Pundit Interviews

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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



WHERE'S THE SCIENCE?
Wegmans Asserts Organic Produce Tastes Better Than Conventional....
Doesn’t This Imply Disparagement Of Most Of The Produce Wegmans Sells?

Wegmans is a most exceptional company. On virtually every subject they wind up being ahead of the game. We arrange tours of American retailers for many foreign friends and associates, Wegmans is always number one on the list of retailers these visitors wish to see. This company is right far more often than it is wrong. Indeed, just the other day we praised the Wegmans family and the company for doing the right thing and offering people with compromised immune systems the chance to buy irradiated ground beef when others are afraid to do so.

Oddly, though, Wegmans has been running a most extraordinary TV commercial. It asserts, without any evidence, that organically grown produce tastes better than conventionally grown produce.

There has been some research that has found that the marketing term “organic” carries psychological weight with consumers and that product labeled organic — whether organic or not — can be perceived as tastier, healthier, etc. But when it comes to taste itself, there is not one neutrally conducted, double-blind, peer-reviewed study of produce purchased at a supermarket that has ever found organic produce tasting better than conventionally grown produce.

There is also an odd turn of phrase. The commercial attacks “artificial pesticides or fertilizers,” but it is unclear what the word "artificial” means in this context since certified organic agriculture allows the use of many synthetic substances.

The ad has other issues, seeming to imply that the soil Wegmans produce grows in is richer than soil other retailers get their produce from, and that Wegmans has unique technology that lets it grow produce 10 months a year when others have to settle for two.

Here is the text of the commercial:

When we started Wegmans organic farm, we found out why most organics tasted better. It was the strength of the soil. When you don’t use artificial pesticides or fertilizers, your soil has to be rich and strong. This makes crops taste better. We also found these high tunnels help us grow ten months a year instead of just ten weeks using only the sun for energy. Better tasting crops grown right here in our region. Everyday you get our best.

There is clearly a consumer market and demand for organics, and retailers should offer organics, but the claims for organic need to conform to known science. Wegmans is not far from Cornell University. We bet Cornell would love to do a double-blind study and get it published and peer-reviewed to ascertain if consumers actually find organics taste better than conventional produce. Wegmans is a very charitable company and, perhaps, it should consider creating a grant to get this research completed.

Until they do, they should stop saying things that we have no reason to believe are true.




Professor Miguel Gómez Returns To The New York Produce Show And Conference To Unveil A New Study That Points Out A Path For Getting More Produce Into Hospitals 

We’ve written many times before to highlight Cornell’s Professor Miguel Gómez and his many contributions to increasing the body of knowledge relevant to the industry and to highlight his contributions to The New York Produce Show and Conference. We’ve profiled his presentations in pieces including:

Cornell Professor Miguel Gómez To Speak At New York Produce Show And Conference On Fruit & Vegetable Dispute Resolution Corporation

A New Hypothesis On Local: To Boost Sales, Sell It Through Supermarkets … Cornell’s Miguel Gómez Previews His Upcoming Talk At The New York Produce Show And Conference

Cornell Professors To Present At The New York Produce Show And Conference: New Ways of Thinking About Local: Can The East Coast Develop A Broccoli Industry?

There is no hotter subject in America than health care, and when we heard Professor Gómez was working at the intersection of the produce system and the health care delivery system, and wanted to present on the topic at The New York Produce Show and Conference, we eagerly said yes. Then we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to give us a ”sneak preview” of what Professor Gómez will talk about in New York:

Miguel J. Gómez, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Q: With Cornell University being a Charter Participant of The New York Produce Show & Conference’s University Interchange Program, you have played an important role by sharing your evocative research each year; both at the educational workshops, as well as moderating a panel and presenting at the Global Trade Symposium, co-located at the Show.

Your talks have included, a new hypothesis of “local” based on performance of local and mainstream supply chains; ongoing studies on development of an East Coast broccoli industry; and analysis of a NAFTA-wide transparent and efficient dispute resolution mechanism.

Now you branch out into a new area of study: Farm-to-Hospital Programs: Factors Influencing Hospital Participation. What are the key issues you set out to tackle?

A: The primary goal of the thesis is to identify the factors that influence a hospital’s decision to adopt a Farm-to-Hospital (FTH) program in healthcare facilities.in the Northeast region. This is achieved through the following objectives:

• Develop a regional survey for hospital foodservice directors in the NE region of the U.S. to assess their interest in FTH programs.

• Utilize data from the regional survey to present an empirical model to discover the determinants that influence a hospital’s decision to adopt an FTH program.

• Identify and explain the potential barriers to the adoption of FTH programs through case-study analysis.

I want to be sure to mention that the study was conducted by Bobby Smith, 2013 M.S. candidate, Professor Harry Kaiser, as well as myself at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.

Q: What provoked your interest in this research? Is there a dearth of knowledge in this area?

A: Our interest to study farm-to-hospital programs stems from the fact that when we think about local food systems, we usually think in terms of direct channels — farmers markets, for instance. To an extent, we have an institutional sector. We know some things about farm-to-school programs and how schools provide fruits and vegetables to increase intake, but there is very little evidence about this happening in hospitals. We don’t know much about how cafeterias and food service managers in hospitals think about procuring fresh fruits and vegetables to include more local produce in diets.

By nature, hospitals have to be consistent with what they do. They deal with health, and food is a part of that; providing a healthy diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s consistent with their business purpose.

There are some case studies that look at particular hospitals and how they develop their procurement for fresh produce and the importance they place on buying from local farmers, but there is a lack of macro analysis. These are specific case studies, but there isn’t a systematic study. What types of hospitals are more likely to buy fresh produce especially from the local community?

Q: Can you explain why you need to go beyond the current research available to a more systematic approach?

A: There is just anecdotal evidence of how hospitals develop these practices. What we do is interview more than 100 hospitals; how are they getting their procurement programs including local food into their menus.

Q: What is the regional scope?

A: We study farm-to-hospital programs in facilities focused in the northeast region, which includes New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.

We developed a survey for hospital foodservice directors in all these regions to learn their interest in farm-to-hospital programs. In addition to conducting a survey of more than 100 hospitals, we did three case studies, one in Ithaca, New York, one in New Milford, Connecticut, and another in Burlington, Vermont.

Q: Why those three?

A: We just wanted to get more in-depth opinions from the foodservice directors about various opportunities for procuring local produce.

Q: How did the information in the case studies compare to the more general surveys? Did they confirm or contrast with your overall findings? Were there significant differences?

A: No. The information from our case studies was very consistent with what we found in the more general survey. Essentially, our interest in doing these case studies is to make sure our survey results correspond.

Q: What did you learn?

A: We sent this survey to 160 hospitals and received 101 results, which was an amazing response rate. We called every single one of them to follow through.

In the survey we asked first, did they sign the Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge, a national initiative for hospitals to provide healthy food.

Q: Is this a government or private program?

A: It’s a private initiative in the healthcare system, launched in 2006 by Healthcare Without Harm. We found 36 percent of our hospitals signed the pledge. That was an important indicator of how much they care about providing healthy foods.

We wanted to know if they signed the pledge; what was the budget for foodservice; how much they allocated for fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and other products. We also wanted to know for each category how much was local in the product mix. Also, if they owned their own cafeteria or contracted with a third party to run it. We wanted to know hospital size and those kinds of characteristics.

