Markon and Pundit sister publication, Produce Business, were both launched in 1985, and Tim York and the Pundit have had a friendship pretty much ever since. It was the Spinach Crisis of 2006 that led to a much closer working relationship — as we focused on finding ways to advance food safety in an industry that had, for most of history, been thought to be exempt from most food safety problems.
The traditional idea was that produce would get rotten before it became dangerous. But industry advancements, such as modified atmosphere packaging — which meant produce would look good longer — and the growth of blends — where a small amount of a contaminated item could contaminate a large amount of blended product — had started to make the old rules ancient history. Then the industry had Osama Bin Laden to thank. The terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 made the government concerned about food security, so it flooded state departments of health with money for upgrades in both testing equipment and in communications networks. Soon after, our ability to trace illnesses was much improved.
Tim, though already deep in the woods on food safety, always saw our industry’s efforts as part of an overall approach to boost consumption. After all, consumer confidence in the product was prerequisite to getting consumers to buy more. So with the shared goal to increase produce consumption at restaurants, he joined us when we launched the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference. This year that event, held on Friday, December 13, is focused on menu-planning, and we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects editor Mira Slott to talk with Tim, who recently announced plans to leave Markon, and find out more about this moment in his life:
Markon Cooperative, Inc.
Q: Your powerful industry leadership in ground-breaking food safety and sustainability initiatives has been profound. You’ve never shied away from complex issues, rousing our readers, and Produce Show attendees in New York, London and Amsterdam with your extensive foodservice background and produce expertise on our global thought-leader panels.
You also facilitate a popular highlight of the New York Produce Show’s unique Foodservice Ideation Forum—a dynamic breakout luncheon enjoining culinary students and foodservice executives across the supply chain in a solution-driven discussion.
A: New York is an amazing show, as well as London and Amsterdam. The content is so rich because you bring in so many expert speakers. Your targeted grape and cherry summits, and unique themed events are strong formats too. I was honored to be included among the distinguished line-up of top retailers and thought-leaders to present my perspective at the Amsterdam Produce Summit on strategies for seizing success in the omni-channel future. All these diverse programs have a dedicated following.
Q: You have built a long, distinguished career at Markon and as an industry advocate on which to share your perspective. What are your plans moving forward?
A: I expect to be here at Markon through June, 2020. Then to parts unknown but still in the industry. We have not yet identified a successor — the board has an executive search underway.
I had originally been planning to stay at Markon until 2023, but you know it just seemed like the right time for me to begin thinking of doing something else. I’m really in the early stages of looking and seeing what might be of interest to me.
I’ve been at Markon for 34 years. It’s a little bit daunting to be thinking of leaving and where I go next. But at the same time, Markon has provided such a great opportunity to meet people all around this business and around the world. I’m just going to watch and listen. I certainly intend to stay in this business. I love the business, and I love the people. We have great products to sell and a great story to tell about them, so I want to continue with that.
I remarried here a few months ago. My wife Kim and I are wide open to new adventures and new places. I’m committed to the produce industry and want to take advantage of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom and hopefully bring that value to another company or new entity, whatever that may be.
Q: Can you tell us about your experience at Markon and what you take with you? What are some of your most memorable moments…
A: Starting when we were formed in 1985, it was a brand new concept for foodservice distributors buying direct and managing their own packs and products and sourcing. It’s great fun to be part of building something, and especially something that is brand new and learning along the way.
I didn’t know when I came to work for Markon what the foodservice business really was. The buyer needs were different than for regular buyers. I was learning along the way too. We started with innovation as the foundation for what we were doing — the whole idea being innovative. We really worked to continue that tradition.
When we said we wanted to eliminate all iced products, that required experiments with new technologies and new films to be able to ship broccoli, for example, with no ice. We said staples in cartons are a problem in a foodservice operation… in following the product, people cut themselves on the staples, so we wanted all boxes staples-free.
Early on, we also wanted everything fully recyclable. We did that before anyone, including us, heard the word sustainability. I wish I had records of all these things. We did that no less than 25 years ago. We said we wanted everything fully recyclable, particularly companies serving major metro areas like New York City, where waste disposable was a big issue.
We standardized our pallets because we had automated warehouses that required good solid wood platforms. So, we standardized pallets with structural integrity around those. Food safety was another area where we tried to lead.
Q: You were progressive on several fronts… You personally took a particularly aggressive stance on food safety issues, instrumental in the formation of the Center for Produce Safety in 2007, which you chaired for many years… Was this triggered by the infamous spinach crisis?
