Feels Fresh

Braden Hoover (left) and Chip Callahan talk veggies at the annual Produce Marketing Association foodservice conference at the Monterey Conference Center.

Imagine a week-long party offering free food, an open bar and a beautiful coastal setting. Then throw in a round of golf in Pebble Beach, a wine trolley tour through Carmel Valley, a cocktail party on Cannery Row. Further imagine the invited guests are all folks you’ve known and worked with for years, in an essential industry, providing fruits and vegetables to restaurants throughout the country, and all of the guests have just survived the most difficult year in the history of the industry, and they are finally looking toward the future and ready to party. Sound good?

That’s exactly what went down in Monterey from July 19-23 with the return of the Produce Marketing Association and its annual Foodservice Conference & Expo. The event, held every July, is a large and much anticipated annual gathering of foodservice industry professionals. That includes local produce growers, suppliers and distributors as well as national representatives from every brand name restaurant and fast food chain in America, from Chili’s to Chick-fil-A. The agenda includes meetings and seminars in the Monterey Conference Center as well as tours of produce processing facilities located in and near the Salinas Valley, which supplies produce to restaurants across the continent.

“There were a handful of years early on when we weren’t in Monterey, but we quickly learned that this was the best place to bring together produce suppliers and foodservice innovators,” says Siobhan May, director of communications for the PMA. And they’ve been doing it for a long time; the trade association is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

In the midst of all the fun, business gets done too. The PMA is a platform for companies to market their products and share their innovations, whether it be a new hybrid vegetable or an automated pepper slicer. Partnerships are formed and ideas (not all good ones) are hatched. It’s the produce industry’s version of TED Talks. But at this year’s expo, the vibe was a little different.

“The landscape for the foodservice industry has changed since the last PMA,” says Scott Horton of Salinas-based Taylor Farms. “Two years ago we were talking about sustainability, automation and innovation, and those things are all still very important. But this year most of the discussions pertained to the impacts of the pandemic on the entire industry from the growing and shipping side to labor and logistics.”

The impacts Horton refers to are vast and significant. As indoor dining was ordered to shut down beginning in March of 2020, the foodservice industry was wracked. Suppliers were left with crops in the ground and no place to ship them as restaurants across the country were forced to close their doors and cease operations on a moment’s notice.

“It was pretty scary for a while there,” said Dave Martinez of Dole Foods. “But I think overall the industry did a tremendous job adapting and managing our way through it.”

While losses were to be expected, some companies were able to mitigate them by taking advantage of new opportunities in retail or in the emerging new category of home delivery. That means everything from delivery services like Door Dash and Grub Hub to home meal preparation from the likes of Hello Fresh and Blue Apron.

“Home delivery is here to stay,” Horton says. “Sure, restaurants are re-opening, but a lot of people have gotten used to this whole delivery thing. Some of them might not go back. So we are faced with a slightly different marketplace, and whoever adapts best to that will lead the way.”

Ben Perez, produce buyer and commodity manager for Salinas-based buying group Markon Cooperative, agrees. “Home delivery is definitely a topic in all the meetings I had this week,” says Perez, reached by cell phone on a golf course—that is, after all, part of the conference experience. “It’s all about building partnerships that will allow us to continue to service the consumers.”

The conference wasn’t all information and fun. A contingent of conference attendees volunteered to travel from Monterey to La Gloria Elementary School in Gonzales where they helped bag and distribute to local families fresh fruits and vegetables on behalf of Brighter Bites Salinas, a nonprofit that combines nutrition education with free produce at Salinas Valley schools.

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