the soil — a strategy to serve white table cloth chefs and individuals, either wealthy or deeply committed, or is there a broader possibility to help feed the world?

Farmer Lee Jones makes the case that different farming methods can actually improve public health, and this, in abstract, may be true. On the macro level though, as countries become richer and, yes, farming more industrial, life expectancies generally rise.

There are a lot of people out there who want to tell farmers how to grow things that have never raised so much as a radish. This talk will be different because it comes from someone who has actually walked the walk. He respects old ways but is more than open to new technology.

We think he will remind us all of the importance of our work in fresh produce and point the way to making that work even more meaningful.

We look forward to welcoming him to New York.

If you would like to register for the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum or any other facet of the New York Produce Show and Conference, you can do so here.

Hotel rooms can be secured with this form

Travel discounts are available here.

If you would like to help support the efforts we are making to advance the industry with a sponsorship or by exhibiting, please ask for more information here

The Cotton Candy Grape Makes Its American Debut At The New York Produce Show And Conference:
How The Grapery, Mack Multiples And Sainsbury’s Delighted British Consumers And Boosted Sales With A Proprietary Program

The Pandol name carries a lot of history with it for the Pundit. Growing up, we remember the Pandol family and the Prevor family shared a shipper down in Chile and that, in the course of many friendly business dealings, we even had a PACA case that is still a key reference point in PACA law, helping to define how damages are calculated in many disputes. Mostly, though, we remember Jack Pandol as a pioneer in global trade who was a generous counselor to us during the early years after the launch of Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS. We memorialized Jack shortly after he passed with this piece.

Jack Pandol and his dad Jack

So as we prepared for The New York Produce Show and Conference and the inaugural Global Trade Symposium, it was a special treat that we could highlight a supply chain that starts on his son’s farm and leads to the fat of a consumer in London.

We’ve already highlighted what we are attempting to do with the Global Trade Symposium with pieces such as these:

The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady To Keynote New Global Trade Symposium At The New York Produce Show… Proceeds To Benefit Research For The Cure Of Pancreatic Cancer

Richard Bright, Editor Of Reefer Trends, To Speak Out At The Global Trade Symposium: Confluence Of Containerization, Direct Buying And Private Label Will Change The International Produce Trade

This presentation epitomizes what we are trying to promote — seamless supply chain integration — and illustrates the way aligned supply chains can produce value above and beyond commodity shipping. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more. First Mira spoke to the American side of the deal:

Jim Beagle
Bakersfield, California

Q: Could you tell us the back story behind your session at The New York Produce Show and Conference?

A: The real background briefly is that Grapery is a partnership between Jack Pandol and me, which was formed in 1989. He was an agriculture grower for a lot of years, and it dawned on him that as he gave his best fruit to friends and neighbors, the feedback was always how wonderful the fruit tasted. But then they would lament: Why can‘t we find this in the store? I was experiencing the same reactions.

That got us thinking of how flavor is of initial importance to consumers. In our dealings with customers, however, flavor is not the main focus. Except in rare cases, flavor is not the primary attribute when selling to the shipper.

Q: What can you do to fix that disconnect? And where does the process start? What are the tradeoffs? Do you have to sacrifice other product characteristics when focusing on flavor?

A: How do we make sure we deliver flavor consistently? Obviously, we have to stand by our product, and it requires an entirely different mindset. It goes way back to our breeding program.

Over the past 10 years, we rebuilt Grapery on the concept of flavor. Ten years ago, Jack started a local breeding program in Bakersfield, California. As a partner, one of the primary goals is to breed for flavor, and hopefully not give up size, yield, and shelf life issues in the process. 

So a big part of that breeding for flavor involved the University of Arkansas, which had started a grape breeding program 50 or 60 years ago to develop a table grape industry in the Southeastern U.S. A lot of species native to the eastern U.S. are disease-resistant to grow in that climate, but also have thick skins, decay quickly and have severe shelf life issues. Familiar, traditional grape names were crossed with European species, but they never came up with something that worked well for the Southeastern U.S.

They decided to cross breed with varieties we grow here. Remarkably, we’re getting the flavors of those grapes, combined with seedlessness, thin skin and lack of acidity that we have in California. Cotton Candy comes directly from that cross breeding. We do a lot of crosses. We just found a taste that is exactly like eating Cotton Candy. When people taste it, their eyes get big and say it really tastes like Cotton Candy, and they can’t believe it.

Q: So you see great market potential, but what did it entailed to get that product on retail shelves?

A: Another big piece is the farming processes. When farming for flavor, it affects crop load and vine nutrition. You end up giving up some yields because when you over-crop, you can end up with less optimal flavor. There are tradeoffs, which require a different mindset for the grower typically bent on dynamic yields and low costs. It dramatically impacts farming practices. And the same goes for harvest. Actually it is more complicated at harvest because it’s necessary to retrain crews on how to harvest for flavor. All the crews, the foremen, and quality control people in the field every day carry refractometers to measure the sugar content of the fruit.