A: The spinach crisis overwhelmed the industry in 2006.
Q: I can attest to that. Our in-depth coverage was extensive…
A: We had launched our food safety programs back in 1998. The incredible thing is, when you think about this, we required at minimum a third-party audited food safety program. That was the very first step we took.
Q: Was that unusual at that time?
A: Believe it or not, we eliminated 25 percent of our supplier base because they did not have a third-party audited food safety program. It tells you how far we’ve come as an industry in 21 years.
So, we had been working on food safety, and we saw an opportunity in 2006 to make a difference. We worked with Dave Corsi at Wegmans and used our contacts and relationships through PMA to try to move the industry forward together.
Those are highlights from my time at Markon.
Q: I wanted to ask you about one more innovation that Markon fostered for foodservice, fresh-cut produce items…
A: Fresh Express was already doing fresh-cut for retail. You know, when we started in fresh-cut, it just wasn’t a very good product. We went through quite a learning curve, along with our suppliers, Dole and Fresh Express, in those days. First off, learning how to sell those products from our end, but also from the supplier side, learning more about breathable films and respiration rates for products. We launched our own brand of pre-cut items in 1996, and that’s what we call Ready Set Serve. Those are our ready-to-use items, and that accounts for over 40 percent of our total volume.
Q: That’s a transformation. Markon has been quite a trendsetter in the industry… Did you always have the support and buy-in from your members? You work with some major industry players in your cooperative…
A: Yes, what’s really fun is to be a part of that. It’s been great. And it happened because we have members that believe in the mission and support those ideals. When we say we’re going to do something, we had the trust that our members were going to support us and be behind the decisions we were making. That’s important, and a big part of why this all happened because they supported our efforts.
Q: Let’s transition now to the New York Produce Show’s Foodservice Forum on Friday, Dec. 13, and the value of the Ideation Breakout Luncheon you facilitate… Do you have some words of inspiration for someone who hasn’t attended before? This year the theme is Produce R&D: Deconstructing The Menu Playbook…the forum is intended to stimulate thought and open dialogue among the foodservice industry’s leaders from all aspects of the supply chain.
A: Several things stand out to me. You have industry specialists revealing important insights, such as Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef from Gordon Food Service. He talks about food trends and exclusive research he’s conducting. The first time I heard the term “veg-centric menus” was from Gerry at this conference. Experts from outside the confines of the produce industry, such as Chandra Ram, editor of Plate Magazine or Cathy Holly, publisher and editor-in-chief of Flavor and the Menu, bring another perspective around trends.
This is the best place I know of to find out what the menu trends are relative to fresh produce and help us begin to imagine what the opportunities may be, and how we can help operators be successful. For example, Gerry Ludwig describes aggressive cooking techniques, much like you would use in meat products — grilling, brazing or charring and doing that with fruits or vegetables — and how delicious they can be. Just hearing that helps encapsulate for me how we have to keep thinking about helping operators with ideas to make produce more interesting, instead of just putting broccoli on the plate with butter on top.
The food trends are one thing. It’s a small enough group, it’s an intimate enough group, that there’s a great exchange of ideas. People are talking openly and honestly as a group, which I find nice. It’s not a big auditorium or something of that nature with hundreds and hundreds of people. This is a couple hundred, a very comfortable size.
Q: Can you talk about the mix of stakeholders from different parts of the supply chain?
A: Yes. You have distributors like us represented, key foodservice operators, growers/shippers, commodity boards, chefs and culinary students also. So you’ve really got the beginning, the middle and the end of supply chain there, I always find it valuable hearing others ideas and inputs, whether about trends, challenges, about product, how it’s packed, labor challenges and how we can help address them…any of those things because you’ve got such a wide-ranging audience there that’s what makes the Show so valuable.
Q: From your vantage point and knowledge, what are the biggest challenges or disrupters with a successful new menu rollout?
A: It’s always challenging. It’s one thing to have a good idea or new product and another to see it implemented through the supply chain. First you may have to convince a grower/shipper to plant that seed of a product in the ground. And convince distributors this is an item or an idea worth pursuing, and then they need to sell it through to the operator, and sometimes doing that direct. You must equip the distributors that work with that operator to show why this is different and why they should include this on their menu. That’s no small challenge.
For an operator, it means changing up the menu and training people how to prepare that. For distributors, it means training employees and what needs to be done in the warehouse. For growers there’s risk of putting that crop in the ground. I think of a conductor in an orchestra, trying to get everyone thinking and moving in harmony. That’s what is required for good execution of new products and innovation, interconnecting the people that are similarly committed to it.
