Attendees try celery granita and sweet corn gelato at the Duda booth during a busy day at the PMA Foodservice Conference and Expo on July 29. ( Ashley Nickle )

MONTEREY, Calif. — The 2018 PMA Foodservice Conference and Expo drew rave reviews from exhibitors.

Companies reported good traffic at their booths and meaningful activity away from the floor as well.

“We do quite a bit of business with a lot of the customers that are here, so Jason’s Deli, Carl’s Jr., Whataburger,” said Jason Ottolini with Oxnard, Calif.-based Fresh Innovations. “It’s been a good show. It’s good to see a lot of the people that we do business with and potential new business.”

More than 500 buyers came to the show, with more operators this year, according to the Produce Marketing Association. Kroger and convenience store Rutter’s were among the first-time attendees, with Meijer among the returning buyers. Distributor Smart Foodservice Warehouse also attended, and new operators present included Sbarro, Hopdoddy, Nékter Juice Bar and Blaze Pizza.

About 1,800 people attended overall, and the expo had 191 booths, including 23 new exhibitors.

Leslie Simmons, vice president of Coral Springs, Fla.-based Dave’s Specialty Imports, said the company participated for the first time in the buyer roundtables, an add-on event available through the conference.

“We really found a lot of success with that,” Simmons said. “We didn’t know really what to expect exactly, but it was a nice process. We were really matched up with people who were interested in talking to us, so it was a nice addition to what we’re doing here at the booth. We saw a lot of benefit in doing that.”

Tom Smith, director of foodservice for Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms, said his company attended to work on growing its foodservice business given changing consumer demands.

“You see strawberries that are featured now on menus for 12 months out of the year where that was not always the case,” Smith said. “Consumers are asking for fresh salad options or fresh smoothies or fresh parfait-type options that include berries, and they’ll have that all year long … And it’s no longer just a brunch thing or something you throw on the side of a dessert. It’s now utilizing the healthy, delicious ingredients year-round and finding ways to utilize them that maybe hasn’t always been thought of before.”

He also reported positive traffic and a good overall experience with the event.

“The show today was amazing, always busy, always a lot of customers coming through, trying to make time for everybody, trying to see everyone that’s here,” Smith said. “Out of all the shows that we attend in the year, (this is) one of the ones that is always consistent. There’s not a lot of lag time, not a lot of down time.

“We set up a lot of our own meetings and things outside of the show once customers get into town, but then once it comes to Sunday, we know everybody’s still going to be here, we know we’re going to get to see everyone, and it’s one of the shows that is always on somebody’s schedule for the year,” Smith said.

The conference also included an address by restaurateur Danny Meyer, a foodservice buyer panel led by celebrity chef Jet Tila, and a hands-on fruit and vegetable training that included a trends report.

Next year the PMA Foodservice Conference and Expo will be July 26-27, a Friday and Saturday rather than Saturday and Sunday, in response to attendee feedback.