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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

In Their Own Words: Attend The New York Produce Show And Break Out Of One’s Silo
Seize The Moment – Become All You Can Be

We have been able to observe a lot of produce people and, for the most part, they work extremely hard. They are passionate about their products and they do, for the most part, a pretty incredible job of bringing the fruit of the earth to the people of the world.

Yet we have consistently found that the people who come to know the greatest success are those who are willing to invest the time to gain knowledge and experience outside of the parameters of whatever they happen to be doing. Even networking, when done right, is not just about finding people to do business with today; it is about building up a network to do business with tomorrow.

That plays out in unexpected ways. Now that there is a New York Produce Show and Conference, we need to get speakers and other dignitaries to attend, and it is hard work. But it is much easier because we have a “Golden Rolodex” that was built up throughout the years, because long before the event was a gleam in anyone’s eye, we were off going to trade shows, going to conferences, exchanging business cards, taking notes, reaching out in every possible way.

We have a friend whose long established family business has not been going well, and he personally, although he has aspirations to become CEO of the business, has little experience outside a very particular silo in which he works.

We are trying to encourage him to come to The New York Produce Show and Conference. We pointed out to him that he has little international experience in a world that is going global, so we said he should come to The Global Trade Symposium. We told him to look over the program as you can do here:

The Global Trade Symposium Program.

Then we pointed out that though his company sells plenty that winds up in foodservice, neither he nor anyone else at his company actually knows very much about that either. He has rarely met a chef, doesn’t read culinary magazines, etc. So we suggested he attend the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum and pointed him in the direction of that program, which you can read here:

The “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum Program

Then we pointed out that there is a main program filled with speakers from Cornell, Rutgers, St. Joseph’s, University of Connecticut, University of Delaware and the University Degli Studi Di Scienze Gastronomiche in Italy. We pointed out that this is all cutting-edge research that would position him ahead of his competitors.

Plus there are networking events, a chance to interact in a giant trade show, tours, chef demos and so much more.

It is not certain whether our friend will come. He has the usual excuses: “It is going to be a crazy week,” and “One of my co-workers is on vacation,” and various other stuff. Yet we consider it in many ways a test. For if our friend doesn’t break out of his silo, he will never be the businessperson he could have become, and the family business will never be the business it could have been.

We consider these losses of business and human potential to be terrible, despairing losses.

Putting together a trade show and conference is a funny business; you do all this work and then wonder who will actually show up.

Well, many thousands have made plans, reserved hotels and will certainly be there, but we thought we would write this piece for the thousands more who could be there — who SHOULD be there, but who allow themselves to get caught in the mud, to keep spinning their wheels. Life presents opportunities, and the challenge is to allow oneself to rise to meet those opportunities.

And The New York Produce Show and Conference is most definitely one of those opportunities.

We have a little video that was shot last year that gives voice to people who wanted to explain why they found value in their trip to The New York Produce Show and Conference. We haven’t run it mostly because one of the speakers was a little too kind to the Pundit, and we were embarrassed to get so much praise in what is decidedly a team effort with the Eastern Produce Council and PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine.

Still, if we can motivate just a few people to get up off their chair, break through the bonds of same-old, same-old that define their work, if we can get just a few people to come closer to realizing their potential because they came and attended The New York Produce Show and Conference, then we will have achieved a great deal.

So here, in their own words, are what a few people had to say about their visit to The New York Produce Show and Conference.

If you are ready to seize the moment and be the best you can be, you can register for the event right here

Marks And Spencer Buying Manager, Zeina Orfali, Brings New Perspective To The New York Produce Show And Conference

Adding value is the very essence of business, and one way The New York Produce Show and Conference attempts to add value is by bringing to the local produce community new ideas, varied experiences and new people. It is in the very DNA of the event where, in our very first year brought Dr. Johan van Deventer, Managing Director Freshmark, Subsidary of the Shoprite Group in South Africa, a visit we introduced with this piece.

How exciting it is, therefore, that one of the world’s most exceptional retailers will be represented on the program at this year’s edition of The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Zeina Orfali, Buying Manager — Fruit for Marks & Spencer, is renowned for her acumen, her knowledge and her fearless pride in what Marks & Spencer represents.

She has taken on a heavy load this year. Zeina agreed to speak on the supply chain panel at The Global Trade Symposium, sharing the stage with Sun World’s David Marguleas, whose talk we profiled here, and Dudu Ivri, CEO, Tali Grapes in Israel, who previewed his presentation here.

Zeina will present a broader piece on Marks & Spencer and British retailing both at the Global Trade Symposium and on the main show micro-session stage. She also agreed to have a conversation with our student group.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get a sense of what Zeina might share during her journey to America:

Zeina Orfali
Buying Manager-Fruit
Marks and Spencer
London, UK

Q: We’re honored that you will be presenting at both The Global Trade Symposium and Main New York Produce Show as well as being a special guest on the Perishable Pundit “Thought Leaders” panel and a speaker before the student group.

Could you give us a preview of some of the key points you’ll be discussing at the Show? We look forward to hearing your insights regarding Marks & Spencer’s innovative operation as well as your perspective on British retailing.

A: My input into the debate is going to be more around retail-specific ways of thinking and from the customer point of view and why that’s important. M&S is viewed as one of the most innovative retailers, and that innovation runs completely through our lifeblood internally, particularly in the produce industry where we have exciting opportunity.

Q: Please elaborate. How does M&S avail itself of that opportunity?

A: Produce forms an important pillar. Innovation is frequently presenting itself, and we’re seeking it out as well. I’ll cover first to market products M&S has pioneered, looking at revisiting some of these launches, which from my view have been ground-breaking.

Q: Could you reveal some of the most notable?

A: M&S was the first to import avocados; this was enormous, quite a revelation. We were the first retailer to offer pre-made sandwiches, the first to put use-by dates on products, and the first to sell fresh chicken, a massively innovative concept at the time.

Our reverse-season British asparagus was also interesting. We worked with our grower for five years to develop the first commercial fall asparagus crop for consumers, which was a revolutionary development.

Q: Isn’t M&S often the British media darling on some of these introductions?

A: Our reverse season asparagus did get a lot of media play. [Editor’s note: you can read the extensive coverage in British newspapers here, here, here, here and here]. We launched some edible flowers last year, which made for a nice picture in the press with headlines like: “Flower Power” in the Daily Mail, and “Bring Flower Power to your Plate” in the Telegraph

For our nutritionally enriched Beneforte broccoli, we achieved coverage in 11 print publications, including the Financial Times, The Guardian, as well as several online articles.

Q: In the U.S., a collaborative effort between the USDA, industry and university researchers is underway to build a market for Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms. Does Marks and Spencer put an emphasis on offering new varieties geared toward healthier eating?

A: Bringing that down to grapes, where this discussion is centered around for the panel at The Global Trade Symposium, M&S is looking for a variety of aspects: improving health attributes, the yields to have a positive impact on cost, and gaps in supply. The industry might be screaming about yields and taste, but the consumer may only see a standard grape and might not be willing to pay 10 Pounds more for that. We want special attributes to convey on pack; it may be another color or flavor.

