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Putting Produce on Restaurant Menus

First, a handful of health and diet-oriented associations that have been touting the benefits of fresh produce have claimed that consumers are truly looking for produce when dining out.

Second, distributor executives have told ID Access that produce will likely be the next category that they will add to their warehouses.

Third, the supply chain is ready to fill the pipeline with produce and improve delivery of this perishable foodservice product.

Then why is fresh produce, i.e., beyond such commodity items as lettuce, tomatoes, yellow onions, potatoes, absent from independent and chain operators' menus?

This question was addressed at the recent PMA Fresh Summit in Atlanta, where one panelist pointedly observed that if growers, shippers and distributors want to see more produce on operator menus, a development that everyone agrees would mutually drive everyone's revenues, and then they must offer them products that can be efficiently used in a restaurant.

"I think it's great to educate us on what's available, but you (the supply chain) need to make sure that you're providing a product that the end user can use efficiently based on size and cost, and be presented in a usable method," suggested Beverly Lynch, vice president of food and beverage, Golden Corral Corp., a Raleigh, NC-based chain with 480 units in more than 40 states.

Three panelists, representing grower/shippers, distributors and operators, exchanged views on why more fresh produce is not visible on menus and what should be done to change that situation. They concluded that consumers are craving flavor and variety though in comfortable doses, distributors are dealing with delivery issues pertaining to a perishable product, and growers are researching and developing produce that could be marketed easily and profitably by everyone.

"Produce is an easy item to sell and an easy item to work with due to its characteristics – it's colorful, flavorful and nutritious. People like to talk about it. It's relatively inexpensive per serving. The only detriment to produce would be seasonality, perishability and prep time," suggested Jon Kiley, senior manager, foodservice sales, Earthbound Farm, San Juan Batista, CA.

Not meaning to disenchant the audience, Kiley quickly added that the detriments could easily be turned into advantages for the operator.

"Grower-shippers, need to partner with those serving our items to understand what their customers are asking for."
"Seasonality allows restaurant operators to provide their guests with in-season specialty items that are at the peak of flavor, availability and at a relatively low cost. Produce is perishable but this allows operators to vary their menus weekly and only serve their guests the freshest items possible. Prep time can be avoided with the myriad value-added products that are available in the marketplace. For instance, pre-washed baby lettuce or spring mix. They're available year round, ready to eat, and require minimal prep time," Kiley pointed out.

"We, as grower-shippers, need to partner with those serving our items to understand what their customers are asking for. We also need to be innovative and present products are exciting to the end user, will make it through the distribution channel, and allow the operator to make a fair profit while also allowing a fair profit to our growers," he added.

From the distributors' corner, Rob Mumma, vice president, Belair Produce, Inc., a specialty company located in Hanover, MD, emphasized that education is key to building produce sales and said his DSRs devote a lot of time to consultative selling.

"If the demand from the consumer where visible, there would be more produce on the menus. People vote by how they spend their dollars. Education at early age to encourage more consumption of fruits and vegetables is key to developing later demand," Mumma said. "From a distributor's point of view there are very few supply chain issues that would prevent availability of the majority of the fruits and vegetables."

Responding to a question from ID Access about DSR-operator relations, Mumma said the specialty distributor proactively consults with end users.

"We try to build relationships, communications and trust. We offer educational sessions and invite customers to attend. They are the ones that want to learn and be participants in a relationship. It's important that a distributor have that kind of relationship and communication to tell the operator what's going to be hot. The relationship has to be present for both sides to benefit," he said.

"We try to build relationships, communications and trust."
Noting that specialty distributor sales reps are better trained to handle produce sales than their broadline counterparts, Mumma also expressed skepticism regarding broadliners' successful entrance into produce sales.

Golden Corral's Lynch sought to add an operator's realism into the discussion by saying that she had been approached by distributor sales reps who had no other goal in mind than to sell produce regardless of her needs.

"Their goal in life was not to come in and answer my problems from a restaurant's perspective or to ask 'How can I help you to get this product on your menu,'" she related.

Declaring that this kind of attitude is detrimental to growing business, Lynch went on to explain that in addition to seasonality and availability, the operator is concerned by the product's specifications and sizes because uniform plate presentations are important to her.

"From a restaurant's point of view, it's very simple to me. The goal of a restaurant is to serve food that the consumer wants, in a surrounding that's comfortable, and at a price that's acceptable and profitable. That's what we're in business for," she said.

The panelists listed taste, color, handling, shelf life, uniqueness, seasonality, availability and perishability as key issues that need to be addressed in order to market successfully produce to restaurateurs. Lynch explained why her top three points are paramount for an operator:

"What does the guest demand? That's why potatoes and salads are so acceptable – that's what guests want, that's what they eat, and that's why you'll see them on everyone's menus.

"Product specifications and what produce is available to us. What are the specifications? We look at cost per ounce, the packaging size, the cost per serving size, uniformity, and training of an hourly cook to cook each product to certain times and temperatures to get the product to be the same on everyone's plates.

"Operational issues. We have to look at the constraints that we have, what equipment do we have, how we cook it, store it, serve it."

As she considers adding commodity or exotic produce selections to her menus, Lynch said she is quite aware that the patron ultimately decides what appears on the plate and the primary attraction today are proteins such as steak or poultry, with produce a secondary consideration.

Lynch explained that with her menus changing every quarter, she is usually creating listings that will be available six months hence for products that will last three months.

"That's why we're going to go with items that are safe. I know the supply chain will always have tomatoes, potatoes and mushrooms," she said.

Among hot produce items, the panelists listed organics, baby carrots and corn – things that people are familiar with and feel comfortable with but look different – grape tomatoes and other finger foods that attract kids, heirloom tomatoes, lettuce-fruit blends and spring mix.

As for the last item, Mumma observed that with McDonald's help spring mix has been the greatest success story in produce in the past 20 years.

"As a distributor, we can't afford to have a poor quality spring mix because if it gets to a caterer on a weekend, you're sunk. Spring mix has unlimited potential," he said.

Lynch offered the following observation about lettuce-fruit blends.

"Seven years ago we tested that and our guests stayed away. Now there are a lot of blends of fruit and leafy greens. We see people eating healthier choices than just leafy lettuce," she said.

A Mexican-American QSR operator from the audience offered information about the opportunities for healthy menu choices in her market segment. According to her, the produce supply chain has sales opportunities in QSR with produce – "The time has never been better." QSR responded to media reports about obesity and has been adding healthy produce and fruits while Mexican QSR has been looking into salads and adding produce, she said.

Opportunities are also plenty in schools, where produce is challenged by snack foods. The panelists concurred that if a grower/shipper or distributor wants to get produce into school programs, it has to be as easy as pizza.

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