Q: Is there always a direct correlation between higher brix levels and better tasting fruit? Aren’t there other variables?

A: I used to grow wine grapes in Napa Valley, and we had endless debates on what does flavor mean… sugar is not the same thing as flavor but it’s a great indicator. We can’t just set high brix level and expect good results.

Every time we harvest we go out in the field and taste the fruit; here’s the color and maturity level that has the best flavor. Then we test for the sugar content that has the great flavor. It changes through the season with different varieties and variables in the field. If 22-brix fruit tastes the best, we target that level and train people in the field to pick that maturity level. We track pickers on how they’re picking fruit. Usually there are penalties for not doing a job right. We feel it is important to recognize and reward good performance.

Q: Do the tradeoff costs for flavor make it a harder sell on the wholesale side? And can’t taste and flavor profiles be much more subjective in a world where buyers are checking off a list of spec requirements?

A: It’s very complicated. If you have product tasting better, the next step is guaranteeing it. You’ve rebuilt your company, given up some yields, and now you have to earn a higher price for your product. So, it has to stand out, and retailers and consumers have to recognize it’s a better flavor. You have to put more money into packaging and a merchandising plan so consumers know it is better because they will see a higher price point. We have to do a good job on communicating the value.

Q: Cotton Candy grapes are uniquely novel, fun and recognizably distinctive in flavor. In this case, aren’t you starting with an advantage?

A: We’ve got the big Cotton Candy label, but even on regular varieties, we have our flavor promise on the bag of grapes across the top. Our promise is to grow the best tasting seedless grapes that you’ve ever eaten, with Jack’s contact information for consumer feedback. We supplement our product packaging with in-store signage and materials that tell a story about what we’re doing. 

Q: But getting it on the retail shelf is the first hurdle… Earlier, you described the challenges of changing the mindset of buyers. Are you finding retailers receptive?

A: Our relationships with retailers and distributors are a critical component. We need to shift gears to the implications for the industry. When we grow out of flavor, we take on risks for the supply chain. When we harvest for flavor, we pick at ripeness. Product tends to be higher color. Maybe on green grapes, there is yellow in them and they will tend to shatter. Retailers don’t like to risk shrink. We hear from retailers that want rock hard fruit, bright colors and no shatter. I can grow those but they won’t taste good but those are the specs we get from retailers. They’re looking at price and shrink and what you can measure. It’s hard to measure taste.

Some varieties are going to taste awful at 22 brix, others great. Depending on the time of harvest, it’s really hard to pin down how to talk about flavor. How do buyers tell their quality control department that it will have higher color than in our specs and more shatter but will taste better?

Q: What can you do to alleviate these concerns? How do you make the case that the benefits outweigh the costs?

A: We get flooded with emails from consumers, saying, wow, I never email companies but you have the best tasting grapes I’ve ever eaten, and so many times they don’t taste good. We don’t get complaints that there was too much shatter or they were too ripe. It’s a sign flavor is so important to consumers. When the industry is only driven by shelf life and price, we miss out on sales and risk disappointing consumers.

Retailers cannot differentiate with dry goods on the shelf, only with perishable products. Fresh products make them stand out. We get emails from consumers asking, “Where can I find your grapes?” That’s pretty powerful for retailers because it’s a competitive business.

The dilemma for retailers is they’re also taking on risk buying my product. Will they have fruit that doesn’t have as long a shelf life? They lose money when they have shrink. It’s important to have fruit that can last on the shelf. It’s a big hurdle to get over.

Every time I talk to a buyer and large buying organization, they say, I understand how the product would be fit, but how do I go to my boss and justify the higher cost?  Why should I put my job on the line when I’m judged by the price I buy.  It only works if it’s a great flavor product so retailers can charge the premium and turn the product around fast, and it can be a point of differentiation.

It takes a whole different approach to buying. It requires different types of partnerships between growers, retailers and others in the supply chain. We’ve done things focused more on wholesale. Here’s an opportunity to satisfy the consumer, to shift the focus to what the consumer wants.

As a farmer, I’m subject to weather and all things that can happen in the field. I’m not always able to predict when fruit is at peak flavor, and sometimes I have fruit that doesn’t make that grade. Sometimes it can be pressure if the retailer wants to do promotion of my grapes three or four weeks out. A big promotion with print ads, merchandising in stores, and end cap displays, really takes planning on the retailer’s part. The worst situation we can get into is all promotions are in place, pricing is in place, and three weeks later cool weather hits and fruit doesn’t ripen as fast. Pressure mounts to pick product when it’s not quite at its peak.  I have to be disciplined not to give into that pressure. And as a shipper, say there’s a rain coming and I have fruit that will be exposed and I need to pick. I have to be disciplined not to put that product in a flavor-promise package and sell it. I need other outlets. I don’t know how we get around that, it would be great to get retail feedback.