Q: What other variables did you consider?

A: We collected secondary data from the census, regarding whether the hospital was located in a metropolitan or rural area. We also wanted to know the degree, what percentage of the county’s land was devoted to agriculture because we thought that would be an important link to the strength of the FTH program. We collected data in the proportion of farms that participated in some sort of direct market, either farmers market or community-supported agriculture to understand the extent of the local system where the hospital was located.

For example, if you have a county where 10 percent of the community is participating in local agriculture, you have a stronger local supply chain, compared to a county that has one percent participating.

Q: How is local defined?

A: That’s a very good point to bring up. We asked the hospitals what is local to you. More than half of our hospitals classified local between 100 to 200 miles away or within the state. This was the general consensus.

Q: That’s quite a range…What else did you learn about the make-up of your participating hospitals?

A: About 60 percent of the hospitals reported that they adopted a farm-to-hospital program, compared to the 36 percent that signed the Healthy Food Pledge we discussed earlier. We also found out about 60 percent operate their own foodservice, and the other 40 percent contract with a third party.

The hospitals we surveyed averaged serving 500 meals per day, but it ranged from 100 meals per day to more than 3,000 meals per day.

In addition, 21 percent of the hospitals we surveyed were in non-metro areas. That gives you an idea of our sample.

Q: So, what does this information reveal?

A: We wanted to find out what types of hospitals are more likely to adopt an FTH program. One thing we discovered, which might be interesting to your audience, is that hospitals with an FTH program tend to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables in general than the others. Of course, fruits and veg are associated with a healthier menu.

Similarly, hospitals that signed the pledge devote a larger size of their budget to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Q: How much larger?

A: In our sample, on average, fresh fruits and vegetables make up 20 to 25 percent of the cafeteria/food budget for the hospitals that don’t have an FTH program Those that have an FTH program spend between 25 to 30 percent of their budget on fruits and vegetables.

Q: So it’s possible that hospitals with and without FTH programs could both be spending 25 percent of their budget on fruits and vegetables?

A: Yes. There is some level of overlap there.

Q: Were you able to pull out the percentage of local?

A: Let me give you the break down of categories. For meat it’s about 9 percent for local, for dairy 30 percent, for eggs 15 percent, for fruit 16 percent, for veggies 18 percent. These are the average overall shares of local for all the hospitals.

When we separate out hospitals with FTH programs, the share of local produce increases by 10 percent. Those hospitals that have FTH programs say 26 percent of that local produce is fruit, and about 30 percent for veggies. This is pretty much the same for those that signed the Healthy Food Pledge. One of the surprising findings is how much local produce these hospitals are buying.

Q: Did the strong local showing also correlate to those hospitals that were located in agricultural areas?

A: We found no evidence of that. That was surprising. The reason maybe is that for local produce you don’t need a lot of land. It’s not like growing corn or soybeans. Produce can be grown in high volume in a relatively small space.

Q: What other factors were statistically relevant to FTH development?

A: Let me summarize the factors that increase the likelihood that hospitals adopt FTH programs. First of all, smaller hospitals are much more likely to adopt FTH programs than larger ones. When you have a smaller operation, it’s much easier to develop relationships with the local community.

I have to tell you something important: It’s very, very unlikely that the hospital will buy directly from the farmer.

Q: So they’re buying from a distributor?

A: Yes. And the distributor is developing the local program. One of the insights is that the distributor plays a key role, and the same distributor brings the local and non-local produce and is very flexible. They try as much as they can to meet the expectations of hospital but also have access to the national system. From a logistics standpoint they can handle it better.

Q: What are main issues hospital foodservice directors pointed to in their efforts to develop an FTH program?

A: What we found is that those hospitals located adjacent to metropolitan areas are less likely to adopt an FTH program. The likelihood of a rural or urban hospital to adopt an FTH was no different; the likelihood was just the same, but those in the suburbs of the cities were less likely to adopt.

Q: Why?

A: We really did dig deep into this, and it’s true. One of the reasons when we talk to the managers is that in rural areas you’re close to farms, and in urban areas you’re close to distributors with supply logistics for both local and non local.

In between, you don’t have the same infrastructure to deliver fresh produce. These are locations that are not rural and not urban. They’re in limbo.

Another interesting finding that surprised us: We thought that hospitals that owned their foodservice operation would be more likely to have an FTH program because they’d have more flexibility. We found that some of the hospitals that contract foodservice with a third party results in the same likelihood that they’ll have an FTH program as those that do their own. We found no statistical difference, and we were looking at more than a 100 hospitals here.

Q: What accounts for that?

A: I think that in the end, if a hospital wants to adopt an FTH program and increase the amount of healthy local foods in their menu, the third party has to accommodate them or lose the business. In fact, while we can’t say it is statistically significant, we see evidence that the hospitals that have third parties running their foodservice operations are more likely to have an FTH program. The infrastructure is set and it’s easier for them. It’s not conclusive, but we see indications that this is the case, and want to do further study here.

Q: Did you garner more insight from the hospital directors on the obstacles and rewards of pursuing the FTH process?

A: Opinions in our case studies were very consistent with our survey results. We asked foodservice directors to rank the challenges and benefits. The Number One challenge was reliability of supply. Second was the cost. The directors told us it’s more expensive to procure local. The third challenge was the lack of infrastructure, which is also related to cost. Fourth was the seasonality of production, which connects back to reliability of supply. These are perceived challenges from the hospital directors.

When asked to rank the top benefits, Number One was food safety.

Q: Really? You did say “perceived”…

A: Exactly, because we know local is not necessarily safer. That was a real wow finding, and especially because it was ranked Number One. Number Two was support of the local economic environment. Number Three was quality of food, that it’s fresher. And the fourth perceived benefit was that it promoted environmental sustainability. In our survey, they had to rank each one of the factors at different levels of importance, slightly important, important… with Number One as critical.

Q: But no one said anything about the health and wellness impact for their patients… perhaps that’s just a given premise?

A: I know. In the introduction to our research, we point to how “hospitals benefit from a Farm-To-Hospital program by upholding the common mission of many hospitals to 1) promote healthy living, 2) provide a model from which patients may learn, and 3) foster a healthy food environment.”

Q: For so long, hospitals had a reputation of serving patients and visitors all kinds of processed foods and unhealthy choices…

A: Yes I remember. We recognize through the interviews and surveys that there’s been a major shift toward healthier options.

Q: Can you talk a bit more about your three in-depth cases? Did you gain any more perspective?

A: One thing we learned is that developing relationships within local food systems takes a lot of time and effort. It’s a question of developing business partnerships, and it’s not easy. It’s harder than they thought when they started the program.

Q: Did they note problems within the hospital to handle fresh produce, like the logistics/labor training issues expressed by many school administrators?

A: Basically, those that have third-party management have no problems with fresh fruits and vegetables. They did mention they had difficulty finding the particular varieties and consistency in supply. That was a limitation.

Let me read you a quote from a Milford, Connecticut, hospital dining service director: “Initial resistance from senior hospital management, changing preparation techniques and the lack of education in regard to local foods” are the greatest challenges faced by the FTH program.

We found that comment repeated by other foodservice directors. It took some effort to convince the senior management that FTH was a good idea.

