August, 2009

Fruits of Thought

Doubling Foodservice Produce Consumption

Bryan Silbermann, president and CEO of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), is often told he resembles Abraham Lincoln. Yet, at the recent PMA Foodservice Conference, he came across more like John F. Kennedy. We recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of man’s walking on the moon — a project brought into being at the behest of President Kennedy.

So, before the assembled attendees at PMA’s annual Foodservice Conference, Bryan Silbermann, speaking on behalf of PMA, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and the International Foodservice Distributor Association (IFDA), announced what strategic planning consultants are wont to call a “big, hairy, audacious, goal” — to “double the use of fresh produce in the foodservice sector over the next ten years.”

The announcement was both shocking and sweeping — shocking because, traditionally, restaurants have been product-neutral. If the trend is beef, they serve beef; if health concerns or the economy put chicken in style, they serve chicken. A few white tablecloth restaurants might see part of their role as exposing patrons to new tastes and flavors but, for the most part, restaurants and the broader foodservice sector see their role as serving what consumers want, not persuading consumers to want different foods.

What has changed? All you had to do was watch the presentation of a beaming Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the NRA, to realize she saw the announcement and conference as a big win for the restaurant industry.

What is really going on is that, as the premier public health problem in America comes to be seen as obesity, the restaurant industry fears being targeted as the cause, or at least an important contributor, to the obesity problem.

The NRA is trying mightily to wrap the restaurant industry in the flag of a healthy and sustainable industry — fresh produce.

IFDA president and CEO, Mark Allen, waived his place on the panel as he had a foodservice distributor and one of his board members up there. Although, once again, the distributors association has traditionally been product-neutral, it can’t be indifferent as to the success of its customers, so it has bought into the notion that produce can provide a halo effect to the whole industry.

Of course, it is one thing for three associations to see the strategic value in such an effort, even for a group of industry leaders brought together in an intensive “think tank” to see that this is an imperative. It is another thing entirely for operators to really make this happen. Some skepticism is appropriate here.

Still, the three associations pinpointed five priority areas that the “think tank” participants identified as key to making this doubling fresh produce actually happen:

  • Re-imagine the restaurant experience, with produce having a stronger presence and telling its story from field to fork.
  • Increase consumer confidence in fresh produce, including product safety, trust and integrity.
  • Demonstrate social responsibility, balancing the needs of people, the planet and profitability.
  • Foster closer collaboration among the industry sectors, including operators, distributors and grower/shippers.
  • Foster closer collaboration with government and other stakeholders.

The whole “think tank” experience was built on research funded by Markon Cooperative, and these goals are exceptionally important ones. Yet, this goal to double usage of fresh produce in foodservice is still daunting.

Think about what it means. If usage doubles in foodservice and remains flat at retail, the industry will be more weighted to foodservice than retail, almost the opposite of the way it is today.

And, of course, the obvious question is whose hide will be gored? Which products will restaurants sell less of and how will the producers of those products respond to this initiative once they realize they have something to lose?

We do note one potential victim. Most industry consumption efforts such as the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters program or the proposed generic promotion program have been geared toward an “all forms” policy, supporting the consumption of canned, frozen, fresh and 100 percent juice. This initiative is to double usage of fresh fruits and vegetables.

We certainly can aim high and hope to achieve this goal. It will not be easy... yes, fruit and vegetables are less expensive than proteins, but starches are less expensive still, and there is no easy way to make it profitable for produce companies to invest in menu development when they mostly sell commodities.

There is also the danger that foodservice operators may be more interested in listing healthy things on their menu — thus proving to politicians that obesity is not their fault — than in actually selling those items. Finally, consumers certainly say they want more fresh fruits and vegetables, but they may want them served with a bowl of ice cream, which sort of defeats the point.

Still, aiming for the sky is usually a wise idea. Even if you don’t make it, you may wind up king of the hill.  pb