Q: Do you generally negotiate exclusive deals when you bring these innovative varieties to your shelves?

A: It depends on the product and what we’re offering our customer. M&S will strive when possible to be the exclusive seller of that product. That is our ultimate goal. We’re not the biggest retailer, so it can be a challenge. But if not, we’ll be first to market.

We have built long-term relationships with the best possible range of suppliers to get product to market, and also with media outlets to get the word to consumers. We do tastings with the media, and they are very much on board. We get Christmas calls from the press, ‘What are you launching for the holidays?’ We hold that relationship dear.

Q: Are there advantages to being a smaller retailer? Often we hear that in the bigger chains, innovation can be bogged down by cumbersome bureaucracy, while more specialized retailers can be flexible to capitalize on unexpected opportunities…

A: When we have a product launch, we can do best for the growers, because we’re smaller. If they don’t get commercial volumes in year one, or two, or three, they can sell that full crop to us.

Because merchandising is a key aspect of what we do, we’re incredibly flexible. A grower comes to us; they only have four weeks’ supply and we’ll have it on the shelf in a week. We also are flexible to put out small lines to see how they perform.

Q: Do you have any examples?

A: I launched a baby iceberg last year that nobody else had, and it sold like hot cakes. A larger retailer in the UK couldn’t get their hands on it. It came to us and we jumped on it quickly to get it on the shelves.

We also have done something quite interesting. We have a brand set up specifically for produce, called Discovery Brand. It’s our latest discovery, and it almost has a blank label. That way the buyer can bring in something new, and the more generic label allows that flexibility.

The buying is not set in stone. It’s a label that’s the same for salad as on fruit. It helps us avoid adding additional cost on minimum print runs for product on shelves two or three weeks, but also highlights to consumers, ‘I’m brand new, try me.’

Q: That’s very clever…Could you tell us more about your brand strategy?

A: One of our brands is a project called Plan A, because there is no Plan B. It involves a 100-point plan that starts with the environment, and encompasses ethical working and trading in a good manner that is trustworthy.

Health is a key pillar in produce, which is intrinsically healthy, but long term we are striving to make product even healthier. This is easy to do in the prepared side, and we have lots of health brands underneath that. In produce, that involves altering the fundamental make up of the product.

Two years ago, we introduce the ACE pepper with high levels of Vitamins A, C, and E, hence the ACE pepper. We first marketed it three years ago and now the brand goes across produce and dairy, called the Active Health brand. It highlights additional health benefits, for example, Omega 3 milk or eggs. We have lunch-time take-away drinks with added vitamins. And we’ve done enrichment work on produce items, such as our selenium-enhanced tomato, which has antioxidant properties and helps support the immune and reproductive systems. There are many other claims but some are unproven.

Q: It’s interesting that you hesitated on making health claims. In the U.S., produce companies walk a fine line in this arena due to FDA and other government regulations. Do you find this to be the case in the UK as well?

A: Yes. We must be a bit mindful with what we can claim. We are striving to achieve these healthier products, but marketing them is a challenge around not misleading customers, saying it reduces cancer, for example. Yet we also want to promote attributes that have been proven to help those in ill health. We have to take guidance from our nutritionist and technical produce manager, who is very knowledgeable on guidelines.

When we launched Beneforte broccoli, the newspapers got hold of it and loved it, and their headlines proclaimed it was anti-cancer broccoli and it spiraled a bit. But it isn’t something we ever want to put on our pack. [You can read the articles here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.]

We’re also working on pesticide-free product. We recognize pesticides are not only not good for the environment, but they’re something we’d like to start moving away from. It’s the Plan A thing to do to reduce pesticide usage. How do you market pesticide-free? With tomatoes and pears that is much easier to achieve, but then on products like citrus, it is difficult with post-harvest treatments to significantly extend product life.

Q: Don’t you worry that you could create consumer confusion? For example, if your customers see a select number of pesticide-free products, will they fear the rest of the produce department?

A: This is a concern. If we label a product pesticide-free, do customers get confused? It’s a dangerous line. We have to be careful how we market some of these messages. It is difficult when I’m on the ground in my job working with growers on a commitment towards pesticide-free, but it will cost 10 percent more to do it, and how will you market to the customer. It’s a really hard challenge.

Q: We’d be remiss if we didn’t touch upon Marks and Spencer’s strict food safety standards…

A: M&S is recognized for the highest safety audit standards. We have our internal Field to Fork system, which encompasses all the audit standards. If a supplier can say M&S is one of its customers, it opens the door to a lot of other retailers. There is a general assumption the supplier must be able to comply with their standards from an audit and food safety point of view, because standards don’t get any higher than M&S.

The relationships with our grower base aren’t replicated anywhere else in the UK. We have growers working with us 50 years in produce. This is a really long period of time when working in a commodity products business. Companies will move around to get the best prices, but we try to form a longer term view in our relationships. From a commercial standpoint, one of our main goals is to develop innovative products.

We launched the Angello sweet and seedless pepper, which won the 2012 Fruit Logistica Innovation Award.

Q: That certainly was an exciting moment when the seedless pepper took top accolades. It is worth pointing out that once the expert judges narrow the field to a shortlist of 10 final nominees, the winner is voted by the thousands of visitors to Fruit Logistica, who have opportunities throughout the show to examine and taste the products and cast their ballots. Therefore, the first place recognition becomes even more significant from a consumer marketing standpoint…

A: That was a project we were working on for 10 years, scouring the world to find the right partner to work with to get this pepper to us. We had been in discussions with Syngenta and worked closely with our supplier and Syngenta to get it to market. This is a perfect example of how important it is to think in long term investments. Otherwise suppliers won’t be willing to give it their all.

We’re asking for the creme of the crop, which goes for all of our products, from a cucumber to our biggest juiciest cherries in the UK. We literally can highlight differences.

Q: How would you describe your customer base? Does your messaging target different segments?

A: We do have a customer range. For quite some time, our customers generally have been more affluent and older than the general population – these are people who are familiar with our enormous heritage. Our company had its 125th anniversary two years ago. We have a grand following.

Some of our product is seriously iconic. The original Percy Pig, like a fruit gum candy, is literally enormously iconic. Percy Pig has its own Facebook page, and a costumed Percy Pig character visits stores and schools. There are Percy Pig cakes, and Percy Piglets and friends, just to demonstrate how iconic some of our products have become.

We have a loyal customer base that shops very frequently but accounts for a very small part of UK product sales. We have a massive peak at Christmas. M&S is considered the special place to go for meaningful occasions. So we have customers who may only go once a year for Christmas dinner. Our Food On The Move program is all about the lunchtime customer, the office workers. We have a huge customer base that only comes in for that one time.

It is a challenge to appeal to a customer base more broadly. One thing we’re trying to turn around at the moment is our reputation for higher priced food. When we ask customers, not just M&S ones, how they view M&S, first is quality and second is price, and they think of M&S as expensive.

We just launched a massive campaign to get customers to understand we carry a wide collection not only just the best quality but great prices on good value products. They may still pay a difference but they are getting a great eating product. We guarantee they will eat every single one of those grapes because they are all perfect. They won’t have any rejects to throw away.

