Soo Choi of Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash., attempts to balance plates on sticks as part of the Mardi Gras-themed festivities at Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure trade show Feb. 27-29 in Tampa, Fla. ( Amy Sowder )

TAMPA, Fla. — Making connections, deepening relationships and learning the latest were all activities on parade at the Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure 2020 trade show. 

With about 2,700 attendees at the Mardi Gras-themed show Feb. 27-29, there were more people than last year, but this is about where SEPC president and CEO David Sherrod said he wants to cap it.

“We don’t get caught up in numbers too much. What we’re really concerned with is quality, not the quantity,” Sherrod said.

However, almost 600 retail and foodservice buyers attended, a 20% increase from 2019. “That’s the number that we really like,” he said.

SEPC board chairman Brandon Parker, director of sales at Reidsville, Ga.-based Shuman Farms, chose making a difference through philanthropy as part of his platform for his one-year term, Sherrod said, and it was evident in the activities and talks.

“We want to let everybody in the industry know what these companies are really doing. We feel that if we can do that, it’ll spread throughout the industry,” Sherrod said.

The philanthropic focus matched a value of the trade show’s keynote speaker, NFL Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dungy said he could tell through the SEPC website that the industry organization has similar goals as he did when coaching.

“Your only job as a coach is to help your players play better and to help them be better people,” Dungy told the keynote luncheon crowd.

New Orleans style festivities wove throughout the trade show floor, where two women walked on stilts, a man balanced Frisbees on sticks, a Dixieland jazz band roamed about and vendor booths were decorated in Mardi Gras purple, green and gold.

Jackie Axelrod and Joe McCoy, produce buyers for Publix Super Markets, attended the show to find products, packaging and growers that they’ve never seen before. 

“You can only answer the phone and have so many meetings. Here, we really get to see vendors we’re never exposed to,” McCoy said.

Axelrod nodded.

“From an innovation perspective, people here are knowledgeable about what’s up and coming. We can find companies that are brand new to the market and new products,” she said.

Al Finch, president of Dundee, Fla.-based Florida Classic Growers, has been participating in the show since it began in 2004 in Lakeland, Fla.

“This show just keeps evolving and getting better every year,” Finch said. “It’s neat to step back and see how far we’ve come.” 

The giving and receiving continued with booth decoration contests and the Golden Rule Challenge.

Parker presented a check of $25,000 to charities through SEPC Cares, through which the council has donated more than $1.1 million dollars to help children and families to date. Other awards included:

  • Rick Estess of Bancroft, Wis.-based RPE received the SEPC’s Terry Vorhees Lifetime Achievement Award;
  • Faye Westfall of DiMare Fresh Inc.-Tampa, Riverview Fla., received the SEPC Lifetime Membership Award; and
  • Kaytlyn Bunting, daughter of Joseph and Aimee Bunting, won a $7,500 Vorhees Vision scholarship to attend Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Melissa Cecil of Giant Food Stores attended the Plight of Plastics educational session and the Southern Roots women’s luncheon, led by Colette Carlson, founder of professional coaching firm Speak Your Truth.

“The plastics session was really good. It’s a huge initiative with many companies, including ours. We just changed our organic salad container from a plastic clamshell to a peel-and-seal top, which is a huge reduction in plastic, about 30%,” Cecil said.

Expo attendees praised the expo’s size: big enough to be worthwhile, but not so big there’s no time to spend with key people.

“You really get to see the people you want to see,” said Kohl Brown, vice president of sales for Loxahatchee, Fla.-based J&J Family of Farms. “I bring my whole team, I mean, everybody comes to this show because I think it’s important for our guys to be able to meet and get to know people in the industry — competition, customers, it doesn’t matter.”

Exhibitors noted the spike in the number of buyers.

“We were just bombarded with great, great people as far as buyers coming by,” said Michele Youngquist, president of Bay Baby Produce, Mount Vernon, Wash. “We couldn’t be happier with the way everything went.”

— The Packer’s editor Tom Karst and retail editor Ashley Nickle contributed to this report.

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