Q: Are you partnering with any retailers that are willing to embrace your flavor mission and the risks that come with that because they can envision the ultimate payoff? What feedback are you receiving on Cotton Candy grapes?

A: Our partnership with Mack Multiples to bring Cotton Candy grapes to the UK exclusively through Sainsbury’s is a case study of what happens when a customer gets engaged. Both companies have been very committed to what Grapery has been doing for years with our breeding program.

Mack Multiples has come and visited many times to see what’s happening. When we have very small volumes of a new product, we’ll send a sample box and they’ll put it in test kitchens and evaluate flavor selections and what would fit to do a program like what I’ve laid out. It’s taken years of developing relationships and experimenting and following through. It involves a little trial and error of what works and what doesn’t. We did a great job of coordinating harvest timing and packaging for their market.

Q: Did the marketing effort change to accommodate cultural differences in the UK? Is Cotton Candy more of an American pastime?

A: Cotton Candy is called Candy Floss in the UK, so our Cotton Candy grapes are marketed as Candy Floss-flavored grapes across the pond. It was a very well-coordinated, planned-out media campaign leading to a flurry of publicity on daily T.V. talk shows, in all the newspapers and online blogs. They did a really good job on how they launched the product. Sainsbury’s ran a big promotion.

Q: Was this a test run? Did you have enough supply to cover the demand? When will Cotton Candy be more commercially available and in what quantities?

A: In terms of the lifecycle of Cotton Candy, we saw the variety and breeding program a few years ago, planted root stock for a trial of four rows. Last year it fruited for the first time. After seeing the fruit last year, we got very excited about it. We had great responses.

We test a lot of varieties and sometimes they fall flat. I have a grape that tastes like a grape lollypop, but as soon as I pick it, the product falls apart, while other hopefuls turn brown. So many things can go wrong.

I’m still learning yield levels on Cotton Candy. This summer we planted our first commercial plot of Cotton Candy that won’t be produced until Aug 2013.

For the UK program, we picked the fruit in late August. There was enough quantity to cover the top stores throughout the Sainsbury chain.

If people are interested in Cotton Candy, they need to understand there won’t be a whole lot available until 2013. Then we’ll have good availability and we’d like to partner with select retailers that do a good job of promoting it.

There’s a lot of room for me to grow my business and retailers to do well. Smaller regional retailers that would make a lot of sense for me to work with. What’s really exciting is to see the level of turnover in stores when selling flavor. It changes the dynamic of how much fruit you can move through a retailer.

Black grapes are about five percent of U.S. retailers grape sales, not a big volume item. Most retailers will buy a load to mix in. I have a retailer that was selling a box of black grapes a day, but put our Flavor-Promise black grapes on the shelf and sales spiked to 14 boxes per store per day. If you look at how much volume can increase if consumer demand is there, changing the industry mindset to a flavor proposition becomes extremely compelling.

Q: Do you think all those extra sales are incremental? If consumers jump on Cotton Candy grapes, how does that affect the rest of the category and other produce department sales?

A: I don’t know how to predict Cotton Candy. If it’s cannibalizing other products, retailers don’t want that, but if it’s creating excitement and repeat customers, there’s a very strong argument for increased consumption, and not just trading one volume for another. If you can get something in front of kids they would want to gobble up instead of sour grapes or a mealy apple, it’s really powerful.

It’s a rich and complex issue that I’m passionately pursuing. Jack and I are very hands-on and make all the key decisions together. My vision for the industry is to develop partnerships like the one we have with Mack Multiples and Sainsbury’s. This program is a case study of how a relationship should work. 

We harvested the first Cotton Candy in August; I’ve hidden a few boxes away and I’m hoping we’ll have fruit at The New York Produce Show and people will be able to sample it. Having the opportunity to taste the product will make a huge difference. 


Then Mira reached across the pond to speak with the British side of the equation:

Bruce McGlashan
Technical Manager
Mack Multiples

Q: Could you tell us more about your collaborative effort to bring Cotton Candy grapes to the UK? How does this program fit within your company strategy?

A: In contrast to the U.S., flavor is already a major driver in the UK, so we’re trying to develop that by finding new varieties of produce… and in this case grapes. All the great breeders, or most of them, are in the U.S., so we started our relationships there, looking to what’s new. We’ve known about Grapery’s work to innovate on flavor for quite some time, but within the past five or six years, the whole thing set off.

Grapery is doing the growing of the product, so it’s all through Jack Pandol and Jim Beagle’s company. Going forward, we’re looking at working together on more varieties, developing select UK licenses on their behalf and to secure what we need for the UK market.