To further our strategy, we introduced the Simply M&S range, rebranding all these products from standard spaghetti to basic cucumbers. We won’t charge you more to add a premium.

Q: Is it working?

A: It’s starting to have some resonance with customers. We are receiving a lot of feedback now from customers saying they assumed Marks & Spencer was really expensive, but it’s not as expensive as they thought. We’re doing promotions for meal packages, where a customer can get a main meal with a bottle of wine for 10 Pounds every other weekend. We’re offering people a solution with guaranteed good quality and food they can’t get anywhere else. It’s not about price-matching; it’s about quality and price, looking at value.

Q: What thoughts would you like to impress on attendees at The New York Produce Show? And what do you hope to discover?

A: As a definitive retailer in the UK, I hope through my presentation those in the audience can better understand why and how to market products with the consumer in mind. We’re all about comprehending the needs of our customer. Hopefully, people will go away from the conference thinking that when they are in the UK, they must visit Marks & Spencer because what we do is revolutionary.

I haven’t visited the U.S. for quite awhile and will enjoy discussing with my peers a variety of issues from working with suppliers to intensive audits and to form new relationships.

I’m really looking forward to speaking to the student group. Being a young person in the produce industry and a young female in the produce industry, this is not something you frequently come upon. I’m the first female executive here in fruit. A lot of people may be inspirited by that. The average age in produce in the UK is 60. We need more young people in the industry,

It does involve working all hours and is challenging and fast-paced. For me, this makes it very exciting. I would absolutely love to talk about the opportunities with the students. They are our future.


How exciting and inspirational a woman such as Zeina must be to young college women thinking of a career in our industry, how much progress has been made because chains such as Marks & Spencer have committed for the long term on production innovation, food safety, sustainability, etc.

We are exceedingly pleased that Zeina elected to join the industry in New York. Everyone is always busy, everyone has other things to do, so for an individual, and a company to be willing to commit time to help enhance the industry is really worthy of praise.

Even more it is worthy of coming to hear and to be part off.

Please join us for The New York Produce Show and Conference and the Global Trade Symposium. You can register right here.

Three Cheers For Produce!
Three Cheers For Students!
Three Cheers For Tomorrow!
Peterson, Griffin and Spezzano Lead Student Mentorship Program At The New York Produce Show And Conference

A trade show is a trade show, and a conference is a conference, but The New York Produce Show and Conference is a kind of gift. There had been no show in New York for generations, and when we decided to join hands with the Eastern Produce Council and create what had never been before, we were focused on contributing to the industry. The whole venture hearkened back to the motto we used in launching PRODUCE BUSINESS 27 years ago: Initiating Industry Improvement.


We wanted to do more than just run a trade show; we wanted to make a difference. One of the ways we decided to do that was to launch various student programs. One is a culinary program, in which we try to inculcate a love of fresh produce in aspiring chefs.

Another program serves ag marketing, business and food marketing students, and here we hope to tip the scales a bit in terms of inspiring students to consider the produce industry as a career choice.

It is a double win… the students get to “cut the line” and instead of turning in resumes to an anonymous HR department, they make a direct connection with important people in the company. Companies don’t have to advertise and recruit as much; they get top quality applicants delivered to their door.

We consider the program of such importance that in addition to spending the money to bring both students and faculty, we always seek out important people to chair the program. Last year, we had Bruce Peterson of Wal-Mart fame, along with Frieda Caplan, the world famous pioneer of specialty produce, serve as co-chairs, and this year we have a triumvirate of industry icons co-chairing the program.

Bruce Peterson was kind enough to return, and he will be joined by Reggie Griffin, formerly of The Kroger Co., and Dick Spezzano, formerly with Vons. All have gone on to successful consulting careers and all have served as Chairmen of national produce associations.

They will have a conversation with the students and, although the students will enjoy it, the students won’t know how lucky they really are.

We thought we would try something different and ask these lions of the industry the same questions: to ask them to tell us how they found their way in produce, what they think about mentoring and what they see as the potential for young people in becoming involved with fresh produce.

We asked Meredith Auerbach, a Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, to help us frame the questions and find out more:

Reggie Griffin
Reggie Griffin Stratregies
Hilton Head, South Carolina

Reggie Griffin retired from Cincinnati-based The Kroger Company as corporate vice president of produce and floral merchandising and procurement. He is opening his own business, Reggie Griffin Strategies, in the Hilton Head area of South Carolina.

Q: How did you get started in the produce industry and what kept you in it?

A: I started part time while I was in junior high school, split between the produce department and being a bagger, all to save money for college. It was not a planned career path, but over time it just kept getting better. I was invited into the Kroger management development program.

I became a produce assistant, produce buyer and a district manager with full P&L responsibility for 10 stores. Kroger moved me to Memphis, Los Angeles, Houston and Cincinnati. So many views of the industry, so many cities, I now think of myself as “vertically integrated” in produce procurement and retail. I kept learning and doing new things with a great group of people.

Q: Did you have a mentor? If so, what did this individual do for you? A: Do you think it is the same process today? What has changed?

A: I didn’t know it at the time, but now, looking back and reflecting, I really began my career because of Gene Hastings. He was a pure produce guy and he gave me my start, the first move to Memphis as an assistant buyer. He looked in on me, got me thinking, told stories about how to proceed and succeed.

It is important to realize, looking at then versus now, mentors were not designated or part of programs. I know I probably took his support and my various jobs for granted. I was 20 years old at the time. Today there’s more structure, more awareness, and it’s probable that you can’t progress in a big company without a mentor or series of mentors.

What I fundamentally learned from mine was conscious respect for the business and for the people running the business at all levels. It’s a relationship built on trust and one that is two-way in nature. Both need to be open and listen. A mentor helps pick you when things aren’t going well. Good mentors also set you straight when they think you are going off-track.

The Kroger mentoring program started almost a decade ago. We saw new technologies would drive business done out of corporate. We needed a steady stream of people ready for executive responsibilities. When we looked around, we mostly saw older white men. We started to focus more on women and minorities and targeting people to train and get up to speed more quickly. And, of course, they had to be ready to move to another city. It’s a whole blend of characteristics that became the foundation.

Q: What should young people know about becoming mentored? What should mentors look for?

Today’s young people looking at our industry are smarter, more articulate, driven and tech-savvy than we were. Things move faster and they have higher expectations of how quickly they can grow. I would tell them that from time to time, it’s important to slow down in order to ask tough questions leading to deeper discussions and building that peer-to-peer relationship.

They won’t always move up the ladder as fast as they think they should; most want to move at warp-speed. I see nothing wrong with that but occasionally a reality check is needed. A good mentor can anticipate and smooth out the lesson, telling them there’s a track in place but you can so to speak “beat the curve.”

Q: What areas of education, expertise and experience do you see providing the greatest opportunities in this industry over the next 20 years.

