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Growing pains

With the push by health advocates, the government and produce associations to get more vegetables and fruit on menus, restaurants face several challenges. Here’s how three operators work the supply chain.

Harsh weather has wreaked havoc on a number of fruit and vegetable crops. In just the last six months, winter snowstorms, freezing temperatures, fierce winds, drenching rains and desert heat have caused nightmarish growing conditions in various parts of the country. The short-term result is delayed or diminished supply of certain fresh produce items and higher prices on selected commodities.

“Because of unusually cool temperatures in the South, spring season vegetables may be a week or two later in reaching full volumes,” reports Gary Lucier, agricultural economist with the USDA. “This means it may be early to mid-April before production of crops is up to speed and prices decline to average levels.” The crops most affected are tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and onions in states such as Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and South Carolina. Lucier continues: “Barring a cool, wet spring in the West, it appears that spring crops grown largely in California, including lettuce, broccoli, cantaloupe, onions, cauliflower and asparagus, should be ready in normal volume on time.”

With the push by health advocates, the government and produce associations to get more vegetables and fruit on menus, restaurants face several challenges. Here’s how three operators work the supply chain.

Bill Fuller

Corporate chef, Mad Mex, Pittsburgh, PA, 9 locations

In 2009, Big Burrito Restaurant Group, parent company of Mad Mex, won a United Fresh Produce Excellence in Foodservice award. For his Mexican menu, Fuller menus many vegetarian items and incorporates ingredients such as fresh spinach, roasted corn, zucchini, portobello mushrooms, sprouts and pineapple into his burritos, fajitas and tacos.

Biggest challenge: Getting a consistent supply of produce that comes in as fresh as possible.

Buying strategies: “We’re a Mexican concept and make everything from scratch, including all our salsas. That means we need a steady supply of fresh tomatoes, tomatillos, avocados and peppers. This winter, I was able to get Roma tomatoes from Florida even though the round tomatoes were scarce. The price was up but there was good enough supply to make our Pico de Gallo and Fire Roasted Tomato-Chipotle salsas.

“I work closely with our produce supplier, Paragon Foods, to source locally in season, but certain items have to be trucked across the country year round. Avocados, for example. Our vendor has a ripening room so they can be delivered to us ready to use. All our kitchen managers are also trained in avocado ripening. We make tons of fresh guacamole!”

Nic Jammet

Co-founder, Sweetgreen, Washington, D.C., 4 locations

Sweetgreen is an expanding fast-casual concept with a menu that focuses on signature salads, wraps and frozen yogurt. For patrons who want a small side, there are selections such as roasted squash and crunchy kale. Fruits and vegetables figure prominently into every item, several of which change seasonally.

Biggest challenge: To source 100 percent sustainable and local produce.

Buying strategies: “We appointed a sourcing and sustainability manager whom we call the ‘Sourceress.’ We needed a person who could forge relationships with local farmers; as we expand, my partners and I can’t always go to the Farmer’s Market every week. Our Sourceress will visit local farms to make sure they are growing and handling produce according to our standards. We are supporting these farmers by guaranteeing demand—we promise to buy a specified quantity of what they plant. And we’re introducing the farmers to our vendor, Kenny Brothers Produce, so they can handle the distribution and ease deliveries.
“We walk a fine line between sustainability and standardization. Certain items have to be on the menu year round, like apples, avocados, mangos and lettuces. We can’t buy everything locally, but we make sure everything is grown sustainably. For example, our mesclun salad mix is from Earthbound Farms in California. In each restaurant, we post a ‘Local List’ on the menu board so customers can see where the produce is coming from.” 

Geno Bernardo

Executive chef, Nove Italiano, Las Vegas, Nevada

When Bernardo came to Nove Italiano in The Palms Hotel five years ago, he was sourcing all his produce from a big supplier in California. Then he discovered Parump, Nevada—a farming community about 50 miles from Las Vegas. He began cultivating relationships with these farmers and joined forces with Mario Batali to launch the first Las Vegas Farmers’ Market about a year ago. Now Bernardo is tilling the soil on one of the farms, working with the farmer to grow his own produce.

Biggest challenge: Boost fresh produce availability within a 100-mile radius.

Buying strategies: “Sunbaked Farms first got me involved with local sourcing. They grow heirloom tomatoes, baby eggplant, basil, garlic, zucchini, squash blossoms, broccoli rabe, braising greens and lettuces, all of which I use on my menu. We found that all these vegetables grow well in the desert ground—no need for greenhouses. Now I’ve partnered with a local heritage farmer who is growing only for my restaurant. I go out there once or twice a week to learn about his selective farming techniques and pick fresh salad greens and other produce. The rest of the time, the farmer delivers to the city.

“I’m taking my restaurant in this sourcing direction for several reasons. One is the better quality and longer shelf life of local produce, especially salad ingredients. Another is self-satisfaction; I’m learning some amazing things about farming. As I educate myself, I also educate my guests. We always talk about the produce we’re featuring on the menu.