Q: Could you talk more about the arrangement you formed for Cotton Candy grapes? Jim Beagle mentioned that in the UK Cotton Candy is actually called Candy Floss with an equivalent flavor profile. What was your reaction when you tasted it?

A: Cotton Candy grapes have a unique flavor that is completely different. No other grape is like it. In the UK, exclusive licensing agreements are usually split either on variety or by retailer. In this case, our arrangement is exclusive with variety and with Sainsbury.

Q: How did you launch the product? Was there a major marketing effort?

A: We had an article published in one of the trade publications in the UK, and it grabbed people’s imagination. The story was picked up by the consumer print media; it ran in national newspapers, and then on a daily national television program. It was very well received. We monitored activity on the Internet, which was quite intense.

Q: Were you surprised by all the attention it received?

A: Largely speaking, it’s not unique for the press to pick up on a story like this; it’s certainly not the first time. But usually it happens with negative press. It’s more unusual to make noise about it with positive press. We have quite an active media, but the catalyst was our press release, and then the TV picked it up, which exposed the news to a wider consumer audience.  

Q: How was it marketed and merchandised on the retail floor? Were there any special promotions?

A: We were working with very limited volume this year because there were just a couple hundred kilos produced. The way retailers in the UK arrange product is by categories of good, better, best. Best would be the exclusive top tier line. Taste the Difference is Sainsbury’s trademark for its best line, and basically the Cotton Candy, or here in the UK Candy Floss, was available in that range for a couple of weeks. We restricted it due to volume for the late August time frame.

This year, we didn’t do a separate display because of the limited volume. It was handled as a sub brand within the grape section, displayed in a special packaging and format and its own unique label. We gave as much theater on the shelf as we could.

We’re a supplier to Sainsbury, but don’t get involved with merchandising in general. In the next two to three years or so, we look to develop marketing programs to boost excitement before it gets to store.

Q: How unique is an introduction like this in the produce department?

A: It doesn’t happen very often that we come upon such a different variety we can market. Things aren’t different enough. A product really has to be significantly different to receive this kind of attention. This is one of a kind.

Q: What was your reaction when you first tasted it?

A: Strange because it’s so different. You don’t feel like you’re tasting grapes, which have a fairly traditional profile. It really does taste like candy.

Q: What do you envision in the future with Cotton Candy grapes? Is this a one-hit wonder, or is there a way to replicate this excitement going forward? Do you have any prospects in the pipeline?

A: The promotion was a success. We were very pleased. We hope to enhance our partnerships with steady new varieties coming through. Certainly, Cotton Candy will become bigger, and then we’ll have Cotton Candy versions two and three. We’re looking not only at flavor, but the shapes of grapes. There are a lot of exciting new things in the development stages.  

Q: As we began this interview, you noted that the UK market puts a greater emphasis on flavor than in the U.S. How did this contrast evolve?

A: In the UK, we’ve gone through the phase where produce was bred for aesthetics and volume. UK consumers got fed up with that, not just with grapes, but across categories. It resulted in a push to get flavors back in everything. Tomatoes are the best example. Category sales are huge now because of the move away from the traditional watery tomato to a vast range of flavorful varieties. 

The change was not immediate. There was an eight- to ten-year process with new tomato varieties coming through. The problem is things don’t happen fast in produce because of the breeding process and the complications to get a new product to market.

We try to do everything, and can’t base our business on one aspect. Some consumers want flavor with top premiums. Varieties are dropping into different spheres, and there is a price tag associated with them. The market is definitely there for premium products but many consumers can’t afford them. Our overall goal is to improve the flavor of produce across categories. We do fruits and vegetables as well, generally with the same kind of work on flavor developments.  

Q: For attendees of The New York Produce Show and Conference, what would you like them to take away from your presentation?

A: Hopefully by following what we’re doing in the U.K., it will inspire opportunity to change the U.S. market. Flavor is often a secondary consideration, and here is a chance to drive the whole market forward.

For some retailers, at first they won’t jump on board, but for a premium northeast retailer, there is an opening to do something different with an American company and with people doing all this great work on your doorstep… well they might be in California, but on your doorstep in spirit.

I’m on holiday now in a great American institution, Disney World in Paris with my family, but look forward to my visit to another great American institution, The New York Produce Show and Conference!

It is a fascinating story in many aspects.

First, it should give many U.S. retailers pause. These grapes were available in very small quantities this year. Why in the world should they have made their way to the United Kingdom? Is U.S. procurement often kind of passive, waiting for a presentation rather than reaching out aggressively to find new and exciting things to offer consumers? Were American retailers not willing to pay the premium needed to secure these grapes? Were American retailers not flexible enough to work these grapes only in select stores while volume is thin?

We spent a few days over the years watching the first cherry harvests fly off to Japan, whose buyers had paid up front to secure the fruit, while American retailers let them go. We think there is enough in this story to cause retailers to reassess buying practices.