Q: What advice do you have for produce industry executives who would like to get involved in this channel of distribution?

A: I think this is an interesting and important market for the produce industry. Distributors play a crucial role here. The produce industry should look at distributors that are able to have the flexibility to procure local produce for these FTH programs as well as from other regions to participate in this market channel.

We don’t study this enough.

Q: Will you be doing additional studies to build on this initial research?

A: We want to do a complete national study, but we need $1 million, if anyone would like to contribute! We want to see if what we’ve learned in the northeast region translates to other regions. We also want to identify and explore supply chain practices. That’s really the next stage. What are the best practices for hospitals to increase fresh fruits and vegetables, and what is the best combination of local and non-local produce.  

******

Ok, let’s understand the distinctive meaning of Farm to Hospital. Hospitals that don’t have such a program get produce that is grown on farms, distributed through distributors and then delivered to the hospital. In contrast, those hospitals that do have such a program, well, they get produce that is grown on farms, distributed through distributors and then delivered to the hospital. Hardly sounds like a dramatic departure from standard operating procedures.

There are a lot of interesting questions this study raises that will have to wait for future studies:

It would be great to do a profile of the audit status of vendors’ produce bought under a farm-to-table program rather than bought conventionally. There is not much reason to think it would be stronger and a lot of reason to think the audit profile of local vendors may be weaker.

And the really interesting question is to audit procurement documents to see how procurement changes when a hospital adopts a farm-to-hospital program. This is different from comparing hospitals that have a program to those that don’t.

Of course, a truly important study would be to study patient outcomes in hospitals that have such programs vs patient outcomes in those that don’t. These are very complex studies — after all a trauma center may have a lot of fatalities not due to poor patient care, much less poor diet, but due to the patient profile — so many adjustments must be made, but isn’t this really the point of hospital food — to encourage health? So shouldn’t we study whether we are achieving these goals?

We also would be interested in seeing how procurement splits between the commercial foodservice elements of a hospital — say the cafeterias and coffee bars that sell food — versus the food given to the patient population.

This discussion raises many of the questions we had regarding the UC Davis program, which also emphasized local. We dealt with these questions in a series of pieces including these:

Are Critics Of Local Programs Devoid Of Taste Buds?

Pundit Mailbag — Where Does ‘Affordability’ Fit Into UC Davis’ Local Decision?

Pundit Mailbag — Taste Trumps Over ‘Local’

Dissecting The Meaning Of Local, Sustainable And Flavorful

Reality Check For Locally Grown Advocates: Economics Don’t Measure Up

Everyone Is In Favor of Better Flavor But Is ‘Local’ A Solution Or An Ideology?

Tom Reardon of Michigan State University Speaks Out: Wither Local?

The jist of our argument, of course, is that it makes sense to target various attributes in line with a purchaser’s values and desires, such as to decide to buy food that is, say, better-tasting, more nutritious, less expensive, with a lower carbon footprint, etc. But deciding to buy local isn’t even a rough approximation for most of these values.

It is not surprising to us that a hospital outsourcing its foodservice would be quicker to adopt a Farm-to-Hospital program than one that does not. A hospital that contracts just adds a specification to a contract; it is the contractors’ job to work hard and make it happen. And the higher price tends to get lost in the mix, as opposed to overtly and directly buying higher priced items when one knows a less expensive option is available.

It will be interesting to see if publicly owned hospitals procure differently than privately held. Perhaps the public ones need to curry favor with rural legislators and do so by publicly identifying with buying their product.

One other point for future study: What audits are done of the distributors to make sure the “local” product actually is local? Maybe the foodservice directors aren’t getting what they think they are?

Health care is a booming consumption sector with an aging population expecting to cause growth far into the future. Turning hospitals into models for good eating behavior sounds like a worthy goal, but should the focus be on local? We have no evidence that the locally grown produce served in hospitals is distinguishable in nutrition content over produce grown 50 miles further away or, for that matter, 500 miles or 5,000 miles further away, and one of the national priorities is reducing health care costs, so how can we justify spending more money to buy local if that doesn’t improve health outcomes?

We can’t wait to hear from the case studies Professor Gómez and his fellow researchers have conducted.

You too can learn about this potentially explosive market opportunity by registering to attend The New York Produce Show and Conference right here.

Bring your spouse to our spouse/companion program here

Sign up for the Global Trade Symposium right here.

And the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum right here.

And there is an assortment of regional tours; let us know your interest here.

Looking forward to hearing Professor Gómez in New York City.




At the 'Ideation Fresh' Foodservice Forum Of The New York Produce Show And Conference:
As 400-store Taco John’s Heads East With Its First Restaurant On Long Island, Chef Bob Karisny Talks Bluntly About The Challenges And Opportunities For Produce In High Volume Foodservice

Bob Karisny has a reputation as a top chef, but he innovated greatly at Boston Market, and, now, working for Taco John’s, he remains in a position to directly influence the way many people eat and to set an example that others in the mass market foodservice arena will pay attention. So we were thrilled when he agreed to join us at the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference.

He will be participating in a panel discussion focused on how the creative use of produce can add to the operator’s bottom line, and he will also do a demo to provide an example of the kind of cuisine that is interesting, profitable and rich in fruits and vegetables.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get a broader sense of the man and to help us gain insight into what he will talk about in New York:

Chef Bob Karisny
Vice President for Menu Strategy and Innovation
Taco John’s
Cheyenne, Wyoming

Q: With more than 400 locations spread throughout Wyoming and 24 other states, Taco John’s reaches a huge customer base. As Vice President for Menu Strategy and Innovation at Taco John’s, could you start by describing the scope of your job?

A: What it really entails is the menu item development portion, but more importantly it is about identifying who the target guests are; what are some of the competitive issues that we have to take into account; the restaurant environment considerations; consumer behaviors — all those things that added together create a clearer target for the direction of the menu.  

And these days we’re seeing the need to do that at a faster and faster speed because the consumer has so much variety and distractions. You have to be a lot more aware and a lot more current to keep connected, especially to the younger millennium-type consumers. And even with the lifestyle changes, because with baby boomers, those behaviors are very significant.  Then, we’re looking at a 45-year-old company. How do we take the leadership position that we’ve always had and move it into today and create value as well as we did 45 years ago?  

Q: Sounds challenging. What role does produce play in your strategy?

A: It certainly is challenging. Mexican cuisine is a very produce-intensive cuisine, between salsas and the various produce ingredients used in menu items. You think about the hot and cold aspect of Mexican foods, where fresh produce is more of a cooler, refreshing aspect complementing the hot tortilla or meat. As far as cuisines that are out there, it’s really one that’s strong in produce, whether cooked, raw or manufactured into things.

Often we eat the cuisines of an area that are not cuisines of the very wealthy, but of the common people, and proteins are expensive to anybody, not just common people. So there are a lot of different ways of building foods, incorporating produce items and ingredients, like beans, much more extensively than in those expensive cuisines.

Q: If your intriguing consumer video tutorial on the wonderful world of chile peppers is any indication, you’re capitalizing on the numerous varieties of heat and flavor profiles…

A: As we go forward and look from a strategy standpoint, we do know that the new consumer who is coming is much more connected with produce being a representation of fresh, healthy food. Produce also is much more in line with the lifestyles that many consumers now pursue.

