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Food show draws hundreds

(April 1, 2010 - The Dispatch)—Throughout the day Wednesday, between 700 to 800 people filled the reception hall at the Richard Childress Racing complex to sample new food products at the annual food show of Orrell's Food Service.

Tony Orrell, president of the Churchland-based broadline food services distributor and processor, said he was encouraged by the turnout and pleased that about 100 of his 140 or so vendors were able to show their wares at the show, held at RCR for the first time this year. The past 19 years, it's been held at the county fairgrounds in about half the amount of space.

With the logo of "You're in the Driver's Seat," the hall was decorated with racing themes and Childress himself put in an appearance. One of RCR's team cars, No. 33, is sponsored by General Mills, one of the show vendors.

"Our attendance has been very good and the facility is very nice," Orrell said. "I feel pretty good about it. We'll have to see how the orders come in tomorrow but I'm cautiously optimistic."

Orrell said the show is a way to introduce new food products to the approximately 300 customer accounts who attend each year.

About 95 percent of those accounts are restaurants in central North Carolina and southern Virginia, said Pam Orrell Myers, executive vice president, with the remainder being institutions such as the Davidson County Schools, nursing homes and hospitals. She also noted the company now offers much more than food products, such as foil and paper products.

"We tell people we carry everything you need from the front door to the back door," Myers said.

But the food is still the largest part of the business.

Orrell noted the restaurant business has always been competitive, but even more so in a recession.

"Customers are really looking now to find anything to give themselves a little advantage over their competitors," Orrell said. "With the economy like it is, restaurants are trying to diversify their menus and offer something different."

Myers noted one of the up-and-coming stars of the food show is "Sweet Things," a sweet potato fry made by Lamb Weston, a division of ConAgra Foods. Darrell A. Owens, the regional sales manager, said product sales have jumped 50 percent in the past year. He said people are responding to a healthier alternative to conventional fries, noting his company's fries are processed so the customer can either bake or fry them.

"It's full of beta carotene, vitamin A, fiber and it's diabetic friendly, with a low glycemic index," Owens said. "So there's a little less guilt about having fries."

"And in the South we're well acquainted with sweet potatoes, so they're catching on," Myers added. "Everyone's looking for new ways to bring people in."

In business for 56 years, Orrell's is still family owned but has expanded about seven times through the years and now distributes about 3,000 items. Orrell said there are 90 employees, which is just a few less than at their top employment rate a few years ago.

"We haven't laid off one person," he said, noting attrition has accounted for about four positions. "We've been very blessed."

From The Dispatch.com

Vikki Broughton Hodges can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 214, or at vikki.hodges@the-dispatch.com.

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