We give a salute to Sainsbury’s and Mack Multiples for doing their job and being proactive about finding what best suits the consumer.

Second, despite the focus on the novel taste traits of this grape, this story shows that proprietary varieties all by themselves are not the answer. You can mess up the quality of any variety by picking it when, in Jim Beagle’s example, the retail ad campaign is about to break, rather than when the fruit is ready. You need an aligned supply chain in which all parties – in this case The Grapery, Mack Multiples and Sainsbury’s — are in accord on the primacy of flavor.

Third, this focus on an alignment of values has implications beyond flavor. It is the precise value that is necessary to produce food safety, sustainability, economy — any value at all.

Fourth, also at The New York Produce Show and Conference this year, there is a special program titled the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum, and working with institutions such as The Culinary Institute of America and Keynote Speaker Farmer Lee Jones, the focus is on identifying practical ways the industry can move consumption toward the half a plate that the USDA has idealized on a health basis.

The key focus coming out from this search: Innovation, Flavor, Quality, Cooking and Communication. Innovation to excite people, flavor to make each bite deeply satisfying, quality to avoid disappointing people, cooking to make each item as good as it can be and to provide variation so people can enjoy the items at various meal times and, finally, communication so that both consumers are aware of the item and its attributes and so that the story of the item can enrich the experience.

The big question is how do we take these ideas and values and scale them. Cooking aside – although as volume increases there is no reason they can’t use these grapes to create unique pastries, etc. — the story of the Cotton Candy grape is really an attempt to stay true to these same values on a commercial scale.

Fifth, our biggest concern is that the industry is putting too great a burden on flavor. When Jim Beagle says “It only works if it’s a great flavor product so retailers can charge the premium and turn the product around fast, and it can be a point of differentiation” – he is undoubtedly correct. Maybe, though, we need to rethink. Should the normal offering be “rock hard fruit, bright colors and no shatter”? In other words, fruit selected for appearance and retail risk-reduction, not flavor or long term consumer satisfaction.

One wonders if, in the future, some retailer won’t be able to build a reputation whereby its norm is to provide innovative, top quality, flavorful fruit?

We are very much looking forward to this presentation and hope to have an opportunity to find out.

New York Knicks’ Charles Oakley Will Be Cooking Up A Storm At New York Produce Show And Conference

The New York Produce Show and Conference is a serious event where serious people come to educate themselves, network and work toward both personal development and enhancing the bottom lines of the organizations for which they work.

Though a life well-lived requires some ice cream, or at least frozen yogurt, along with the main course and, fortunately, for those who love their work and the produce industry, there are lots of opportunities to provide some fun while we all fight the battle.

How is this for some fun: A superstar athlete turns out to be focused on cooking, and he is going to come to the New York show, do a cooking demo with students from culinary schools serving as sous chefs, talk us all through recipes as he prepares them, offer up samples and then sign autographs and have his photo taken! What a treat.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Charles Oakley
Retired Basketball player
Assistant Coach for the Charlotte Bobcats

Q: Produce industry executives will certainly be intrigued to see you cooking up a storm at the upcoming New York Produce Show. Your fans know you as a powerhouse on the basketball court, but may be surprised to discover you also have a talent for cooking, an affinity for fresh fruits and vegetables, and you’re a take-charge kind of guy in the kitchen. What sparked this passion?

A: It goes back to growing up as a young boy down South in Alabama, where my grandfather was a farmer. It wasn’t a big farm for commercial use, but he would plant all the produce we needed. We grew a range of vegetables from sweet potatoes and yams to peas and a variety of greens like okra and collards. And my grandmother canned fresh peaches and other fruits to store up for winter. In fifth grade, I returned to Cleveland, where I was born, but Alabama has remained a constant in my life.

As I got older and went to college, my experience with food wasn’t very good. I was real picky and didn’t see anything I liked in the cafeteria, so I survived on a steady diet of Burger King and McDonald’s.

Then as a rookie by myself in Chicago, I started cooking this and that, small things. The biggest thing then was that as rookies a lot of us didn’t go home for the holidays. I’d cook Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner for everyone. A lot of people knew I could cook, but when they saw the whole spread with the Cornish hens and collard greens and all the sides and dressings, they were taken aback. One time a TV crew filmed me buying 50 pounds of ground turkey for my turkey burgers.

Q: That sounds like quite an endeavor…

A: I think cooking is easy in my range of what I do best. I’m not cooking like a European chef, but I’m told my food has a twist to it. I like to prepare healthy, delicious comfort food without a lot of fat.

Photo by Shanee Williams

My real interest in cooking really took off when I got to New York. I was living and practicing in Westchester. I got tired and didn’t want to eat out all the time, and I began experimenting and getting creative with my home cooked meals.  