Q: How do you develop menu items? Could you describe the research and development process?

A: Process is pretty extensive. We really start with the overall promotional calendar strategy, and that really is done well ahead of time. Any sort of strategy and product innovation is done well ahead of the curve, so we’ll be two years out just for the promotional calendar. We look at each promotional window and identify a variety of different strategic needs that have to be met or given consideration in order to build the menu items for that window.

Q: Doesn’t that require much foresight and some risk taking as well…

A: Yes. We’re looking at a particular window, a point of time on a calendar, and assessing consumer behaviors. What is their discretionary spending at that time of year, what personal needs do they have, what family needs do they have? Is it in the fall, so it’s back to school time, people are very busy, on the road, but also have greater expenditure getting everyone geared up and ready for school? Does that mean they have less discretionary income?

What is the competition doing? We always have to take our restaurant environment into consideration. Is it the time of the year where we’re changing staff, are we light on staff, what’s the process flow?

Restaurants are a processing facility taking raw materials and turning them into finished material. We have a variety of tools and equipment that help us do that. There will be times when a piece of equipment, like a fryer, is being used more extensively than another time, and we may not want to create a menu item that relies on that piece of equipment because it’s getting worked hard already.

Q: That fryer will always be in play for the chain’s signature Potato Olés, a customer favorite, yet not one of your healthier, low calorie produce items... Tell us more about how produce fits into the menu…

A: You think of fresh salsas like pico de gallo, then more finished salsas, using tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers… There’s always produce being used in different ways, both fresh and prepared. Obviously there’s a lot of lettuce in the menu items. There’s a fresher, crunchy aspect to a lot of Mexican food items.

It’s hard to give an example focused on fresh produce, because produce is an extension of the whole Mexican food concept. Every time we’re looking at something new, we incorporate produce. Will we be putting in fresh tomatoes or pico de gallo, adding fresh limes, or jalapeños, raw and pickled? Do we look beyond lettuce to cabbage to give us that crunch and fresh flavor? At Taco John’s, there is fresh produce involved, but a lot of it is in salsas and prepared items like that.

Q: Do you face limitations on the kinds of fresh produce items you can use based on the chain’s size and infrastructure? Do you have to maintain a consistent menu across the chain, or can it be customized based on the location?

A: We’re very consistent in what our menu execution is. Right now, we’re pretty focused in the upper Midwest with restaurants, so we don’t really have a lot of regional needs, but as we move forward, we have an aggressive growth strategy ahead of us. As we move into different parts of the country, we realize we may need to nuance some regional tastes and wants.

Q: What overall trends are you seeing?

A: There is so much variety out there. I was just at a webinar discussing young people, 18 to 24-year-old millennials. Their decision-making process at the moment is, what am I in the mood for today, am I feeling healthy, indulgent… the trend is really toward freshness, and produce is a big part of it. We’re doing some work on street tacos now, and when fresh lettuce, fresh pico de gallo and a fresh wedge of lime are on the menu item, there’s a lot of credit toward healthy, toward fresh, and toward quality.

Fresh produce is an indicator to consumers, both young and old, of those three aspects. Produce is a trend that has been going on for a long time. For how it spells out health, that perception changes with the customer base — is it about protein, about calories, or nutrients… It really depends on the time and the consumer, and sometimes what are the most popular health trends out there. I think it’s more driven by word-of-mouth than by media. That’s really the truth in many consumers’ minds.

Q: How does menu development for a chain like Taco John’s compare to developing a menu for a smaller restaurant?

A: It’s about supply and consistency of supply. It’s also about having 400 units versus 4.  Probably with 4 units, I could do a lot more preparation in the unit, because I could be more selective on who is working in that restaurant. With 400 units, I certainly have a much greater diversity in the level of talent that is in the restaurants. I have to look at items that are more prepared coming through the back door.

We talk a lot about what we can do here at the support center, corporate and R&D. The more we can help the restaurants at the back door with things coming in that are consistent, that may be already prepared and take less of their time, allow us to consistently create quality goods. The more we can help them at the back door, that’s even more time we can give them at the front door.  

Q: Can you talk more about the supply side, and the logistical operation?

A: We really work with the distributors. We let our vendor teammates take care of the farm end of what we do, and we’re focusing on specifying how they process and deliver the ingredients to us.

Q: Could you give produce industry executives on the supply side some advice on things that would help you in doing your job?

A: The key thing about produce is it’s perishable. From the supply side, it’s all about speed. How quickly can it come from the processor to my restaurant that gives me the optimal shelf life that I can handle?

The reality often is, and it may not seem fair from the produce supply end, that we’re all looking to manage costs in any way we can. So our deliveries from our distribution centers may only be once a week, which is really challenging when you’re having produce that is anywhere from 10 to 14 days of shelf life. A once-a-week delivery requires at least 10 days-worth of shelf life. That’s a very tight window. 

It’s easier to say, just take two deliveries per week, but financially that’s a big hit for us. We’re going to be charged more because it costs more for the distributor to put that truck on the road. And everything associated with that. What could be done best, not only get us great fresh produce in a very effective manner so quality and shelf life and all the characteristics meet our specs, but also look at movement.

Produce has always been a just-in-time business. And that’s tough because suppliers are not waiting by their machinery for me to call them and say we want 1,000 pounds of lettuce now; they’re doing projections.

Working as a team, we’re trying to figure out how to create the optimum situation.

Q: Have you come up with any new ideas?

A: We currently are working with a more national point of distribution for produce, and we’re looking to go to a more regional type setup, so we can be closer to the source, and get product to restaurants faster to optimize shelf life.

Q: Does that present other challenges?

A:  If we increase distributors and have multiple trucks coming to the back door, we have more interruptions at the restaurant. And we essentially have more costs with more trucks on the road. You have another hand in there that can create a lag in the process. So it’s really working out the logistical challenges.

Q: What about the product selection itself? Do you face challenges on the varieties of produce you can introduce to your menu because of the logistics and your high volume demands and uniformity standards?

A: I know these produce guys are extremely flexible in what they do with pack sizes and blends, but even then there are times when it becomes difficult for us to purchase things in the pack sizes offered, or we may want different blends. Even at 400 restaurants, we may not have enough volume to make it valuable for us to run it through the processor.

We don’t want to go through the long development time line only to find out we have to buy quantities we can’t justify from a shelf life standpoint. It takes us out of new opportunities, and we tend to go back to what we know can create value.

For example, we use shredded lettuce on tacos. If I wanted cabbage on fish tacos, it is too difficult to do right now for the season. We would have to buy in pack sizes that may not accommodate enough shelf life or in a case size too big for the restaurant to use. So, I’ll avoid those things even though I’d love to be doing something like that.  We have to work in practical terms.

Q: Who do you see as your competition in the market? How do you strive to differentiate yourself?

A: Other quick service Mexican restaurants have similarities to us, so are more direct competitors. But especially with younger consumers, they have so much variety available to them, and it’s an eating occasion for them. It’s not a Mexican eating occasion; it’s not a burger eating occasion or an Italian one, so we see everyone as our competition.

From a competition standpoint, we’re a differentiator in a couple of ways. First, we talk about what the consumer tells us: we’re real. In terms of the food, fresh produce is a big part of being real, but also our service, with our restaurant franchisees being members of their communities.

