Keynote Breakfast/Perishable Pundit Thought-Leader Panel:: Industry Talks Innovation, Best Practices and Competitive Nature of Retail

BY MINDY HERMANN, Produce Business’s Loren Zhao with the Thought-Leader panel’s Loren Zhao with the Thought-Leader panel

New York Produce Show exhibitors, attendees and buyers rose bright and early on exhibit day to enjoy the show’s Keynote Breakfast and the Perishable Pundit “Thought Leader” Panel in the beautiful Jacob Javits Center River Pavilion. The New York-inspired breakfast was all the more festive with the energizing doo-wop harmonies of the acapella Tee-Tones.

Following the invocation and national anthem, Eastern Produce Council president Vic Savanello introduced EPC board members and paid tribute to those who passed away in 2017, Sal Zacchia, Thomas Krulder and industry icon Joseph Procacci. Savanello also announced the new EPC-Rutgers Leadership Program for 2018. In closing, he introduced a new video by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets on its new New York State Grown & Certified program.

PRODUCE BUSINESS president and editor-in-chief Jim Prevor delivered a short address, followed by the awarding of several awards (see page 9 for more information). He then invited the thought-leader panelists to share insights on innovation, ideas, and practices to help elevate the produce industry.

Mark Carroll, vice president of produce, floral and gift merchandising, The Fresh Market, noted the importance of regionalization. “We respond to our customers by finding flavors for every region,” he remarked. “We also improve quality to gain customer trust, especially for online sales.”

Morton Williams brings a unique perspective as a New York City retailer, with many customers shopping daily for one item rather than loading a shopping cart. Produce director Marc Goldman pointed out the appeal of value-added items such as cut vegetables and fruit because “people don’t have room to buy lots of fruits and vegetables to store in the refrigerator.” He also mentioned that Morton Williams gives new products a chance but quickly removes them if they’re not selling well.

How important is customer interaction? John Vasapoli, director of merchandising-produce, D’Agostino Supermarkets, commented that the local store is key for building customer relations.

“Our clerks and cashiers are the ones who interact with customers. We want customers to have a good experience and know that an associate can help them on a consistent basis.”

Direct customer interaction is highly important to McCaffrey’s Markets, which views itself as being in the people business. Its produce departments try to seduce customers with the magic of retail.

HelloFresh UK’s Amy Lance, Yale Hospitality’s Rafi Taherian and Cornell’s Ed McLaughlin

HelloFresh UK’s Amy Lance, Yale Hospitality’s Rafi Taherian and Cornell’s Ed McLaughlin

“Our business is simple; we need to connect with customers. Expanding grab-and-go, for example, would be a mistake because it would take away that interaction,” said Tony Mirack, McCaffrey’s produce/floral merchandiser director.

Hello Fresh strives to use meal kits to bring families back into the kitchen to prepare and enjoy food. “We try to know what customers want before they know themselves,” commented Amy Lance, head of technical for the UK division. “Globally we are moving toward customization to better meet individual needs.”

As a market researcher, Sharon Olson specializes in consumer data pertaining to foodservice. She pointed out the prevalence of purchasing food away from home is changing the industry.
“Consumers are going to lots of different places where they look for food that is healthy, affordable and delicious. Food also connects people, and that is leading to a rise in places to socialize, such as food halls.”

PF Chang’s sees itself as a point of entry into retail produce and relies heavily on grower/shippers for items on its vegetable-forward menu. “We seduce customers by telling stories of where items are coming from and how they are prepared,” said Robin Fisher, category manager.

Students are driving changes in the industry as they continue to demand more local, fresh and sustainable items, elevating the quality and variety of produce utilized at colleges and universities.

“We have to pay attention to the post-Millennial student,” advised Rafi Taherian, associate vice president, Yale Hospitality. “This is a major transformation in campus dining that differentiates the student experience. We concentrate on creating memorable experiences and long-lasting relationships that students will remember.”

Josh Padilla, produce director, Alpha 1 Marketing, stressed the importance of communication between vendors and retailers, using technology as a tool for helping introduce and promote products.

Jon Storm, procurement manager, C&S Wholesale Grocers, shared the logistics perspective, including the impact on the produce industry of new regulations on truck driver hours. “We have consider driving time, freshness and shrink when we load trucks,” said Storm. “We might consolidate products going to particular regions as a way to minimize transit time across the country while delivering fresh to everyone.”

The future of online delivery is particularly relevant to internet retailer Peapod. Tony Stallone, vice president, fresh merchandising, noted the importance of meeting customer needs today and in the future. “Things are cyclical. An explosion in e-commerce will be followed by emphasis on the personal touch. Right now retailers are scrambling for online delivery but it is not that easy.”

Fruitday Co., Ltd., China’s largest fresh fruit e-commerce company, strives to be closer to its customers.

“We invested in online while also opening more fresh stores close to residential areas,” explained Loren Zhao, co-founder. “Different customers have different demands. We don’t know how customers will shop in the future; we just try to get customers to value fresh, and we can provide the freshest items.”

Asked to comment on the future direction of the industry, Ed McLaughlin, of Cornell University’s Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, predicted continued disruptions such as the rise of discounters Aldi and Lidl and the prowess of Walmart and Amazon/Whole Foods.

“We expect more omnichannel digital presence rather than just online. Retailers will need to differentiate themselves with more experience-driven produce departments. The number of SKUs has to go down, as retailers don’t have the space or budget for endless numbers of products. I also predict a more efficient supply chain that delivers directly to home.”