As my basketball career took off in New York and Toronto, I was starting to do more and more cooking on the side. In Toronto, I even did a few T.V. cooking shows. I’d invite the team over for Monday night football and a bite to eat. It got to the point where basically the whole team would hear I was cooking and they would all come over.

I knew guys on the team that were picky eaters like me. If we were going on a flight for an out-of-town game, I’d bring food to the locker room beforehand to hold us over. I had requests for my meatloaf turkey sandwiches. 

In Atlanta, the guys would get together to play golf, and I’d whip up breakfast for everyone.  

Q: How would you describe your style of cooking?

A: I’m picky about food and need to know what’s in it and how it should taste. I like to focus on the freshness, whether fish, meat or vegetables. Sometimes it’s just a matter of seasoning a little bit and cooking on low. I’ll sauté cherry tomatoes and chop up basil to sprinkle on top. I’m not the gourmet chef that puts caviar in my mashed potatoes, but I’ll replace the butter with olive oil, or add sage to the pineapple juice. I’ve got a real keen sense when it comes to flavors.

Q: Did you ever get professional training or is your talent intrinsic?

A: I seem to just have a flair for it. I pick up on things and instinctively have a sense of how food should taste. People ask me, can you give me that tilapia recipe; I can, but it won’t taste the same. I’ll say, the measurements are close enough.

Q: Tell us more about your passion for cooking.

A: People are often surprised to learn how dedicated I am to cooking and that it’s not a gimmick. I did an Oakley Café Show about four years ago, shopping it to different networks. That caught a lot of people off guard, who just knew me as a professional basketball player. 

I went on TV live in Cleveland to do a cooking demo, and also taped a show there. On a station in Atlanta, they had me making salad, spring rolls, chicken, broccoli and rice, and a peach cobbler for dessert.

I cook at people’s houses, some are celebrities, and no one has gotten sick yet! Often I tell them to go do the shopping; you pick the main ingredients and I’ll make something good.

Cooking is not about what I like to eat; it’s about what you like to eat. I can cook whatever you want… fried chicken, cod fish, barbeque ribs with my homemade sauce, Italian string beans, red cabbage, brown rice with corn and red and green peppers, fried corn off the cob, a banana pudding for dessert… you name it. 

Q: Do you ever use a cookbook or just improvise as you go?

A: I like to improvise in ways to bring out the natural flavors of the food. I don’t want to saturate it with onions, and I’m no fan of butter. My barbeque sauce is healthier because I use a tomato base and not ketchup with all that sugar.

My thing is cooking simple and healthy. I’ll make vegetable omelets with spinach and asparagus in the morning, a salad and lump meat crab cakes in the afternoon, and fish and collard greens in the evening.

Photo by Shanee Williams

I’ve got a knack around food and the kitchen. I know how to blend. I think garlic can be used too freely and overwhelm the dish. I went to a restaurant in Tribeca, where the chicken is marinated overnight in garlic and it’s much too powerful. I don’t want to go overboard with spices. I want to use them thoughtfully. I look to enhance the natural flavors. Sometimes people get too creative. I prefer to stay more traditional with my own twists. Flavoring food with olive oil and a little wine and fresh herbs can often be the best approach.

I’m a focused cook. My mindset is, get it done. I don’t want to be in the kitchen all day. I’ve put together huge buffets with so many components and then realized it took me less than an hour.

I enjoy cooking. I’ve done parties for 100 people. Spike Lee was always saying we should cook together when I came to town. I did something with him on the east side of Manhattan last year. He invited 30 or so people for dinner at a restaurant, so I arrived a few hours early and prepared the whole meal in the kitchen for all the guests. 

One time I cooked a birthday party feast for my dear friend Michael Jordan. I always go back to Alabama to cook Mother’s Day dinner and enjoy visiting and making her favorite breakfasts. 

Q: I understand your heart extends beyond family and friends to charitable work as well. Could you describe some of the projects you’re involved in? 

A: I’m able to utilize my cooking for charitable causes. I was in Boston last year for a charity event to help abused kids. They auctioned me off and a family that lived in New Hampshire was the highest bidder, so I flew out there and cooked meals for all their friends and family. It was great fun.

I’ve been in Charlotte, Cleveland and New York to cook for shelters during the holidays, and I’m trying to set up something in New York for this year. Most of the time, it will be turkey, string beans, maybe I’ll make yams, but mostly I just want to be there to show I care.

I was recently in Charlotte, and there were people with a van serving tons of people in need. They were so goodhearted. I’ve always had the desire to do that. We’re looking to develop a similar concept, where we could drive an 18 wheeler to different parts of the country preparing and giving out food to the homeless. And we could go back month to month, so it wouldn’t just be a one-time event. I’d like to get sponsors and to find food distributors that would be willing to supply ingredients.