“Through trial and error, we’ll see what is in most demand and what grows best locally, eventually increasing the supply. But I’ll always have to supplement with produce from other places for staples like carrots, celery, onions, fennel and potatoes. We use about 100 pounds a week of some of those items and local farmers can’t keep up with demand.” 

Q&A with Michael Jantschke

Director of Food Safety, PRO*ACT Distribution Network, Monterey, CA

What questions should operators ask their vendor partners about the safety of their supply chain?

Ask if they have a supplier approval or control program for the growers and shippers who supply their fresh produce. There should be a rigorous, standardized approval process in place; third-party audits are just one part of this process. Many suppliers will provide summary documents so you can see what controls are offered.

How can I be assured of safe handling when buying local produce from farmers?

Develop close relationships with the farmers, get to know their farms and ask lots of questions. Partner with a vendor in the know; more distributors are now buying local produce and they can vet the farmers for you.

What’s new on the traceability front?

The main focus now is on the traceability process rather than the technology. The buzz about RFID tags has waned a bit because they turned out to be quite expensive. Now companies are trying to implement the Produce Traceability Initiative, an industry-led effort to insure traceability across the supply chain by 2012. It calls for external traceability using Global Trade Item Numbers so data can easily be exchanged through either UPC codes or RFID tags between growers, packers, shippers, vendors, etc., as well as internal traceability to track product in each company. The goal is to create cohesion and make it easier to track product throughout the entire produce supply chain.

What improvements can growers and shippers expect in the future?

There’s a movement to harmonize GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices). Currently, there’s a multitude of auditing schemes and some are very repetitive. The aim is to come up with one audit system and set of standards for the entire industry that every farm and facility will have to accept. It’s a huge undertaking but will be a huge improvement in efficiency and safety.

Any advice you can share with operators to help them become smarter buyers of fresh produce?

Don’t use price as a determining factor in choosing a supplier or distributor. Look at what they deliver in terms of food safety. More stringent controls usually mean a higher price, but the end user is buying that supply chain management along with their produce. Get to know your supplier beyond their name and address.

In the market

Growers in the United States got a better price for their fruits and vegetables in early 2010 than they did at the same time last year. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, the price index rose by 18 percent for fruits and nuts and 3.6 percent for vegetables. Potatoes were one commodity that fell in price—down $1.88 per carton weight.

Although the winter weather caused some crops to get off to a slow start this spring, vendors have been able to fill in with tomatoes, bell peppers and squash from Mexico. By late April or early May, Florida production should return to normal volume. “I don’t anticipate much of an impact on summer produce availability,” says Gary Lucier with the Economic Research Service of the USDA. At right is a rundown on the market outlook (as of mid-March) for a selection of top seasonal fruit and vegetable buys.

Artichokes: The crop received just the right amount of rain for peak production and quality, notes Ocean Mist Farms, a major grower. A record harvest is predicted in California with artichokes that boast good amounts of meat on each petal and extra large hearts.

Asparagus: Growing areas in California report normal harvest timing and volume prospects, according to the California Asparagus Commission. The heavy winter rains made up for exceptionally dry weather in November and December and full production began in March.

Avocados: The California avocado season—at its peak from April through September—got off to an early start; moisture from all the rain actually enhanced the size and quality of the fruit. The forecast is for a bumper crop of 470 million pounds. Spring is also a good time to source Mexican avocados; supply is high in May and fat and dry measurements are at their best.

Blueberries: Cultivated (highbush) blueberries are now grown commercially in 38 states, assuring more ample supplies. While it’s still too early to predict the size of the 2010 crop, 2009 production hit a record 450 million pounds, up from 407 million pounds in 2008, reports the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. Increased acreage and consistent supply from around the country will meet seasonal demand through the fall, when blueberries from Chile start arriving.

Corn: Winter crops were decimated by the freeze, but the spring crop of fresh sweet corn from Florida will be strong throughout April and May. After that, production heads north, with more local corn available.

Grapes: During spring and summer, 98 percent of table grapes come from California. The season starts in mid-May, with varieties like Perlette and Sugraone (green), Seedless Flame (red) and Beauty Seedless (blue-black) seasonal picks.

Mangos: Above average rain and winds in mango-growing regions tightened supply until around mid-March, but volume is expected to pick up in April. Red mango varieties should peak in May. Prices have been stable.

Strawberries: Wet fields in late January decreased the early supply of California strawberries, but the remainder of the season looks good. In 2009, 175 million trays of strawberries were shipped—a record year—and 2010 should see similar figures, despite slightly lower acreage. The reason—some of the new varieties have higher yields, says the California Strawberry Commission.

Tomatoes: The winter freeze cut Florida tomato supplies by as much as 60 percent, according to some estimates, and buyers should expect a significant gap in tomatoes until the end of March with higher prices to match. Supply should bounce back in April and May at the peak of the spring harvest, though it will likely be down slightly from recent years due to decreased acreage, reports the Florida Tomato Committee.

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