A: I don’t think it much matters which professional degree a newcomer has. Additional training and learning will be a part of any career. The industry is so broad, from grower to packer to logistics to foodservice to retail, any area of knowledge is applicable. I do think the basic skills and attitudes must include:

Ours has become a data-driven business and the ability to understand data and draw conclusions from data is essential. I don’t mean crunch the data, but how to use data and technology effectively.

It is a people business and the ability and interest in people will make the difference. We see more collaborative work now. I think what people are looking for in careers is to be successful individually and be part of a successful enterprise. Everyone has their own notion of success but these, to me, seem to be the common thread.

You have to be able to stand up in front of people and talk about your business, your ideas, and your way of looking at them.

Q: What role does mentoring play in innovation? Is participation in innovation and development some of the most attractive areas for young people wanting a fulfilling career?

A: No question. I happen to strongly believe that fresh produce is a basic solution to the health care crisis and tackling issues such as our national obesity epidemic. There’s passion to it. We’re just beginning to see the rollout of innovation in this industry. A mentor can share roads already traveled. We know we will have to grow in order to sustain our lives The mentored can look at current practice and know that we can do it better, faster, cheaper. And feel good about it because how and why we go to work every day.

Bruce Peterson
Peterson Insights
Bentonville, Arkansas

Bruce Peterson, retired Senior Vice President and General Merchandise Manager for Wal Mart Stores, Inc., is as busy as ever. Since his departure from Wal Mart, he opened a consulting firm, Peterson Insights, and served as CEO of Naturipe Farms and Bland Farms.

Q: How did you get started in the produce industry and what kept you in it?

A: I joined the industry by accident. I was working the grill in a fast food restaurant in Detroit, making as I recall $.90 an hour. I heard about an opening in the produce department of Great Scott for $1.25 and didn't look back. I figured being one of two staffers had great potential for promotion. I was right on that account.

Q: Did you have a mentor and what did this individual do for you? Compare it to today’s process.

A: I met my first mentor, assistant produce manager Steve Gelardi, a third generation Sicilian produce guy at Great Scott. Sometime later, he asked me to join him and I started on the 2 am routine drive as a produce jobber and odd-lot buyer.

He was the single strongest influence in my professional life, and he influenced a young 20-something to understand and accept the culture of the times. I learned the work ethic I have today, the difference between cheap and value; the why’s behind what he did. I was a sponge soaking up everything I could learn. Throughout the following years, I had the privilege of working with knowledgeable, caring people who took me under their wings. It was an exceptionally personal business, sharing values, stories and ideas.

I was fortunate enough to learn under great people when I moved to retail, at Bakers in Omaha, Tom Thumb in Texas and Meijer.

Mentoring is more formalized today than in my early years. It continues to be critically important and there are good things that come out of a documented, formalized process. The best mentoring shares perspective and values, not how to do things as much as things to think about. It does concern me when mentoring becomes a program and then issues arise. You don’t want it to become a check-off point on someone’s evaluation. It is not a program. It’s a process of connecting with the next generation, a way of sharing and building on the past and moving into today’s world.

I think I first began to understand what mentoring means when I moved to Wal-Mart in 1991. The first step was interviewing with Sam Walton, and I was warned about it. Hey to me, that was a great privilege! I may not have been the perfect candidate, but Sam was interested in my experience in multi-department stores like Meijer and that I was willing to move to Bentonville. I got the job, including the title with a large, very special company.

Over my 18 years at Wal-Mart, we moved from six to 2,500 stores. For me Wal-Mart was like going to graduate school. I had to reach out to all kinds of produce people to make it happen. The media, by and large, trashed us but a number of key produce people and companies supported us. And I learned and learned and learned.

Today mentoring still continues but it is more formalized because the industry is different. Relationships still drive the process, but the industry is more fragmented, more compartmentalized. It simply is not as hands-on; there is less optional time, but mentoring still takes place. Just the stories and the lessons are different.

Organizations such as PMA and United play an important role, providing mentoring opportunities and visibility for the industries with eager students.

Q: What should students know about becoming mentors? What should mentors look for?

A: They need to understand key concepts. First of all, is collaboration. You find people who believe as you do and want to grow as well. Plenty of young people are bright and knowledgeable and looking for opportunity. The relationships are not the same but rather are more corporate, more international. If the interest is in the corporate enterprise, produce can be a stepping stone. Many start in produce, leave for additional experience and then return.

Q: What areas of education, expertise and experience do you see providing the greatest opportunities in this industry over the next 20 years?

A: There are skill sets that are especially relevant: math skills with a concentration in finance — for large or smaller companies. International experiences, including additional languages (think Spanish and Mandarin), cultural understanding and what business now calls global learning are all a plus.

Integrating consumer understanding and consumer marketing is the key to future activities. Few of my generation are truly tech-savvy, and an understanding of how consumers communicate and find information is now and in the future so important. Innovation in this industry is just exploding.

Q: What role does mentoring play in innovation? Is it a primary attraction for today’s young people?

A: Consider this: How does this industry bring together new flavors and textures safely, economically and conveniently? Can we compete with what is going on in frozen and deli and foodservice? All are competitors. That’s our challenge, and there’s plenty of opportunity to keep fresh at the front of consumer minds and preferences.

Dick Spezzano
Spezzano Consulting Service, Inc.
Monrovia, California

Dick Spezzano retired from Vons as Vice President of Produce and Floral in 1997. Opening Spezzano Consulting Service Inc., he has stayed active in the produce industry.

Q: How did you get started in the produce industry and what kept you in it?

A: Like a lot of guys in my generation, my produce career started as a part time job while I was in college at Boston University. Originally with Stop & Shop, I moved to Star. My dad died, I was about to get married and suddenly college wasn’t so important. Carol and I moved to California, and I started and stayed with Vons the rest of my retail career.

Vons gave me lots of opportunity, management training, paths to grow in operations as well as produce. The responsibilities grew and the challenges were fun. My mentors stayed friends and confidants for years.

Q: Did you have a mentor? If so, what did this individual do for you? Do you think it is the same process in today’s world? What has changed?

A: Actually, I’ve had a number of mentors, but the first was the store produce manager, my boss, when I started at Vons. You pick up the nuts-and-bolts — product ID, the numbers, the routine — quickly in the first year. What he taught me was management, leadership and especially delegation. I really needed that. I was a hard worker and thought I had to do it all.

Gary Lee was another. He told me I could learn as much from bad management as good — in other words, what not to do. Roger Schroeder and I worked together, almost mentoring each other. We complemented each other’s skills and favorite things to do on the job.

What turned out to be really important was simply time. Two of us had a long commute each way to the store where we were working and we drove together. Over time, that gave us hours to share ideas, ask questions and learn from one another. Time may be the most difficult resource for mentoring that is missing today.

Today, mentoring is less accidental and more planned, and expected. The Pack Foundation, PMA and United Fresh programs keep the idea of mentoring top-of-mind, and students who have gone through these programs both spread the word and help shape how mentoring is practiced.

Q: What should students know about becoming mentored? What should mentors look for?

A: Let’s start with mentors. In my mind, one important idea is to ask, “Who could eventually replace us?” while still accepting that you are not trying to replicate yourself. For the mentored, it is likely that you will leave produce — say for operations — and then return in some higher role.