I also like doing the Stedman Graham Charity Golf Tournament. At last year’s event, I cooked at the 8th hole. We had 45 pounds of meat, and I only made turkey sliders. It was the most popular item. My turkey burgers have an unexpected flavor but people find them delicious.

Q: What are your attitudes about healthy living, athletic performance and eating well?

A: You just can’t eat bad food every day because in the long run, it breaks you down. Breakfast is a key thing, but not those heavy Southern breakfasts with all those eggs, grits and bacon. I do eat collard greens for breakfast though.

In college, I didn’t eat healthy but it wasn’t a really big deal, except after awhile that fast food makes you feel bad.

Trainers say keep away from this and that, but at the end of the day, you have to eat right not just in front of coaches and trainers but at home too. Most players in the league have chefs and assistants cooking for them. I don’t know if that makes you stronger or weaker. When you cook for yourself, you know exactly what you’re eating and you have more control.

Q: I hear you’re a tough patron at restaurants…

A: I’m the worst person to go out to eat with; I’m just so picky. I ask the chefs a lot of questions, and want many alterations. A lot of chefs don’t want to change their dish.

I have a hard time going out sometimes. At a basic restaurant I’m usually disappointed with the selection, especially when it comes to produce options.

Q: What are your favorite vegetables?

A: I like quick and healthy; I do a lot of broccoli, carrots, and zucchini. I’ll toss in mushrooms. Collard greens are good but they take too long.  I just started eating beets and avocados in the past few months. I’m trying a few different things.

Q: What got you interested in trying beets and avocados for the first time after all these years?

A: I was curious when I saw them incorporated in salads. I like to put grapes and strawberries in my salads. I go to Whole Foods a lot, and I’m always talking to the produce people there. One lady teaches me things, but she also gives me a hard time. She’ll say, don’t get that for dinner because it’s bad for you. I try to eat healthy four or five times a week, but I like my fried chicken.

My advice to kids is, try to eat a lot of fruit. Personally, I’ve always been a picky eater. I never ate a hotdog in my life, just the baked beans. I don’t eat whole eggs, and just started eating egg whites a few years ago. When I was in school, I’d end up eating cereal and donuts. It’s tough growing up when you go for lunch and the choices aren’t appealing. Many families don’t cook at home anymore and go out to eat fast food.

There are so many different foods, and all this talk about organic. My thing is if food is fresh and good, that’s what matters. I feel comfortable in the kitchen cooking fresh vegetables. They’re good for your body. I have my days though. I love potato chips and munchies. I’m trying to cut back on bread. I’m bad when I go to a restaurant. I’ll eat two baskets of bread with olive oil or balsamic vinegar before the meal arrives. I believe it’s all about moderation.

Q: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?

A: I’m working with Shanee Williams, my publicist, and restaurateur Brad Johnson, an owner and operator of trend-setting venues on the East and West Coast, to open a New York City-based restaurant. Since it’s still in the development stages, we don’t want to talk about the concept yet, but we’re hoping it will be ready next summer.

I can tell you that I’ll be real hands-on in developing the menu items and it will have my signature touch. I’m looking to do more cooking shows and charity events, and I’m also assistant coach for the Charlotte Bobcats, so I’ll be keeping active in and out of the kitchen. 

It is a great story because it shows that good cooking is accessible to many and that one doesn’t have to be a trained chef to cook good food.

There is a message for the industry in noting that new products aren’t necessarily new items. To a well-traveled man such as Mr. Oakley, his exploration of beets and avocado is just beginning. Maybe we sometimes forget that many things old are new to someone else. There is probably a lesson there for our marketing and merchandising.

If anyone is interested in supporting Mr. Oakley’s dream of an 18-wheeler serving as a mobile cooking station to help the hungry, you can e-mail us here and we will pass it on.

Plus, we want first dibs on reservations at the New York restaurant that is in the planning stages. Come 2012, hopefully, a whole group from The New York Produce Show and Conference will be there to sample some of Charles Oakley’s produce-centric recipes.

If you would like to see Charles Oakley cooking up a storm, please register for The New York Produce Show and Conference right here.

Hotels are available at the link.

Travel discounts galore can be found here .

And opportunities to sponsor and exhibit at this incredible event can be found here.

Pundit’s Mailbag — Food Safety Must Be An Executive Imperative: 24/7/365

Richard Yudin has frequently contributed to the Pundit as with these pieces:

Why Don’t American Retailers Just Standardize On EurepGAP?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Fairtrade And Harsh Capitalism

Pundit’s Mailbag — Poor Management Attitude Leads To Food Safety Failures

Banana Import Policies In Europe Defy Logic And Ultimately Hurt Consumers

His European perspective and time spent abroad adds much richness to his analysis. So we were pleased when he sent a note regarding the cantaloupe crisis:

Your article titled, CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: The Need For An Aligned Supply Chain And An FDA That Won’t Punt On Food Safety, and the article titled, CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: Key Performance Indicators and Food Safety... Shall The Twain Ever Meet? — which included John Rice's letter — both outlined one thing: audits are not enough, there has to be a cultural change across the fresh produce industry making food safety as important as it is for our meat, poultry and seafood colleagues.

