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Fresh Produce, a Challenge of Scale

We cover the restaurant industry on a limited basis at SN. Trends started at restaurants generally make their way to supermarkets. Increasingly the opposite is true as well. And, there's something to be said for the “share of stomach” metric. If a customer buys several meals from restaurants each week — takeout or sit-down — then they are generally eating fewer groceries.

At this morning's session, “Lessons from the Front Line — Produce Excellence in Foodservice Winners,” several of the chefs who were recipients of this year's United Fresh Produce Excellence in Foodservice Awards spoke about the challenges they have faced when integrating fresh produce into their menus. Chef Regis Holden, senior director of culinary services for Eat'n Park restaurants, a casual-dining chain based in Homestead, Pa., noted that training can be a huge challenge with a large restaurant company. It's one thing to give a chef and their team a package of frozen or canned vegetables cut to specification for the restaurant's recipes. It's quite another to teach them how and why fresh tomatoes need to be quarter-inch diced for a recipe.

“We focus a lot on training our team members,” Holden noted. “We want them to understand why, not just tell them what to do.” Later, he added that, “unfortunately, I don't know that our guests give us credit for all the scratch cooking that we do … I do know that they like it.”

Eventually, the conversation turned to the booming popularity of local foods. Here, the chefs described a set of challenges that would resonate with many produce buyers. Volume can be an issue, but more importantly, food safety and traceability become bigger concerns the larger the restaurant operation.

Holden said that Eat'n Park currently purchases about $20 million of produce from local growers each year, but noted that the company's distributor helps ensure that these local growers are meeting specific food safety standards. Dan Barash, executive chef for Atlanta-based Moe's Southwest Grill noted that almost all of his company's 430 units are franchised. The company is able to set sourcing standards and train its franchisees how to buy, how to check a shipper's cold-chain and HACCP program. But, enforcing a local purchasing program would be a challenge with a franchise model.

Here, it seems like supermarkets might have a real advantage over large restaurants. With produce buyers already doing the heavy lifting in terms of checking for safety and traceability, from-scratch bakery items and prepared foods could easily incorporate locally grown produce into their menus.