We also are identified by doing work with the consumer, a condition of being unapologetically original. Again we’re 45-years-old. We were delivering fast, convenient, affordable full flavored food in Wyoming — in places you wouldn’t expect to see Mexican food and especially Mexican fast food. We went into those markets to where Mexican food wasn’t as familiar. We became the agitators in that sense.

We also do things a little differently. We have boneless chicken wings. Our Number One identifying menu item is Potato Olé, which is a shredded potato round with a really great seasoning on it that consumers just crave. Potato Olé is not particularly associated with Mexican food. But it is a major part of our Mexican food. That’s where the unapologetic reputation comes in. We’re not going to say sorry we have potatoes in our Mexican food.

People will talk about the flavor, the seasoning level of our taco meat. We still prepare all our tortilla shells and chips in our restaurants.

Q: Is that homemade aspect of preparing the tortillas fresh in the restaurant one of the appeals in the quick serve world? In some ways, this is counter to your efforts to bring in as much pre-cut, ready-to-go produce items through the back door…

A: Consumers might not describe things in those terms; they’ll just say it’s better. I talk to them about produce, and they don’t care if the fresh produce is cut in our restaurants or back door ready-prepared. They want to see the fresh produce on the finished items and have confidence that the care and quality went into it. They know we’re a quick service restaurant and they’re good with that.

Q: For attendees at The New York Produce Show and Conference who want to get a taste of Taco John’s, how far do they have to travel? With your expansion plans, where are you headed?

A: We just opened our first restaurant in Long Island! We don’t have anything else in the northeast.

Q: How did the Long Island location come about?

A: Our new president and CEO worked for Arby’s for a long time. The gentleman who opened the Taco John’s unit in Long island is sharing a dual building with Arby’s, but the operations are separate. It’s only been up and running for three or four weeks. I’m going there on that Friday after the New York Produce Show and "Ideation Fresh" Foodservice Forum.

Q: It will be interesting to see how things unfold in a completely new and untapped market…

A: It will be. There isn’t a familiarity with our brand. Our Number One identifying menu concept Potato Olé had no meaning to consumers. We believe if consumers taste them they’ll really like them. However, till that happens, the product is not a particular attraction. So how do we attract those guests as we expand into other parts of the country?    

Q: When you go home at night, what do you like to cook for yourself?

A: I’m a chef by training. I’m a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America. Food is my passion, much more than just my job. Food is what I play with at home, and my friends are food people. It’s always interesting for me to study and watch what other people are doing, and sometimes frustrating because the one thing that no one has figured out is the consumer. 

I can take my passion for food and create something that also fits a consumer’s lifestyle and personality. Food is becoming connected to a lot of people’s personalities, and the restaurants and foods they associate themselves with become part of their identity. The foods you eat become how people look at you from a personal standpoint.

Q: That’s fascinating to think of food in that way. Do your food preferences help define you?

A: I belong to a foodie kind of group, so we do different creations. When I’m on my own at home, I experiment.  On Halloween, I made pumpkin and mushroom enchiladas with roasted chile cream sauce, and I also made a chile rojo.

To be honest, lately I’ve been eating leftovers; the chile rojo, maybe prepare it a little different, heat it up, maybe crack an egg on top one day, then try something a little bit different, roast some chips. My days are long, so usually I’ll prepare something quick. Maybe on a Sunday I’ll cook a side of salmon, have a nice hot piece that day and use it in different ways later in the week, something that I can put together quick but is fresh. I’ll make some great salads. I go to the farmer’s market, grab a bunch of things and create from there.

Q: And then you translate that inspiration back to your menu development at Taco John’s?

A: Exactly. Everything is a learning experience. I can sit in one of the greatest restaurants there is and see something that has potential, and seek ways to translate an aspect of that. It could be a flavor or a look to bring to quick service. It’s really putting those things together. Ethnic food has an authenticity that has kind of blended with an anxious creativeness.  That’s where you get things like Kogi, taking the authenticity of Korean cuisine blended with the Hispanic market place. You have this cool creative clash. 

That’s what my demo at the "Ideation Fresh" Foodservice Forum is going to be. I’m planning on using a Philippine pork belly item but preparing it in a tostada, doing it in a different manner. Of course, in line with the whole food concept, you can count on there being lots of produce. We have that in certain cuisine platforms. Mexican food is an open platform so it lends itself to blending and endless opportunity to be creative. 

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Chef Karisny is a pro. So many chefs do interesting and fun things with one white table cloth restaurant where money is no object and the staff is hand-chosen, but Chef Karisny gives us insight into real-world issues for the commercial produce industry to confront. Some examples:

Process is pretty extensive. We start with the overall promotional calendar strategy, and that really is done well ahead of time. Any sort of strategy and product innovation is done well ahead of the curve, so we’ll be two years out just for the promotional calendar. 

Right out of the gate, a problem surfaces in trying to boost usage in foodservice and consumption by restaurant patrons: How many produce companies have even one employee focused on doing things that might pay off in two or three years? Yet that is what it takes. No wonder the joint initiative of PMA/NRA/IFDA to double produce usage in foodservice, which we discussed here, here, hereand here. Also articles from our sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS: Plating Produce Front And Center and Five New Priorities For Increased Foodservice Sales.

Restaurants are a processing facility taking raw materials and turning them into finished material. We have a variety of tools and equipment that help us do that. There will be times when a piece of equipment, like a fryer, is being used more extensively than another time, and we may not want to create a menu item that relies on that piece of equipment because it’s getting worked hard already.

Once again, how many produce companies are capable of analyzing things like this and specifically developing products around equipment availability and utilization?

We’re doing some work on street tacos now, and when fresh lettuce, fresh pico de gallo and a fresh wedge of lime are on the menu item, there’s a lot of credit toward healthy, toward fresh, and toward quality.

Fresh produce is an indicator to consumers, both young and old, of those three aspects. Produce is a trend that has been going on for a long time. For how it spells out health, that perception changes with the customer base — is it about protein, about calories, or nutrients? It really depends on the time and the consumer, and sometimes what are the most popular health trends out there.  I think it’s more driven by word-of-mouth than by media. That’s really the truth in many consumers’ minds.

This seems like a very big positive for fresh produce, that beyond its utility as an ingredient it serves a unique functioning as a signaling mechanism, an “indicator” that the food is healthy and fresh – precisely because it is rich in fruits and vegetables.

But we wonder if adding a caveat is not wise. Rich in quality, tasty… produce in good condition can signal good things. Poor quality produce may send another signal entirely.

The reality often is, and it may not seem fair from the produce supply end, that we’re all looking to manage costs in any way we can. So our deliveries from our distribution centers may only be once a week, which is really challenging when you’re having produce that is anywhere from 10 to 14 days of shelf life. A once-a-week delivery requires at least 10 days-worth of shelf life. That’s a very tight window. 

It’s easier to say, just take two deliveries per week, but financially that’s a big hit for us. We’re going to be charged more because it costs more for the distributor to put that truck on the road. And everything associated with that. What could be done best, not only get us great fresh produce in a very effective manner so quality and shelf life and all the characteristics meet our specs, but also look at movement.

This is a good reminder that simply having good produce is not enough. Even offering it at a good price is not enough. There has to be a mechanism for getting where it needs to be, when it needs to be there and all at an acceptable price.