Q: I wasn’t expecting you to start all the way back to the origins of planting the seed in the ground, when talking logistical obstacles to menu development, although it analogizes the distance from planting the seed of an idea to bringing that idea to fruition!
In another sense, translating an idea or new menu item to a large QSR or national fast food chain, as opposed to an independent local restaurant, creates additional complexities and limitations…
A: There’s a reason McDonald’s is not the first restaurant to introduce a mixed green salad. When a restaurant has 14,000 units in this country, it’s difficult to execute certain items over a large operation, across an entire supply chain. So, it’s no small feat, as you point out, for the larger operators to be able to pull that off.
Q: Will you be eliciting industry solutions to these challenges during the interactive Foodservice Forum session? How would you describe the IDEATION Luncheon for newcomers?
A: What we do at lunch time is give people an overall menu challenge, which varies based on the table they are sitting at. Culinary students lead each table’s session to create a menu that meets the challenge. One year, for instance, the overall challenge was to come up with produce-centric dishes that would cater to different patrons… one table’s menu was for a baseball stadium, where convenience would be necessary, another for a fast-casual “meat and potato” style restaurant in the mid-west, etc.
It could be a challenge around a new leaf lettuce item, for example, and this operator wants to use it for a sandwich. What are the steps we have to do to take it from a concept to execution? It could be a grower/shipper that has a new variety of extra sweet and juicy cantaloupe. How do we translate that down to a consumer who orders melon for breakfast? How do we communicate to the consumer that this cantaloupe is different from what they typically get down the street?
There are all sorts of challenges that get thrown at us. This is an enjoyable way to talk out these ideas as we’re sitting down together eating a delicious meal. There’s a great cross-section of people to hear from, and exchange experiences, and make some new friends.
I’ve been participating in the Ideation Luncheon for several years now, and it’s a lot of fun. The students at the culinary schools are enthusiastic about it, furiously jotting down their table’s menu concepts on white boards, to share with the entire group. We also can impress upon the culinary students, not only the importance of fruits and vegetables on the menu, but the opportunity they represent for menu specialization and differentiation. We can be infectious with these students by how we approach that time together. Different foodservice panels require different approaches, and you have to think that through, what works for a fast-casual restaurant won’t be the same as what works for a university.
Q: What do you gain personally? Have there been moments where a lightbulb goes off, sparking a new idea for your company, or is it more of a chance to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in a long time…
A: It’s many things. We all need a little shot of adrenalin. It’s one of those few events where I really feel that way. I’ve gotten an injection of enthusiasm or interest around the opportunities that we have in this business.
A great food town like New York City does that too. The setting itself and being there during the holiday season with the lights and decorations, there’s a certain feeling around the Show that makes it special.
Q: I’m in agreement with you, there’s a palpable energy and excitement in the air throughout the Show.
A: And despite the winter chill, a genuine feeling of warmth that it generates! On Tuesday, you have the Foundational Excellence Program focused on new people in the business, on Wednesday, you have the Global Trade Symposium, on Thursday the main trade show day filled with activities, and then on Friday, concurrently the Foodservice Forum, or a choice of several different retail tours. It’s four days of different looks at our business.
Even with my 40 plus years in the produce industry, I always get fresh ideas and fresh insight. It’s an exhausting full four days, but it’s the best investment I could ask for. I find all four days invaluable.
What makes Tim exceptional is that he has always seen the path to success for his own company as being commensurate with raising the standards of the whole industry. That led to his efforts on food safety and sustainability. It also led to him to engaging in industry association work, becoming chairman of PMA in 2002. It led him to working with yours truly on so many projects. Much of his work is public, but we know how much he also weighed in behind the scenes.
Foodservice was always ahead of retail on food safety. This is mostly due to the laws that hold restaurants responsible for creating food in a way that retailers are not. So, at the exact moment the industry was most in need, opportunity met preparation, and Tim moved the industry forward.
Now, soon, we will experience the next chapter in his life, but wherever and whatever it may be, we can be certain Tim will move the industry forward with a broad scope and great passion. We are lucky to have him in the industry.
This year Tim will be on the industry panel in the Foundational Excellence Program, Part of the Thought Leader’s Panel on the amin show and part of the Foodservice Forum.
You can sign up for Foundational Excellence here
The Foodservice Forum here
The New York Produce Show and Conference here
If you need a hotel let us know here.
We look forward to having you be a part of this important event.