Q: What areas of education, expertise and experience do you see providing the greatest opportunities in this industry over the next 20 years?

A: Remember just how big this industry is when you pull all the parts together — over $100 billion, and yet look at how few big publicly traded companies there are. It is much more privately held, many by families, and that generally means fewer layers. Good people can move up more quickly.

A good education is a must. More advanced degrees can come later; many in this industry have held down full time jobs and gone to school as well. Education is more available than ever for working people.

Other “must haves” include communication skills, a passion for the business, a broad set of capabilities and the willingness to try a lot of different things. Roger and I used to have a goal of trying four new things at a time. We’d throw them at the wall. If one stuck, okay. If two or more stuck, it was a winning situation. Have you noticed it is often the busiest person who always volunteers for the next project and usually gets it done? Be willing to put yourself out there.

With all the family-held companies on the supply side — some into third and fourth generation — it is likely that young family members will profit by first working for another company to gain a broader point of view. At the same time, family companies can bring in, mentor and train non-family members. We need both.

Q: What role does mentoring play in innovation? Is participation in innovation and development attractive to young people?

A: What’s happening now is that young people bring in outside knowledge and have the skills to jump over the immediate customer to get to the consumer. That means the development of effective social media and an awareness of how rapidly the world is changing. In privately held companies, there can be slow movement toward new concepts and technology. Mentors can help push the process along.

We see lots of innovation going on in many of the regional retail operations. They’re privately held and can try new ideas and ways of working. Who wouldn’t that be attractive to?


Of course, this program is not the only program to celebrate youth. PRODUCE BUSINESS has been selecting its annual 40-under-Forty class for eight years now. And the idea of bringing students to industry events was not the Pundit’s idea — that innovation rests with Jay and Ruthie Pack, who upon selling Standard Fruit and Vegetable Company remembered the difficulty they had getting students from Texas A&M, most of whom never thought of a career in produce. Indeed it was one of our proudest moments when Jay called and asked us to serve on the original steering committee for his program to bring students to PMA, a program that ultimately generated into the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent.

We live all of our lives in the “here and now,” but a great event is not merely about today… it is also about tomorrow, and bringing in youth is a way of making sure that The New York Produce Show and Conference… and each attendee… has a direct connection to tomorrow. 

It is said that the third-best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu, is Kahil Gibran, and his most celebrated work is The Prophet. Perhaps the most famous of his essays, one which grew wildly popular during the counter-culture 1960s, is titled Children, and its famous lines speak to youth in a rather romantic way:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

We, however, have always been partial to the next line in the poem which reasserts adult responsibility:

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The next line reasserts the authority of the Divine:

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness; For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

So we bring the students that we might try and stay young ourselves, yet we also bring them that we might be a stable base from which they can go forth. We also bring them because the infinite has so conspired things that when we see youthful potential before us, we love it and want to make it grow.

We owe thanks to our co-chairmen for living out that love.

Come and meet the students and faculty at The New York Produce Show and Conference, come and meet the future.

You can register for the event right here

Culinary Extravaganza At The New York Produce Show: Ritz-Carlton’s Executive Chef Mark Arnao Among Super Chefs To Appear On Stage

It is already widely recognized that the program for the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum is exceptional, but it is far from the only foodservice component of the show. We have our Culinary School programs with students and/or faculty from the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson & Wales, Le Cordon Bleu and the Institute for Culinary Education. Many exhibitors focus on foodservice, and some exhibitors have even bought separate booths for retail and foodservice divisions. Many exhibitors bring along their own chefs.

Last year, The New York Produce Show and Conference unveiled its Culinary Innovation Station. Right on the main show floor, the culinary students and their faculty advisors create delicious tastings of produce items prepared on the spot. The students from the culinary schools forage the trade show — in our own version of hyperlocal outreach — to find the perfect ingredients to cook up exceptional dishes.

In addition, also on the show floor — in a centralized area that resembles Central Park — we are pleased to host an assortment of superstar chefs on the Celebrity Chef Stage. This year’s line-up of chefs will be Executive Chef Mark Arnao from the Ritz-Carlton Central Park, Top Chef Master Kerry Heffernan, Executive Chef Ben Pollinger from Oceania and Executive Chef, Iron Chef and Chopped participant Michael Giletto from Bayonne Golf Club.

The Pundit has enjoyed a few nights at The Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, so we were especially enthused that the new superstar chef at this premier property was going to mount the Celebrity Chef Stage and demonstrate some pretty impressive techniques. We asked Carol Bareuther, Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to find out more:

Chef Mark Arnao
Executive Chef
Auden Bistro & Bar
The Ritz-Carlton Central Park

Q: One of the hottest happenings on the Manhattan dining scene this fall was the September opening of Auden Bistro & Bar, a new restaurant in The Ritz-Carlton that features an upscale American-style menu, rich in produce from Hudson Valley farms and beyond. As a 13-year veteran of the hotel chain who has worked locally inspired culinary magic coast-to-coast, we would like to know a little more about what inspires you. What led to your interest in fresh produce and to become a chef?

A: Actually, the two go hand-in-hand. I grew up in Philadelphia and when I was 9, or my Mom say’s 10, I walked into the restaurant where she worked as a waitress and asked the owner/chef for a job. He told me to come back on the weekend and he’d see what he could do. I did, and I stayed until I was 18 and the restaurant closed.

I was running the kitchen by the time I was 13 or 14. It was a little mom-and-pop place located at the entrance of the 9th Street Italian Market in South Philadelphia. When we ran short and needed something, the boss handed me ten bucks to go out on the market. I always looked for the best — the best tomatoes or the best onions or the best of whatever we needed.

Q: And, how did this evolve into you becoming a chef?

A: I was a senior in high school when the restaurant closed. I thought about becoming a chef then but decided I would try something different. So I enrolled in Kutztown University and majored in secondary mathematical education.

The people were great, but then it would be time to work. I hated that part. So, I quit after the first year, and three months later was back in a kitchen. I realized that’s where I belonged. I’ve been with the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott International since 1999.

Q: What is your philosophy regarding fresh produce at your new restaurant, Auden?

A: My goal is to create great food with simple really fresh ingredients. It’s a back-to-basics approach that doesn’t call for masking flavors but instead enhancing them. For example, I think a rutabaga should taste like a rutabaga. I think this is what people are looking for today.

On our current menu, my two favorite entrees are a Pan Seared Scottish Salmon with Sautéed Kale and Coriander Citrus Jus, and Pot Roasted Breast of Capon with a ton of seasonal root vegetables, all braised together in a rosemary reduction.

Q: How do you source your fresh produce?

A: Funny you should ask! When I was planning to open the restaurant, I wanted to source as local as possible so I Googled ‘New York produce’. The New York Produce Show and Conference was like the third listing that came up! So, I called the number to find out how I could get a ticket to find out who I could get to supply me with what I needed. Now I’m participating!

Q: Is it true you source your produce from the nearby Hudson Valley?

