Making Waves In Foodservice

In today’s difficult economy, it’s understandable to look out and see a vast, volatile sea tossing about your company’s ship. On the other hand, this is also an opportunity to embrace a positive mindset and chart a course for future, better waters. It is in that latter spirit that Produce Marketing Association (PMA) is working to help our members find the upside of this economic downturn. We believe produce offers a unique lifeline in today’s economy, for your customers and consumers alike. The foodservice sector offers an excellent example of that lifeline opportunity, contrarian as that might seem at this moment of shrinking restaurant share of the market.

The foodservice sector has long been urged by many — PMA included — to consider expanding the traditional “chop mentality” of focusing menus on pricier and less sustainable animal proteins. Now especially, moving produce to the center of the plate is a winning solution for everyone — it reduces plate costs for operators and opens up many different cuisine opportunities while satisfying guests’ demands for freshness and bold flavors. Produce entrees and side dishes satisfy appetites and add colorful eye appeal to the plate. The variety of fresh fruits and vegetables available lends greater versatility and more healthful choices than other food groups. And talk about the positive impact of healthier menus on our nation’s medical costs!

It isn’t just traditional foodservice either. For retailers, the produce department not only distinguishes the store from competitors but produce can also help distinguish the growing foodservice offerings available in supermarkets. As tightening budgets cause consumers to forego restaurants for home cooking, many are finding they’ve lost their kitchen know-how. That helps explain the popularity of TV cooking shows: consumers need to be reintroduced to the delicious possibilities fresh produce offers, including selecting, storing and preparing that bounty to maximize their investment. This presents an opportunity for both the retailer’s produce department and its foodservice operation.

To help everyone in the foodservice sector put more produce on the menu, PMA is partnering with industry leaders, National Restaurant Association and International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA) to seek solutions that benefit everyone — consumers, operators and produce suppliers.

Our multi-phase project seeks to identify opportunities to increase fresh produce use in foodservice to promote healthy lifestyles. As often happens with such bold projects, we couldn’t have started without the financial support of an enlightened leader — in this case, Markon. Tim York, Markon’s president, had the foresight and selflessness to see that the industry needed the best and brightest minds to dig into the most current research and help chart a future course for all.

We began with comprehensive research — led by the restaurant association with assistance from PMA’s produce industry leaders — to examine opportunities and barriers for greater produce use in restaurants. We’re digging deep and asking them a variety of questions about their use of fresh produce in the past, present, and future. Where do they source that produce from —- including locally? What influences their purchases? How satisfied do they think their customers are with the produce they serve? What are their attitudes about sourcing seasonally vs. year-round? What level of importance do they give to motivators like food safety, nutritional disclosure or daypart (time of day) in making produce decisions?

That research will be used to start facilitated discussions of a first-ever “Executive Invitational Think Tank” of senior operators, distributors and produce suppliers. That discussion will help expose opportunities for, and how to overcome barriers to, increasing foodservice produce use. We expect this will be an ongoing, high-level dialogue.

We know that this help is needed now, which is why this is a “shovel-ready” project. The research is already underway; the Think Tank is scheduled in conjunction with PMA’s annual Foodservice Conference and Exposition taking place July 24-26 in Monterey, California. Research findings and discussion highlights will be presented by project participants at the conference’s opening session. We will provide a summary report to the associations’ memberships later this summer.

With the brains involved in this project, it stands to make more waves, which is what one has to do in these turbulent times. That’s why I’m looking forward to this conference session.

In fact, the whole conference is designed to stimulate solutions by offering the latest information on the economy and consumer trends, plus the industry’s best relationship-building opportunities and the only produce-specific trade show in foodservice. Learn more at

The phrase “tough economic times” stirs a sinking feeling. Fresh produce is a solution to improved nutrition and enhanced profitability that can buoy our industry. Armed with the research and insight needed to make informed decisions and working together across the supply chain, we can — and will — all benefit enormously by learning together.