Innovation drives PMA Foodservice ConferenceMONTEREY, Calif. — The push for more fresh produce on restaurant and school menus continued as buyers and sellers came out in record numbers for the annual Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference.

The buyers were after something different, reflecting an attitude among consumers that extends even to children, said Bryan Silbermann, PMA president.

“It’s an opportunity for us but only if we remember a restaurant visit is about indulgence,” Silbermann said. “Taste, flavor, texture and mouth feel are rules that should guide us.”

“Kids want to try new things,” he said, citing NPD Group data that showed purchases of children’s meals with a toy declined 6% in a year. The research predicted increased offerings of fruits as meal sides for that market.

Attendance reached 1,790 at the 31st annual conference and exposition July 20-22, topping the mark of 1,745 set two years ago.

Roz Mallet, board chair at the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, saw opportunities for her members in salads, for one.

“Nearly half of all consumers are not ordering salads all or most of the time when they visit our restaurants,” Mallet said. “But what if it’s changed dramatically? Cucumbers, mangoes, berries, black garlic and roasted beets have moved into the salad bowl. Salad has truly moved to the center of the plate.”

Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy plan to increase their vegetable and fruit offerings, said Ian Baines, senior vice president of strategic innovation at Dallas-based Brinker International.

“Over the past six months, Chili’s has begun to introduce products featuring more fresh produce,” Baines said. “This coming six months, we’re going to see more of that on the menu and in our TV advertising.”

“We have refocused this (conference) on building consumption,” Silbermann said. “And after a couple of rough years, it is heartwarming to see that recession-weary consumers are returning to restaurants.”

In one NRA survey, 64% of operators said they are optimistic about sales this year, though concerned about increases in commodity prices.

School foodservice directors are still determining the impact of new regulations aimed at bringing students more fresh produce, but it’s likely to be substantial, said Rodney Taylor, director of nutrition services at Riverside Unified School District in California. It could bump his fruit and vegetable spending from 29 cents on the dollar to the mid-30s, he said.

Contrary to widespread opinion, cost favors produce purchases, Taylor said.

“Over the past three years we’ve put more fresh fruits and vegetables on the plate, and yet we’ve added more than 12% to the bottom line,” he said. “That’s $1 million a year we’re generating in surplus in a government school district.”

Mark Munger, vice president of marketing at San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, said his company responds to changing foodservice demands by directing breeding efforts and its heirloom program to the quest for backyard tomato flavor.

“We’re pretty passionate about flavor and trying to get that in our hybrid varieties,” Munger said.

“It’s our responsibility as grower-shippers to be innovative and thinking about the next step, to not settle for the varieties that are available. That’s harder if you’re a tree fruit or grape grower and you’ve got a perennial, but we’re lucky that we’ve got annuals that we can make major changes to.”

Bill Slattery, salesman at Kingsburg Orchards, said the conference and expo was worthwhile.

“The interest from the foodservice sector and from providers to the public school system has been very positive,” Slattery said. “They’re looking for new items to offer students and the monies are there from the federal government. They’re very open-minded to new products and innovation this year.”