A: Yes, we do. The Ritz-Carlton has a give-back program called Community Footprints. For us, that means we partner with a farm in New York State, about two hours north of Manhattan. We go up there and plant vegetables, weed, harvest, whatever needs to be done. Then we buy some of the produce that’s grown on the farm. That’s like lettuce, cabbage, root vegetables, chard, potatoes, garlic and onions.

The farmer has lots of different plots with many types of vegetables planted. The farmer then takes the proceeds from what we pay to buy the produce and donates this to local soup kitchens. It’s really a win-win.  

Q: Does the farm supply all of your fresh produce needs?

A: No. We have two larger-volume farms that supply us during the season. One is in Ohio and the other is in Massachusetts, so they are still in our quadrant geographically. Every week, they send a list of what is available. We also still use mass distributors for items like bananas and melons or something like strawberries in January. Still, I like to buy locally whenever I can.

Q: What do you look for in a produce supplier?

A: It all boils down to someone who is a friend, someone who will go out of their way to help. Any produce supplier can source just about anything and anytime. But I look for the person who tells me that next week a certain crop will harvest on Tuesday, and he or she can get it to me on Wednesday.

Someone who will always keep me up to date with what’s just in and what’s happening.

Q: Do you have a favorite type of fresh produce?

A: Yes, all the roots. My favorite time of the year is now, in the fall. Summer has its flavors too, but I’m not a sweet guy, meaning I’m not into a lot of fruits. Instead, I like rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, salsify.

What I like is that once you know how to play with them, the aroma and aromatics are fantastic. For example… braised rutabaga or celeriac whipped with butter and cream into a puree and blended into mashed potatoes or served by itself with fish. I get hungry just thinking about it.

Q: Could you give us a sneak peek of what you’ll present in the Celebrity Chef Demonstrations on Wednesday?

A: It will be something with root vegetables.


It is a constant refrain we hear now: New restaurants and foodservice chains that are growing on the east coast, and retailers looking for local and regional foods, start or jump-start their procurement efforts by visiting The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Some who are focused on retail or even larger restaurant chains may be dismissive, thinking that what a Ritz-Carlton chef does in his white table-cloth restaurant is simply too high-end and small volume to matter to the larger produce industry.

We think back to something we noticed years ago at the Fancy Food shows. It turned out that all the high-volume retailers had a team attend this show, even though most of the products were not suitable for their high volume needs. They came not necessarily to procure but to figure out the trends, to understand where the market was moving, to identify what would be the mass trend in two years.

We are pleased that we could help Chef Arnao set up his supply chain and we are even more pleased to have him doing culinary magic with root vegetables.

Come to The New York Produce Show and Conference, feel the excitement and taste the dishes produced by our culinary all-stars.

You can register for the event right here

AeroFarms, EcoSPACES and St. Phillip’s Academy Offer A Glimpse Of The Future
On The New Jersey Retail Tour
Of The New York Produce Show And Conference

One of the highlights of The New York Produce Show and Conference is the extensive tour schedule. No region can be fully understood from an expo center or hotel conference room, you have to get out and see the countryside.

This year The New York Show and Conference is proud to proud to present six — yes count ‘em six — incredible tours:

Tour 1   - Hunts Point Produce Market

Largest wholesale market in US. Located in the Bronx. Sells to smaller independent retailers and purveyors to restaurants plus many fill-ins and imported items to major chains. Also key point of first sale for many imported items. See write ups here, here and here.

Tour 2 — Baldor
Major seller to upscale restaurants and many retailers. High end specialty items, test kitchen and processing facility. See write up here.

Tour 3 — Manhattan Retailers
What is hot and happening in retail in NYC, many small format stores appealing to a range of income and ethnic groups.

Tour 4 — Brooklyn Retail Tour and Urban Agriculture
Visit trendy Brooklyn retailers and unique rooftop urban agriculture sights and an indoor mushroom farm.

Tour 5 — New Jersey Retailers and St. Phillip's Academy
Powerhouse high volume stores, the big buyers of New York metro. St. Phillips academy is featuring a new AeroFarms concept for hyper-local agriculture,

Tour 6  Wegmans and New Philly Produce market
Wegmans is considered America’s premier grocery chain. The Philadelphia market is a brand new innovative facility. See write-ups here, here and here.

We have always done an important New Jersey tour. For many shippers Manhattan stores are a foreign country, these stores often buy through distributors or off Hunts Point and so many shippers have no idea where or if their product is in Manhattan.

So when big shippers go visit media contacts in New York City, they send them to New Jersey to see the product. These big buyers in New Jersey are thus the choice of many when selecting a tour.

We always try and find unique and interesting and cutting edge things to add spice top the tours so, this year, those who sign up for the New Jersey retail tour also get a little treat. They will get exposed to cutting edge urban agriculture system that does not depend on sun or soil, it is a completely controlled  environment agriculture and it is being piloted as a direct source of supply for a school.

It was such an interesting concept we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Manager Mira Slott to go visit the operation and find out more:

New York Produce Show Tour
St. Phillip’s Academy, Newark, NJ

When Mira took her visit to St. Phillip’s Academy to get a preview of the tour she met up with the following people:

Frank Mentesana
Director, St. Phillip’s Academy

Karen San Giacomo
Communications Director
St. Phillip’s Academy

Marc Oshima
Chief Marketing Officer

Paul Kneeland
Vice President of Produce and Floral
Kings Supermarkets
Vice President of the
Eastern Produce Council and chair of its
New York Produce Show and Conference committee.

Upon entering the St. Phillip’s Academy in Newark, NJ, only steps away from a correctional facility, a large digital screen menu reveals that this charter school for children in Kindergarten through 8th Grade has a special story to tell. Touting the week’s lunch offerings, Monday’s selection tantalizes with fresh vegetable quinoa soup, oatmeal crusted chicken tenders, steamed red potatoes, zucchini and squash, and sliced cantaloupe for dessert. On Tuesday: homespun chicken & rice soup, broccoli & cheddar baked potatoes (with a menu note that the starch is included in the entrée), veggie chili, and no bake trail mix bars. Wednesday is welcomed with carrot & apple soup, baked salmon, cous cous, sautéed green beans, and banana smoothies. Thursday: Asian vegetable noodle soup, beef lettuce wraps, brown rice, steamed edamame, and whole grain apple cake. Friday’s soup will be the chef’s choice, turkey & cheese melts, root veggie chips, sliced jersey tomatoes and pears. Peeking ahead, next week’s menu wouldn’t disappoint with choices like sweet potato and rutabaga soup, black bean stew, cauliflower mac & cheese, and chocolate beet cake. One could only be intrigued that the chef could find an eager audience with elementary school kids for next Tuesday’s vegetable selection of Brussels sprouts.

Attendees at The New York Produce Show will have the opportunity to find out why by signing up for this tour.

Paul Kneeland explores rooftop garden

Paul Kneeland, vice president of produce and floral at Kings Supermarkets, calls the EcoSPACES program at St. Phillip’s Academy, “hyper local” in its embrace of organically connecting students to the produce industry.  Frank Mentesana, EcoSPACES director says it is “a lifecycle approach. The culture of the school has changed through a concerted, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional effort that intertwines academic learning within the classrooms to hands on farm to fork experiences for students.”

