Just-released research shows that restaurant operators see the ability to offer more and different kinds of fresh produce as a key point of differentiation. Now the produce industry is gearing up to help them do it. The lone sticking point: Operators also say what they particularly want more of is produce that comes from local sources, preferably farmer and/or artisan grown. That’s a good option for the tiny percentage of restaurant operators who do business in areas where the growing season never ends. Everyone else will have to make do with the current system—buy local at harvest time, stick to mainstream national suppliers when it’s over.
Who’s on the case? A new coalition formed by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA). Their joint goal: double the use of fresh produce in the foodservice sector over the next 10 years.
It’s an admirable goal. Some might even call it a stretch goal, since it’s unknown whether restaurant customers will want to consume twice as much fresh produce as they do today. But at least the coalition partners are being proactive. Here are the five priority areas they think will turn the tide.
• 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; and
• Foster closer collaboration with government and other stakeholders.
Catchy rhetoric, but even the association heads who came up with it realize they’re going to have to get more specific if they want to actually move more merchandise. “It will now be up to the three associations together to develop a plan for working these five priority areas to help increase use of fresh produce in foodservice, for healthier menus, healthier consumers and ultimately, a healthier industry,” says Produce Marketing president/c.e.o. Bryan Silbermann. “The journey has just begun.”
But at least they’re headed in the right direction. Research conducted by the NRA for this joint effort found that operators are ready to sell more fresh produce. Check out these findings:
• 72 percent of operators said emphasizing fresh produce in the marketing efforts drives more customers to their restaurants.
• 46 percent of operators said they look for fresh produce items patrons cannot buy at their supermarket. It’s a strategy followed by 78 percent of fine dining operators.
• 67 percent of operators wish they had more options regarding fresh produce selections.
It sounds like a market ready to take off, until you look at the numbers about what operators expect to do over the next two years. Only 41 percent said they expect to serve more fresh produce; 56 percent said they expect to serve about the same.
A couple of survey results were eye-openers. Eighty-nine percent of restaurant operators say they are willing to pay more for their fresh produce if its safety is guaranteed, and 76 percent say they are willing to pay extra for fresh produce that is traceable all the way up the supply chain. Which tells us how trusting operators are about the safety of the produce that flows through foodservice channels today: not very. When was the last time you read about operators volunteering to drive up their food cost?
All of which tells us that the produce consortium has plenty to work on over the next 10 years. But given the likely implementation of menu labeling standards and other health-based food initiatives currently on the radar, at least they’ve got the wind at their back.