In this area, fresh produce really presents challenges. It is easy to say that produce is cheaper than protein, but if the issue is fresh produce against, say, dry pasta, the costs of distribution one –non-refrigerated, non-perishable -- against fresh produce puts a twist on what seemed like a no-brainer.

We don’t want to go through the long development time line only to find out we have to buy quantities we can’t justify from a shelf life standpoint. It takes us out of new opportunities, and we tend to go back to what we know can create value.

For example, we use shredded lettuce on tacos. If I wanted cabbage on fish tacos, it is too difficult to do right now for the season. We would have to buy in pack sizes that may not accommodate enough shelf life or in a case size too big for the restaurant to use. So, I’ll avoid those things even though I’d love to be doing something like that.  We have to work in practical terms.

Which means the produce industry has to work in practical terms, too. What procedures, what innovations, will let a chain such as Taco John’s offer more diverse produce that might actually drive consumption?

The panel Chef Karisny is on in New York also includes such industry luminaries as:

Bob Okura, vice president culinary development/corporate executive chef at the Cheesecake Factory

David Groll, director of culinary development/corporate executive chef of McAlister’s Deli

Tony Reynolds, managing director of Reynolds Catering in the United Kingdom

Rich Dachman, vice president of produce for Sysco Corporation

And the panel is moderated by Caroline Perkins, president of Foodservice Insights.  We are going to put the substantial brainpower represented by this group and apply it to the problem so that we can find ways of boosting usage in foodservice and consumption by foodservice patrons.

Come and be part of the discussion.

Register for an all access pass to The New York Produce Show and Conference, and that includes access to the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum.

You can book hotels at our headquarters hotel where the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum takes place right here.

Bring your spouse along and sign up for the Spouse/Companion Program by letting us know your interest here.

And remember, the whole event kicks off with the Global Trade Symposium and the Opening Cocktail Reception. Get more information here.

Come and let us make progress together at building produce consumption in foodservice. 




Seeing The Future Of Wholesale Markets:
The Philadelphia Story
A Regional Tour Of The New York Produce Show And Conference

It would be shame and, quite possibly, a sin to gather from people from every continent, save Antarctica, who are passionate about produce and keep them all in a convention hall or hotel the whole time.

As such, from the very beginning of The New York Produce Show and Conference, we have closed the event with a series of regional tours. One of the perennial favorites is the tour down to the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, where we have watch this market, the most modern in America, grow and mature — a process we have profiled in a series of pieces:

Tour To New Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market Offers A Glimpse Into The Future Of Produce Wholesaling In America

Not Your Father’s Wholesale Market…The New Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market Wants The World To Know….'We Are Open For Business!'

Get An Inside Look At The New Philadelphia Produce Wholesale Market By Taking A Tour During The New York Produce Show And Conference

We asked Pundit Contributing Editor Keith Loria to find out what is in store for us on the Philadelphia Market this year:

John Vena
President
John Vena, Inc.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Q: Last year the market was abuzz about the Philadelphia Eagles doing somewhat well, but this year the team has exploded to tops in the division with a 6-2 record. How much talk has been going on in the market about the team this year?

A: There is always a lot of talk about our Philadelphia sports teams on the Market, whether winning or losing. This year the talk is pretty hopeful.

Q: What are the biggest produce-related issues being talked about this year?

A: Mostly our merchants have been talking very positively about the economy and their expected results for the year. We have discussed the food safety management Act (FSMA), and we don’t really know what to expect there. Most recently, there is more and more talk about rising prices due to the water shortages out west.

Q: With the market continuing to grow, has anything new popped up since last year to pique the interest of attendees of The New York Produce Show and Conference who may be coming by for a tour?

A: Well if you haven’t visited our Market and you are in New York, our facility is a “must see.” The market opened in 2011 and is the newest major wholesale market in America, it embodies a unique design philosophy fully conscious of modern cold chain and quality control requirements. In addition, we have a couple of new companies on the Market and several of us have taken additional space. So what you can see is state-of-the-art and growth.

Q: What is the philosophy of the market and how do you ensure that the companies adhere to it?

A: Our success has been based on our ability to truly act as a “collective” for the good of our Merchants and our customers. Our ability to do this really became evident over 13 years ago when we began the planning for our new Market. We were able to come together and work for the greater good.  This kind of thinking has prevailed, and even though we may disagree on many things, we have succeeded in this area.

Q: What would you cite as some of the biggest accomplishments of the market over the past 12 months?

A: Considering that many predicted we wouldn’t survive the overhead costs of our facility, and that we are thriving after three years, has been satisfying. In addition, we’ve had another new business join us and several have taken additional space. We have also developed and expanded our direct trade to Puerto Rico.

Q: What was the genesis behind this program?

A: This was really driven by a change in departure port by Horizon Lines. Our landlord, The Pennsylvania Regional Port Authority, spent many years promoting the advantages for steamship lines found in Philadelphia.

Q: Who is involved on the receiving end in Puerto Rico? 

A: Fresh produce is being shipped to the top 4 or 5 retail chains and some foodservice distributors on the island.

Q: How is produce shipped there?

A:100 percent of the product is shipped by container via steamship.

Q: What have you noticed with your customer base? Has it changed at all? Is there a noticeable expansion in the range of customers, the number of customers, or the amount of business with established customers?

A: Certainly we have seen an expansion of our customer base, particularly among the ethnic communities in the region. Smaller, independent retailers seem to be growing both in number and size. In addition, we have some increase in activity from the larger regional buyers in both retail and wholesale.

Q: What would someone coming to the market for the first time learn?

A: That the concept of a lively, competitive “marketplace” is absolutely alive and well in Philadelphia.

Q: Where do you see the most buyer attrition and why?

A: Over the years, we saw a drop in street corner vendors and Mom and Pop stores, and that seems to be driven by the small amounts of fresh produce that business like that can actually move nowadays. However, there are signs that this may be changing in many urban neighborhoods.

Q: A challenge for any place is attracting new customers. What have you seen be effective in bringing people to the market?

A: The most effective strategies we have employed seem to be those of a “networking” nature, affiliations with regional trade associations like Eastern Produce Council, The Port Authority of Pennsylvania and The Chilean American Chamber Of Commerce based in Philadelphia.

We also maintain close ties to PMA and United Fresh. In fact, all these groups now regularly schedule events on site in our Market. These events have brought hundreds of industry people to see our Market and what we are capable of achieving. And we see real opportunity participating in regional events such as The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Q: Attendees to The New York Produce Show and Conference will include a number of chain buyers. Make a pitch to them about the market’s significance?

A: We have created the “Future of Fresh” and really showcase what can be done in a real “public-private” partnership. We have a vibrant, highly competitive “marketplace” where buyers of all sizes can benefit from a range of varieties, brands, services (including pre-conditioning and ripening to order) and with the added bonus of being able to select exactly what goes on your truck. 

We operate in a cold-chain-protected environment that promotes product shelf life and safety. In addition, we have effectively maintained business growth, job growth and development in arguably the worst economy in decades. Keep in mind that no other “Market” like this one exists on the planet.

Q: What kinds of reactions did you receive from New York Produce Show attendees on last year’s tour?  

A: First-time visitors always have the same reaction, comments like “awesome,” “wow,” “how did you get this done?” etc., are commonplace.

