MONTEREY, Calif. — In a summer brightened by new menu options at McDonald’s and Subway, plus the rollout of an easier-to-understand Dietary Guidelines icon, sellers came into the Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference riding a favorable tailwind.

“We’re at a tipping point,” PMA president Bryan Silbermann said as the 30th anniversary conference and exposition drew to a close July 31. “We are set for much higher demand for produce in the decade ahead. Restaurants are changing their menus, governments are supporting increased consumption of fruit and vegetables and suppliers are being more innovative.”

Even so, the industry doesn’t find itself in the promised land. But there were signs at the conference that more opportunities could emerge.

Produce reaches 'tipping point' on restaurant menus“Produce is a huge factor,” said Andi Cramer, director of distribution and transportation for Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. “We are trying to get there. We’ve been kind of stagnant in what we do offer, so we’re looking to branch out and do some different things.”

Beth Thibault, menu innovation manager at Wendy’s, said the show was worthwhile.

“I’ve seen some things that I want to use, like pomegranate seeds,” Thibault said. “It was like, ‘Find me some pomegranate seeds,’ but I didn’t know who to call. We also talked to some folks from Chile about getting blueberries and avocados to ensure year-round quality supply.

“I don’t know if there are really a lot of product development people who come to (PMA Foodservice), but they should,” she said.

Sellers hoped the time was ripe for new customers.

“Only 2% of blueberries are sold through foodservice,” said Robert Verloop, executive vice president of Naturipe Farms, during a panel discussion. “That’s by accident, not design. Probably 15% to 20% of strawberries go through foodservice. We took orders, we didn’t go out and create demand.”

Attendance

About 1,680 registered for the three-day conference.

“The ratio of buyers to suppliers was one of the highest we’ve ever had,” Silbermann said.

Overall attendance was down from last year’s record crowd of 1,745. Still, most seemed satisfied.

“It’s busier than it’s been in the last few years,” said Tim Tschida, vice president of Roland Marketing. “We’re getting new prospects.”

“It was nice for feedback from our current accounts, to find out what they’re looking for,” said Jeanette De-Coninck Hertzler, director of sales development at Metz Fresh. “There were some prospects as well.”

Mike Reed, director of sales at Monterey Mushrooms, said the size of the show benefits suppliers and potential restaurant buyers.

“The show is still intimate,” Reed said. “It’s not too big to where you won’t see everyone.”

“This one was particularly good for the timing of our Leaf Ez Little Gem Hearts,” said Mark McBride, sales manager at Coastline Produce, one of the exhibitors showing new products.

Flavor critical

Flavor was a pervasive theme of the conference.

Dawn Sweeney, president of the National Restaurant Association, said establishing the link between flavor and health made possible Mintel Menu Insights’ finding that healthier eating is the top trend for 2011.

“There was a time not too long ago when listing a menu item as healthy was the kiss of death,” Sweeney said. “Consumers just didn’t associate health with flavor.”

The Foodservice 2020 initiative, a collaboration between PMA, NRA and the International Foodservice Distributors Association to double produce in restaurants by 2020, is gaining ground, she said.

“Our NRA research shows that children’s nutrition is this year’s No. 1 trend in quick-service restaurants and No. 4 in full service,” said Sweeney.

The NRA’s Kids LiveWell initiative is pushing those trends, she said.

Jelger de Vriend, managing partner at Netherlands-based Innovative Fresh, said collaboration across the supply chain and with universities and non-governmental organizations is the path to enhanced flavor.

“The golden kiwi is a perfect example of collaboration,” he said. “In Europe it has really revolutionized kiwi sales.”

“Flavor is more important than price to consumers,” de Vriend said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s also more important than appearance. It’s our next big opportunity in produce.”

Silbermann underscored the importance of collaboration.

“It’s not just flavor,” he said. “That’s critical in terms of consumers. But it’s the buyers and sellers talking to one another and understanding one another’s businesses that creates value.”

Red Robin’s Cramer said what matters most is whether suppliers understand a business’ needs.

Awards

Award and contest winners were announced on the exposition floor as the conference ended.

Tanimura & Antle, Salinas, got the nod for best new product launch with its Artisan romaine. Duda Farm Fresh Foods won the People’s Choice Award.

Grimmway Farms, Bakersfield, Calif., won a sensory experience contest for a tomato tart recipe.

Best in show booth honors went to two Canadian companies. Peak of the Market, Winnipeg, a first-time exhibitor, took first place. Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, Leamington, took second.

Earlier, Silbermann presented a Courage, Character and Community award to Joe Stubbs, managing director for foodservice at Mixtec Group LLC.