These endeavors include tending a roof top garden complete with composting, where designated plots contain ever-changing, grade-appropriate projects.  A revolutionary aeroponics in-door garden from AeroFarms sprouts fresh vegetables and herbs right in the cafeteria. This is where nutritious, health-based recipes are developed in an open kitchen layout specifically designed so that kids see all food being prepared from scratch. A creative salad bar highlights seasonal items the children have grown.  

Students also immerse themselves in an impressive, fully equipped test kitchen thanks to generous corporate donations, while art projects use dyes from flowers picked in the garden. Math, science and history assignments also are tied in, and the lessons are carried over to parent workshops and community outreach.

Children taste fresh produce from AeroFarm with Mentesana

It is truly a full range program. Marc Oshima, chief marketing officer at AeroFarms, explains that the company gets involved in training teachers and kitchen staff as well as putting in the advanced aeroponic growing systems.

Mentesana continues, “In its third season, we moved the AeroFarms unit from the upper students’ science lab area into the cafeteria. We loved the idea of it being so close to the salad bar and to all the students every day.”

Kneeland shares an inspirational idea. “As an extension of the highly successful Salad Bar Donation Program, wouldn’t it be great to encourage people to donate AeroFarms growing systems to schools across the country.   One reason for the tour can be to promote this concept. When other schools can hear about this opportunity, they’ll think, ‘We don’t have the option to build a 6,000 square foot farm on our rooftop, but AeroFarms is a format that would easily accommodate our facility.’” AeroFarms is much more convenient and realistic. As long as it is sustainable, it really takes this idea of hyper local to the next level, Kneeland explains.

Rooftop garden perspective with Mentesana, Oshima and San Giocomo

The EcoSPACES program has been an evolution, Mentesana emphasizes.“It faced some initial community resistance when we brought in the food service program,” he says. Why? Some parents wondered if a healthy meal plan would be limited to celery and taste like cardboard and create a revolt from the students. Nothing could be further from the truth. Children and teaches alike salivate in anticipation of meal times. “Adults are victims of not learning good eating habits when young. That is why our program is intentionally comprehensive; eating lunch together, learning about produce in the classrooms, growing it, cooking it, getting parents involved doing demos at school, etc.,” he explains.

The mechanics behind the program required buy in. “Administrators thought they would get bogged down. Teachers were asking, ‘how do we do the curriculum, can we hit the benchmarks?’” Mentesana continues. “It was just a matter of becoming more hands on to retain information better, and enthusiasm grew from there.”

Adds Oshima, “The AeroFarms system is flexible and modular, so it works in different spaces and heights and can be adjusted for airflow and light, which is ideal for schools.

At the same time, “It is critical to understand how AeroFarms fits into the big picture. It can’t stand by itself,” says Mentesana of the EcoSPACES concept. There was a plan, broken down into different phases.

“To start, we thought it most important that kids were eating well. At St. Phillip’s Academy, we have a mandatory program that 100 percent of kids eat here. We set food standards and values such as what types of fat, use of whole grains, eliminating processed foods, and cooking from scratch,” he continues.

The other big idea was to create a culture and conducive learning environment. This was the impetus for an open kitchen in the cafeteria so students could watch the cooking process and see kitchen staff chopping fresh vegetables, not microwaving, and not opening boxes of fried chicken fingers.

Round tables create a community feeling because it is easy for kids to interact.

Each child has a job responsibility during lunch time. Chairs are numbered to correlate with the jobs. If the student sits in chair #1, for example, he or she gets the silverware and sets the table.  “After we revamped the lunch program, we developed the edible garden rooftop and composting station. Signs on each table remind children about collecting items such as cantaloupe rinds to bring up to the garden for composting,” says Mentesana.

“Next we created a teaching kitchen with solar panels and then the AeroFarms system,” he continues. “Throughout this process, we are not forgetting physical activity. We have classes like introduction to yoga, and teachers and students manage recess in a more inclusive way.”

The AeroFarms garden gives students the opportunity to experiment, explains Oshima. Some of the children planted cilantro for the first time. They learned that germination takes longer than for leafy greens.

One time there was an electrical surge and some plants drooped, so they had to figure out the different possibilities of what to do, notes Mentesana.  “Teachers were saying, ‘we don’t have a green thumb,’ but they came around to the idea when not confined to classrooms.  In fact, beyond integrating all academic disciplines, teachers and administrators eat here in the cafeteria with the kids, which promotes staff and student interaction and is meaningful in showing collective support, he explains, adding, It helps that the food is delicious too.

Another layer of the program is the arts, learning knitting, for example, with yarns naturally dyed from marigolds picked from the rooftop garden. It becomes a medium for students to experience new tasks and learn about different cultures. One such program, Feast for Your Eyes, gets kids to draw what they eat based on what’s in season, and then it’s on the menu in the cafeteria.  As items are fresh and seasonal, it reinforces trying new flavors and new foods.  Another project involved kids reading about Afghanistan and learning the customs, then picking different herbs in the garden to flavor naan bread they made in the kitchen, and then sitting on the floor to eat their meal like the children in Afghanistan.

Students may do canning of cauliflower, which involves a history component, math proportions and measuring, and refrigeration and food safety science. “Teachers are more enthusiastic to get out of the classroom, and it fosters nice collaborations,” says Mentesana.

Parent/student workshops center on plant-based nutrition and preparing healthy food, and the importance of sitting at the table for meals as a family, according to Karen San Giacomo, Communications Director at St. Phillip’s Academy. “We have countless anecdotes of parents saying, ‘my kids are yelling at me if we’re not having fresh fruits and vegetables in the house.’ Soul Food Junkies was one workshop, where we showed a small video documentary and followed with cooking demos.”

What makes the school even more extraordinary, explains San Giacomo, is that the school is located on Central Avenue next to a correctional facility.  “Most students are on financial aid, or split the tuition 50 percent. This is one of the first years where we have a waiting list. Above all, we look to kids that are the neediest,” she says, adding, “March is our annual gala and auction and we receive strong community support.  The program starts with students but is much more far reaching.”


AeroFarms system is highly intriguing and raises many questions.

Paul Kneeland asks if the produce industry would support putting one in every school as they do supports salad bars. It is an interesting question. Yes, these type of growing operations will boost children’s interest in agriculture and maybe inspire children to try more items, but it is also true that this type of initiative does not directly produce additional business for the grower/shipper, some would see them as competitors.

Still the concept is exciting for schools and, perhaps, would have other applications. A restaurant or retail store could offer “hyper-local” produce. Dilapidated urban buildings could become urban farms and much more.

Of course financials have to be worked out and you can’t grow all products very easily. Still, you never know when the future will sneak up on you, so it is a good idea to look.

You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference including all the tours right here.

If you just want to register for one of the tours or want to add a tour to your existing reservation let us know right here.