The rules must be followed 24/7/365, not just when you know an auditor is about to show up.

All an outsider can do is give you a snapshot of what was being done at the time of the visit; it is ultimately up to management to make sure that contamination of any kind is being controlled ALL the time.

— Richard Yudin
Fyffes Tropical Produce
Coral Gables, Florida

Clearly no audit can be enough, and anyone who procures on the assumption that an audit is enough needs to reassess their practices.

Yet it is not easy to develop a food safety culture.

Getting prepped for an audit is the opposite of what we want to happen, but human nature is a tough act to alter. How many of us knew that when we were in school we should pace our studying every day, but actually wound up cramming for the test?

This is very hard to change; the challenge therefore is to get the whole team to redefine what the test actually is. Of course, the audit is not the test; properly understood, the test is producing safe food every single day.

The challenge is to make the whole team loathe the thought that they could be part of a supply chain that ever kills even one person.

It is a truism to say that food safety has to start at the top. Obviously this means establishing a cultural imperative for food safety, supporting employees who stop a production line or refuse to harvest a field or who need budget to buy equipment or do testing.

Yet it is so much harder than this. Here is a true story:

A friend of ours was working for one of the top quality supermarket chains in the country as a night deli employee many years ago. His job included working with another employee to make carrot raisin salad — a specialty for this chain. The job took several hours every night.

As the end of the shift rolled around, the two employees, having completed the carrot raisin salad, had it in a huge tub, which they together were bringing from the back room to the deli counter. One of the employees grew unsteady and they tripped and dropped all the carrot raisin salad on the floor.

Exhausted at the end of a long night shift, the two employees looked at each other and thought what they should do.

We should explain that this was a family-owned chain and the owners were focused on safety and quality. The employees were treated well. They both knew perfectly well that if they told their supervisor they would not be punished in any way, and they would be told to dispose of the sullied carrot raisin salad. They also knew that they would be asked to stay and make a new one — on overtime at time-and-a-half.

But they didn’t want the overtime; they were tired and they wanted to go home. So they looked at each other, quickly shoveled up the salad from the floor, removed any obvious dirt and delivered it to the deli counter to be sold. They went home praying that this would not be the day an inspector came in and did bacterial counts.

We happen to know both these people. They now are high executives in the industry today and can assure you that they are very nice normal people. They were in their early 20s then and, in fairness, they didn’t think they would kill anyone. It was a dirty floor, not a pile of arsenic.

Still, we think the story is a lesson pregnant with implications:

1) Much food safety depends on how the operation is engineered. The key food safety decision was the decision to make the carrot/raisin salad at the store.

2) One can’t assume that employees share your priorities. In this case, going home was more important than quality, safety, etc.

3) Transparency is hard to achieve if there are any consequences at all for the individuals. In this case, the fact that they would be asked to work more outweighed everything.

Changing a culture is thus more complicated than it sounds. It is, also, of course, essential.

Many thanks to Richard Yudin for weighing in on this important issue.

For those looking to explore this outbreak in more detail here are the main pieces we've writrten on the subject to date:


October 4: 2011:THE CANTALOUPE CRISIS: The Truth That Dare Not Speak Its Name: The Priority Can Be Safe or The Priority Can Be Local, But It Cannot Be Both

October 12, 2011:CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: Key Performance Indicators and Food Safety...Shall The Twain Ever Meet?

October 20, 2011: CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: The Need For An Aligned Supply Chain And An FDA That Won’t Punt On Food Safety

October 23, 2011: CANTALOUPE CRISIS ANALYSIS: While “Blame The Auditor” Frenzy Rages, It Pays To Look At Best Practices Vs Standard Practices

October 23, 2011: The Cantaloupe Crisis: Audits, Auditors And Food Safety

October 23, 2011: Trevor Suslow Of UC Davis Speaks Out: Reflecting On Pathogens, Produce, And Practices

October 23, 2011: When It Comes To Audits… Retailers Get What They Specify

October 23, 2011: When A Buyer Is Short Of Product… Do We Have A Plan To Ensure Food Safety?

October 23, 2011: A Call To The Buying Community: Uniform Food Safety Standards Are Required

October 23, 2011: A Choice Had To Be Made: Which Was The Top Priority: Buying Cheap, Buying Regional or Buying Safe?

October 23, 2011: Vendors Risk Much By Not Standing Up For Food Safety Premiums

October 23, 2011: Cantaloupe Crisis Discussion to Take Place At New York Produce Show And Conference

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