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Learning From The High Priests Of Food Culture

PMA’s annual Foodservice Conference in Monterey, California, just concluded and it was, as it always is, a highly successful event. There is nothing else remotely like it in the produce industry — a unique place where foodservice, of which produce is a small part, can intersect with a produce industry that is still heavily focused on retail.

It is a shame, though, that more retailers don’t attend. Much of the conference focuses on chefs, and those chefs are very much in-touch with consumers and with culinary trends. Very often what is hot at a white tablecloth restaurant this year will be on retail shelves in the fullness of time. It seems to us that retailers need to have exposure to these trends, and attending an event such as PMA’s Foodservice Conference can serve as an early warning system for what is likely to be hot in the years to come.

At the same time, there is a terrible danger in simply accepting what is said by high-end chefs. With their importance as trendsetters acknowledged, it is worth remembering that the white tablecloth sector is about 2% of the foodservice industry.

If you are a commercial shipper that ships trailer loads of product, this sector probably accounts for zero percent of your direct business and it is just a tiny percent of what you may sell to wholesalers, who may sell to purveyors, who may sell to this elite sector.

So if a fancy chef explains that he rejects value-added product because he wants to add the value himself, it probably tells us little about the prospects for fresh-cuts.

In addition, we need to be cautious because too many chefs are prone to dismiss concerns that they cannot easily control. Issues, such as food safety that are crucial to the future of our industry, can be dismissed with the wave of a hand and an unsupported assertion.

When one of the chefs asserted that for every two local growers that have a food safety problem, there are ten good ones, one didn’t know whether to be more upset over the chef’s acceptance that one-sixth of his supply base has food safety problems or the fact that he thinks it OK to say things without any factual basis. If we could change anything about the seminars, it would be to have on the panels people in a position to challenge claims such as this.

Many shippers were frustrated listening to the workshops because what they heard was at such a disconnect from their actual experience. One foodservice director for a shipper that has the rights to some specially bred high-flavor varieties laughed at the general session in which celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain and Walter Scheib, who have worked at a range of upscale venues including The White House, pronounced their focus on serving tasty food.

Our shipper friend says he finds foodservice may want tasty food, but has no interest in paying for it. Yet our shipper friend is almost surely wrong. The chefs were sincere, and they will pay a premium… they do it every day when selecting from a local grower, a purveyor or walking a wholesale market in pursuit of that one perfect lot of tomatoes.

The misunderstanding is partly because our shipper has not properly geared his marketing toward the flavor-conscious, willing-to-pay-more sector, and partly because, in fact, our shipper, is kidding himself. He is a large-volume shipper that needs customers who buy enormous quantities. In other words, he needs to sell to the mainstream, and chefs that have worked at the White House are many things, but certainly not middle-of-road.

The PMA Foodservice Conference illustrated a clear bifurcation of the foodservice community. You had chefs at white tablecloth venues focused on local and dismissive of food safety issues, while chain restaurants were concerned with scalability and cost control.

They were like ships passing in the night — destined to never meet.

The trade show illustrated another disconnect between the produce production-side and the foodservice operator. The vast majority of booths would not have been out of place at a retail show, with the possible exception of different pack sizes.

Yet, fundamentally retail and foodservice think differently and in that difference lies both a challenge and an opportunity for produce vendors.

Retailers do not make judgments about their products. Because a retailer decides to sell a kosher all beef hot dog tells you nothing about that retailer’s judgment of the quality of the product. It just tells you that the retailer believes enough consumers will buy it to justify the space.

On the other hand, when Costco, in its foodservice operation — its snack bar in every store — decides to sell a kosher all beef hot dog, it is making and expressing a judgment about the quality, the value, the suitability for the clientele, etc., of that item.

Because restaurants make choices for consumers, they tend to know their customers better and that means that restaurant chains are well positioned to partner in product development and menu development.

What was wrong with most of the booths at PMA Foodservice is that they consisted of companies showing their wares for sale when the key to selling foodservice is getting the product on the menu.

There are many famous stories that play to different aspects of this situation. The late, great, Dave Stidolph of Mann Packing is said to have selected the length of his first fresh-cut broccoli spears not by what was efficient in Mann’s production facility but by the width of the commercial steam table and what size would allow them to fit two across.

McDonald’s approached its chicken vendor with a need for a chicken-based product that could be cooked in existing equipment and retailed at X price. Only after that approach was the McNugget developed.

Booths looking to sell to foodservice should highlight not just a list of existing products but a willingness and ability to partner to create new ones perfect for the menu of that chain. and suitable for the price and facility constraints of individual operators.

Some of the goings on at the foodservice conference raise questions as to their take-home value. What, precisely is the take home from chef demonstrations, for example? Perhaps the take home of these events, as with the whole conference, comes from taking a moment to marvel at the wonder of our products.

Things are changing post-spinach crisis. In chain restaurants, produce had been the last bastion of the chef, but concerns about food safety are driving more institutional restrictions on procurement. This makes it all the more important to, at least one weekend each year, surround ourselves with people in white jackets — the high-priests of the food culture. These devotees of taste love our products more than we do ourselves.

Being around them for a few days, by the sea in Monterey, is a way of recharging our industry batteries with love of product and a recognition of the important place our work holds in the world. Many thanks to PMA for bringing it all together.

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