Q: What are some of the latest marketing initiatives to get the word out?

A: We will continue to promote ourselves in an “institutional” sort of way. Our Marketplace and our merchant mix are our strongest points. We are in this for the long term, so we plan to continue to work on relationships.

Q: What opportunities for growth still exist?

A: There are a surprising number of second-, third- and fourth-generation folks among our merchants. We have seen growth in the past three years, but for sure new technologies will create new, unknown opportunities. We are counting on our experienced leaders and this new blood to meet these changes and turn them to our advantage.

Q: What is it that you love about this market?

A: The best thing about our Market is the sense of accomplishment it has engendered among our merchants. It is empowering and energizing. We are well located and well positioned for the future! 

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If you haven’t seen the new market, you really should, regardless of what industry sector you work in. It is a cutting edge approach to a very old industry.

If you are already registered for the New York Produce Show but would like to add the Philly tour to your registration, please let us know here.

If you are interested in information on all of the tours -- retail, wholesale and urban agriculture -- please let us know here.

You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference here.

Get hotels here.

Get information on the Spouse/Companion Program right here.

For those traveling from far and wide, we offer a special shuttle service from the Philadelphia Market to the Philadelphia airport if you want to fly home from Philly, or the bus will take you right back to the Hilton in New York.

See you in New York… and Philadelphia!




Riding The Vegan Wave: ‘Spork’ Sisters Jenny Engel And Heather Goldberg Bring Vegan Cooking Ideas To The New York Produce Show And Conference

How ought the produce industry address Veganism? For the most part, mainstream produce promotional groups and companies have shied away from addressing this segment.

Quite reasonably they don’t want their organizations or products to be marginalized or perceived as fringe or irrelevant. Yet it is a significant mindshift when you have people such as President Bill Clinton declaring himself a Vegan. Yet it is also true that his own doctor, Mark Hyman, has advised President Clinton to occasionally eat some fish and lean protein.

Still, it is a trend that is worth watching, and so we were pleased to accept the “Spork” sisters to come and do a vegan demo on the main floor Celebrity Chef Stage at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more about these two Vegan superstars:

Chefs Jenny Engel and Heather Goldberg
Spork Foods
West Hollywood, California

Q: Tell us about your vivacious sisterly collaboration with Spork Foods. How long has this gourmet vegan food venture been in the making? Have you always been passionate “partners in crime”?

A: Heather: We were raised by an entrepreneur. Our self-made Dad came from nothing and worked his way up. We were always taught to work really hard, and weren’t handed anything either. He lived in Brooklyn and built himself up, and he wanted to instill that perseverance in us to make a beautiful life for ourselves.

We always wanted to have a sister business. We admired our Grandma and her twin, who would hang out and have lunch together every day, so we wanted to do the same thing.

Q: How have your like-minded philosophies and compatible educational paths and skill-sets helped push you forward to realize your vision? Jenny, you trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Culinary Arts in New York City, and attended UC Santa Cruz, where you earned a BA in Environmental Studies. Heather, you have a decade of experience in the environmental non-profit world and study of food history and medicinal benefits of food. And you both embrace veganism…

A: Jenny: The way our business format took shape is that we wanted to inspire and educate people on how to make vegan recipes in their own home kitchens. If you go to a restaurant and are provided with the food, you don’t necessarily understand what it takes or what kind of energy, love and attention is going into making that food on your plate. So we wanted to open up classes to educate people on how to feed their families and their friends in a healthy way and make sure first and foremost that the food tastes very good.

A: Heather: Our goal is really to empower people to take their health into their own hands. When you eat vegan, you definitely make a positive effect on the environment, and you’re also leading an animal cruelty-free life. Those three pieces are essential to who we are and what we do.

So we started this business eight years ago this January. It started slowly. We’re very careful entrepreneurs. It’s scary to start a business, but the fact that we have each other, rely on each other and possess different skills that we’ve shared with each other has helped us grow.

At the current time, we’re teaching about 10,000 people a year, not only in our school in West Hollywood, but also around the world training chefs. We go to universities, resorts, hotels, and health care companies like Anthem Blue Cross. And we teach home cooks how to cook vegan. So our business has expanded over these eight years to reach a wider audience.

A: Jenny: For example, UCLA hired us to introduce 13 new dishes to about 30 of their chefs, and we did an all vegan dinner for 1,500 people a couple of months ago. It went so well that they kept all of our dishes on the menu at one of the restaurants there. Along those lines, we just introduced a menu at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. We trained the chefs, and now our selective dishes are on the menus at the hotel.

Q: Is produce at the heart of your mission? What are your favorite produce items, and why?

A: Jenny: Our business is based off of produce. It’s the most important part of our business. We use produce in a vast number of ways. Almost everything we use is a vegetable in some form or another. Being from California, we do love avocados, but we’re always experimenting. When I went to the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Culinary Arts in New York City, the Green Market was really incredible, and I got to try all kinds of produce, such as fiddlehead ferns when in season and amazing things like that. Picking one kind of produce as our favorite is like having to choose which one of your children is your favorite! It’s too hard to choose. It’s an impossible decision to make.

A: Heather: We’re teaching people to cook, but we’re also teaching about the medicinal qualities of food. For instance, cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable with sulfur compounds, which are known to help treat some forms of cancer, particularly ovarian cancer. Within each little bit of produce we talk about, we fall in love with all the different elements and all the beautiful benefits.

We’re also fascinated how produce gets around; the fact that potatoes are from South America and have been transplanted all over the world; how coconuts get to different shores. They fall off the palm trees and roll into the ocean, flow through the currents to different islands…These kinds of things are completely interesting to us and to our students as well. These aren’t things we learned in school.

Q: Jenny, you’ve stated that vegan cuisine is maturing and that you want to teach it to walk in high heels… Can you elaborate?

A: Jenny: What happened is a lot of people thought vegan was bland and boring. It had a stigma of macrobiotics cooks in the United States with a diet of brown rice and tofu.

What we’re doing with our classes is to show how sophisticated and gourmet and approachable vegan cuisine can be. So we take any kind of produce and we highlight it in dishes that people can easily replicate at home. They can get excited about eating fruits and vegetables and incorporating natural foods into their diets but not feel they are on a diet or sacrificing.

Q: Heather, you’ve delved into food history and the medicinal benefits of food. Could you discuss more about what you’ve learned? How do you integrate these lessons into your cuisine and company strategies?

A: Heather: Sure, absolutely. For us, most of our clients are not vegan or vegetarian. That said, we make it very positive. We don’t talk about what’s wrong with this or what’s wrong with that. We’re presenting produce in a beautiful light and people can take what they want from that. That’s our approach.

Q: Your online cookbook segments are incredibly amusing and engaging…

A: Heather: Part of that approach is putting on a real show. You don’t just come to our cooking class and sit around, where we stir things in a bowl and it magically comes out. We want to provide a well-rounded education, but it’s also very entertaining. It’s somewhat of a performance. I was a musician in my past life, which is 10 years ago or so, and my sister and I have worked in front of a crowd for many years. We’re constantly honing our performance and trying to get better.