Here by the way is a little video news report we found highlighting the project:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Booth Babes Issue Rolls On With Discourse About Beauty, PMA Exhibit Policy, Marketing Tactics And Proper Attire

We’ve run four pieces in this conversation so far:

1) Pundit’s Mailbag — Booth Babes And The Disconnect With PMA’s Position On Women’s Careers

2) Pundit’s Mailbag — Nothing Wrong With Booth Babes!

3) Pundit’s Mailbag — “Booth Babes”, Professionalism and Hypocrisy: What Should PMA’s Policy Be?

4) Pundit’s Mailbag – United Fresh And Others Weigh In On Booth Babes

And the perspectives proliferate:

Wow, the subject that just won’t die.

I find the booth babes often fill some form of necessary work — be it handing out samples or pamphlets or keeping a potential customer occupied — while the primary sales people finish their conversation with the person who was in the booth first. To eliminate the local talent would either require the company to have additional workers fly across the country at great expense or do without and not be able to staff their booth to the level they need.

As for the looks of the local talent, I suppose one could request unattractive people, but I am sure we all know that the staffing companies don’t have binders full of those. I have sat in the reception lobbies of many companies, and I never see a receptionist who is unattractive.

Granted, they may not be aspiring runway models, and I am sure that their ability to perform the job is essential, but is it somehow ok to hire people who look attractive and can do the job for the front office, but not those who can do the job and are exceptionally attractive for the trade show?

Is it odd, though, that so many people would say this is degrading without asking the allegedly degraded for their opinion? Here are all forms of management discussing this issue involving labor without asking for any input from said labor. Not one “booth babe” has sent any feedback or apparently was even asked for their input.

Maybe they don’t find it degrading or maybe they would rather be degraded than be unemployed. The same thing could easily be said of anybody who works at “Hot-Dog on a Stick” at the local mall or twirls a “Tax Refund” sign dressed as Uncle Sam on the side of the road every April.

—Mike Poindexter
General Manager
Poindexter Nut Company
Selma, California

In fairness, we don’t think the issue is whether to hire local people or not, and the question of hiring attractive people, though an issue in itself, is not the one we have been addressing.

Here the issue is what kind of dress is appropriate.

The photo Dan’l Mackey Almy used on her blog, The Core of women dressed in Daisy Duke type outfits was objectionable to many of our correspondents not because the women were attractive but because they were not dressed professionally. In other words, the same exact women in business suits or even Khakis and logoed golf shirts in the now common fashion would not have raised an objection.

The issue of whether people subjectively feel degraded is more complicated than it seems. We could go into Marxian theories of False Consciousness, which basically holds that people don’t realize how oppressed they actually are. We can also discuss social justice issues and note that some would question whether the fact that the world is so organized that some people have few options, makes it OK when they want to do desperate things.

The issues are complicated and, in fact, the women who started this conversation think it has gotten off track:

I guess Dan’l and I struck a chord with all the booth babe feedback you’ve been getting. I suppose it’s been vetted enough, and I certainly have more important things to be doing… but I think my main point has gotten lost in the debate. I’ve met a few watermelon queens and had the opportunity to march on Capitol Hill with them. There were no bare midriffs to be seen. They were dressed quite elegantly.

Most importantly, they were well versed on public policy and were exceptional, well-trained spokespeople. There’s a big difference between a watermelon queen and a booth babe.  

I also have an appreciation for historic produce labels that reference women. To say we were advocating these companies get rid of their labels and marketing materials is a classic case of jumping from one extreme to the other.  

I’ve been to Fruit Logistica, and most of the “hostesses” are dressed in clothes native to their country. Fruit Logistica is different from Fresh Summit. There is more of a social atmosphere. Most of the exhibits are actually bars with alcoholic beverages flowing all day long. I didn’t mind the hostesses at all at Fruit Logistica — it fit the occasion and atmosphere of the show.

My point is, Fruit Logistica doesn’t have young college female students walking their show with people trying to “mentor” them into the produce industry. PMA does. Fruit Logistica also doesn’t have a Women’s Leadership breakfast and upcoming educational conference promoting women leadership in business. PMA does.

As CEO of a certified Women’s Business Enterprise and a member of the Network of Executive Women, I applaud PMA for focusing on these important initiatives. All I’m suggesting is PMA’s exhibit policies support their educational programs — not contradict them.

—Lorri Koster
Mann Packing Company
Salinas, California

Lorri copied Dan’l on her letter, and Dan’l quickly concurred:

I agree wholeheartedly that PMA must choose how they want their event to evolve.  All things to all people will not work with the majority of paying members in the long run. It’s easy to justify any behavior or marketing tactics for any occasion; the more difficult task is for PMA and other event organizers to focus on how they want their events to be defined and how they hope to progress. Booth sales (at any cost) must not be the single measurement of an event’s success, and when I see the imbalance as described by Lorri in her letter, I can’t help but to question that fact.

Relative to individual companies, my issue is with the tactics not with freedoms. Majestic was not the only company or person that utilized the “booth babe” tactic. Mr. Thomas has been forceful in his justification for his actions, but with Two Big Misses in his replies to the Pundit:

1.   Complete disregard to the fact that his booth personnel were signing their centerfold headshots, and

2. The same booth personnel were positioned in front of a booth that did not represent Majestic, but rather Texas Produce Association. 

In my opinion, neither of these tactics are representative of a strategy that was well planned or executed with a productive outcome in mind, thus weakening impact of Fresh Summit for attendees.

I have appreciated all the opinions on this topic.  I look forward to seeing you all in New York!  Getting excited.

--Dan’l Mackey Almy
President and Managing Partner

DMA Solutions, Inc.
Irving Texas

In the end, what this conversation is really about is brand-building, and Lorri and Dan’l are really providing some free consulting, directly to PMA and more broadly to the whole industry about consistency of presentation.

Of course, even acknowledging the importance of such matters, turning it into policy is more difficult.

Would the “Daisy Duke” characters be OK if they weren’t signing their centerfolds? Is the midriff the problem or the short shorts? What if they were wearing sequined gowns and pointing to the produce as if it were a Ferrari at the auto show.

Instituting policies, as many trade shows have, requiring professional attire is less helpful than it might seem. Policies are useful to give show management the opportunity to force someone to stop if there are too many complaints.

It seems beyond argument that PMA, and any other organization, has to decide what it represents and what it wishes to be known for. It also seems obvious that consistency in imaging is a wise idea and an effective branding strategy.

The problem on a trade show is that business is traditionally mixed with fun, and for many men, seeing a “Dukes of Hazard” showcase is fun.

It is, perhaps, an unprofessional distraction, but so are many things at trade shows.

But, in the end, today, most organizations wouldn’t allow the kind of fun things that offend people to go on. You wouldn’t let an exhibitor have an Al Jolson Blackface character at its booth, although that might have been perfectly acceptable at some point in time.

Perhaps what this is all about is just the changing mores of a society in flux. Things that used to be acceptable just are not acceptable any more. Equally, things in other areas that used to be unacceptable are acceptable now.

The most interesting part of these exchanges is why do so many care so much and, surely, it is a clash between two different visions.

But only one will own the future.

Many thanks to Mike Poindexter, Lorri Koster and Dan’l Mackay Almy for helping us think through this important issue.

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