Doing What Tastes Right

Preparing for PMA’s 25th anniversary Foodservice Conference in Monterey, I was struck by the impact this sector has had on our business this past couple of decades. From fresh-cut to custom packaging, the produce industry has learned a great deal about the world of food prepared away from home. Retail innovation has often followed.

But the most powerful lesson we can still learn from foodservice is only now starting to gain real currency in the hearts and minds of our industry. It’s a lesson whose drumbeat has been rising louder and louder in the past few years. It’s a lesson that is at once so obvious to realize and yet so difficult to implement. It’s a lesson about taste, about flavors, about delight.

If you come away from events like the PMA Foodservice Conference with just one “aha” moment, let me wish for you that the “aha” helps you shape how you put your money where your customers’ mouths are. To be more precise, where their taste buds are. Because it’s time for the produce industry to realize that its real path to success lies in knowing what foodservice professionals have always known: that taste sells, that taste keeps people coming back, that taste almost always trumps all else.

PMA research into produce preferences shows that shoppers no longer shop for just a product, but for an experience — and they are willing to pay more if that experience meets their expectations. Produce is hardly unique in this: most of us have heard about The Experience Economy. The foodservice sector as a whole has understood this better than retail. While most supermarkets for too long trained their shoppers to see stores as uninspiring places to restock on necessities, the foodservice sector has gobbled up market share by appealing to taste and experience, by being convenient and delightful at the same time.

It’s no small wonder that the biggest trend in food retailing today is the headlong dash into replicating the success of the Ws (Whole Foods, Wegmans and Wild Oats) and other experiential retailers whose customers want food treated as both sustenance and delight. They have de-commoditized food, turned the shopping experience into a pleasure and raised the bar of consumer expectations.

Every PMA research study to analyze consumer expectations, whether of foodservice or retail channels, puts taste consistently as the No. 1 factor. When it comes to the reasons for ordering a fresh produce menu item, 87 percent pick taste followed by 62 percent who pick nutrition.

The biggest challenge for all of us as produce marketers is not how to effect behavioral change through persistent repetition of “eat healthfully” in our marketing messages. It is how to effect change within our industry so we consistently delight consumers’ taste buds while delivering a more healthful experience. That means focusing what we grow on products that taste great. And it also means constructing a value chain that better rewards growers who deliver great tasting, de-commoditized products time and again.

Let me share a recent story from a PMA staff member. She was visiting a relative with two pre-school children. Juicy, fresh pears served sliced on a platter had Daniel and Dana’s complete attention. Their mother explained how the fruit had been delivered through a standing mail-order a day earlier. Yes, the kids preferred the pears to packaged snacks. And yes, the pears were much more expensive than those she’d purchased at her local supermarket and which had failed to impress the kids several times. So Meredith had made a conscious decision to make sure her kids developed good eating habits early — and doing that with great tasting, premium-priced pears meant bypassing the store and relying on mail-order fruit. Taste always comes first for this smart mom and her kids.

For restaurants, offering consistently tasty fresh fruits and vegetables is a smart business decision. Providing highly nutritious offerings helps counter the pressure that foodservice faces to provide solutions to health issues. We recognize that moving fresh produce closer to center plate is also very cost effective. However, this is not what motivates the consumer.

Look at the newest ad campaigns for leading restaurant chains. They trumpet excitement, taste and lifestyle connections through their menu introductions, which, oh, by the way, happen to be more produce-heavy and nutrition-smart. One reason for the focus of these ads may be a finding of recent research by the National Restaurant Association: An increasing number of Americans are nutritionally illiterate. NRA asked 10 questions testing the basic nutrition knowledge of Americans: Fewer than one out of 100 answered nine or 10 questions correctly and three out of four answered five or fewer correctly.

We must all eat, but we choose to dine out. And when we do, it is taste that rules. Two of three consumers agree their favorite restaurant foods provide flavor and taste sensations that cannot easily be duplicated in their home kitchen. The way to encourage diners to choose to produce is to stop and recognize why people dine out. The reasons that many people dine out are for the opportunity to treat themselves, to celebrate, to enjoy and to indulge.

However, just like Dana and Daniel who look forward to opening up the next box of fresh produce goodies, they will quickly turn away and perhaps never look back if they are disappointed with less than delightful produce. To keep them coming back for more, we must deliver the goods. If we consistently deliver the flavor and indulgence they crave, we know that consumers will do what tastes right. Delighting more palates is the key to moving more pallets.