A: Jenny: For instance, if we’re making cashew cheese, we’ll actually take cashew apple from our freezer. The cashew seed comes from the cashew apple, a fruit native to Brazil, and that’s why we never see cashew apples here. We talk about how it’s a relative of poison oak or poison ivy, so it takes a human being heating it up in the right way, putting gloves on and extracting the cashew seed, a laborious process. We explain that it’s technically a seed not a nut, although it’s called a nut in our culture, and there’s only one seed per apple. Just that whole experience is showing people why nuts are so expensive.

We integrate these fascinating facts to give people a new appreciation of the ingredients they see at the store and they have at their house. It helps them understand in a more well-rounded way what they are eating and where it comes from. A lot of people know about eating their protein and their carbs, but don’t understand that eating produce has so much to do with getting a wide array of vitamins and minerals in their diets. We discuss why it’s important to eat a lot of different produce colors, to provide different nutrients in the body.

It’s more than just a cooking class. We owe it to our world to know exactly what we’re eating and how it’s dealt with by people.

Q: Do you connect back with the growers and supply side of the business?

A: Heather: People who grow the produce understand how the crops need to be treated, the different climates, and nutrients that need to be in the soil to yield a good crop. In some ways, we serve as intermediaries, teaching people how to appreciate produce and ways to make it taste good.

And for other uses as well. For instance, pistachio shells can be recycled and used as a fire starter for kindling, or can line the bottoms of pots containing house plants. So we teach ways to benefit from produce, not only for the body, but in housewares, and in many other ways that we like to get into in our classes.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions about eating vegan?

A: Jenny: People think that if you eat this way, you won’t get enough protein. Most Americans get double the amount of protein they need each day, which actually has a detrimental affect to a lot of functions in the body. When you eat a balanced diet and you’re consuming natural fruits and vegetables and whole grains and seeds, you can get enough protein and nutrients. It’s very easy to do. Heather, can you think of other misconceptions?

A: Heather: I think 10 years ago the perception was that vegan was boring and bland as we discussed earlier, but that’s changed. Most people have had some kind of vegan meal, I would hope, where that’s proven wrong. I think in the last 5 to 10 years, vegan cuisine has gone from the cuisine people shy away from to even if you’re a meat eater, going out for vegan cuisine is like gong out for another genre — do you want Italian, do you want Mexican, do you want Vegan. We’ve seen it growing and growing and growing.

Q: What do you think of the raw foods movement?

A: Jenny: With regards to the raw foods movement, we definitely believe in incorporating raw foods into your diet. As far as being completely raw, it’s not for us. It’s not what we want to do personally. But there are reasons why some people want to eat raw foods, and we support that wholeheartedly.

A: Heather: When you look at the cold climates and you want to be nourished and comforted in the dead of winter, you might not necessarily be nourished with just raw foods. But you have to look at your own body and the climate you live in, and the value to you. It’s particular to the individual, and we encourage people to listen to their bodies. If someone has a stomach ache, figure out where it’s coming from, and don’t just take a pill.

Q: Could you talk about organic versus conventional produce?

A: Heather: we understand there is a huge pressure for produce growers to provide enough crops to feed massive populations with limited amounts of space. Growing organic has its limitations and isn’t always the easiest way to accomplish that. We like to focus on particular produce items, where we think it’s important. For instance, onions produce a lot of sulfur compounds naturally. That’s why when you cut open an onion you cry. Therefore, onions don’t need to be sprayed with the kinds of pesticides berries do.

In our own lives we prioritize eating organic, but we understand the challenges. Whether it’s organic or not, it’s important to educate consumers and it’s a good conversation to have. We always talk to farmers to find out what their practices are, whether organic or not.

Q: In your business, could you share any stories where your work has had a transformative impact on people’s lives?

A: Jenny: We’re constantly surprised and amazed by our students. A few months go by and they’ll come back to share with us how they lost weight, or decreased medications or they just have a glow in their face because they’ve made a lifestyle change and feel better because of our classes. One student reversed his diabetes through diet. He felt empowered, and then he went on to teach his friends and family.

A: Heather: We’re inspired by individuals making a change within their own body, becoming healthier, and preventing illness. At the core of what we do is helping to prevent pain, not only in humans but in animals as well. There are a lot of things going on in this world that make us sad. You actually make a choice three times a day. You eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you’re making a huge impact on your body and on the planet with every bite you take.

A: Jenny: Of course we encourage people to see their doctors. We can’t give medical advice. And it’s tricky to pinpoint the source of ailments, but we try to steer people in the right direction.

On a personal level, my sister and I find ourselves doing these crazy things like cooking in a celebrity mansion for the afternoon ---it could be for a famous actor, a huge pop star or professional athlete, and we are so appreciative, and just start laughing and having a great time with it.

People are more willing to give vegan a try now, more than ever before because there are all these options. Bill Clinton going vegan to reverse his health issues had a big influence. Beyonce doing vegan cleanses opens people up to the idea of going vegan so it’s not so scary.

Q: Do you have any children’s programs to channel healthy eating behaviors early on, before bad habits take over?

A: Jenny: We do educate a lot of parents who have young kids. It’s up to parents to get their kids comfortable in the kitchen. What’s happened is that so many parents are working that they go to convenience foods to feed their families, and there’s been a gap in education on how to cook and the fundamentals of cooking in a nutritious way. We have a lot of new moms come to us. We would love to do more.

A: Heather: We recently dropped off vegan meals for about 100 children at the Covenant House, a homeless shelter, and we are committed to charitable causes. We go to communities without access to as much fresh produce and high quality ingredients. We’ve done cooking demos, for example, in libraries of low income communities to help educate parents on how to feed their children. This topic is deeply political and very complex and not easy to discuss in a brief way. There are government programs, and subsidies that encourage certain ways of eating, and a lot of money goes into lobbying, adding to the challenges.

A: Jenny: We’re so excited about the opportunity to participate in the New York Produce Show and connect with people who have a similar mission to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables for a healthier world. 

******

You have to love people with such passion — especially when they are talking about your own products! Still you have to be careful. For example, we love cauliflower, and there are even some studies indicating that higher consumption of cruciferous vegetables could be associated with lowered risk of certain types of cancer. There are none that indicate that eating cruciferous vegetables is helpful in treating cancer.

Equally what specific pesticides certain items need and in what amounts is very complicated and not really amenable to simple rules for consumers.

The dedication to teaching people how to cook and acknowledgement of the benefits derived from people cooking their food is substantial. As Michael Pollan has pointed out, back when making French Fries meant peeling the potatoes, dumping the oil, cleaning up etc., they were a special treat, not an everyday snack from a restaurant.

Still, we are reminded of the dinner we had long ago with a CEO of a big supermarket chain in which we lamented the loss of staff in produce. He let us talk and then said we ought to get used to it because it wasn’t going to get better; it was going to get worse.

The Food Network etc., seems to not lead to more cooking but, rather, to cooking as a special activity. Indeed, one reason Bill Clinton has had relatively little problem with his new lifestyle of eating: He has a personal chef!

Still, one would be dismissive of the trend at one’s peril! There is a large population yearning to use food as a pathway to health. Veganism combines that trend with the desire to be ethically and environmentally responsible.

We hope you will come to New York to watch the Spork sisters cook and learn from the direction they are driving as an important piece of the food movement.

You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference here.

Get info on the Global Trade Symposium and “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum right here.

Get info on the Spouse/Companion program here or access to our discounted hotel room block at the headquarters hotel right here.

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