Can expanding grapes in the foodservice sector drive increased consumption overall? Two experts in the field addressed exactly that at the recent Global Grape Summit in Bakersfield, California.
Jon Greco, senior director, produce sourcing at Sysco in Salinas, California, knows foodservice, plus he knows the challenges from the growing/supplier community, and brought that insight to this year’s Summit. Greco, a 2008 PRODUCE BUSINESS 40 Under Forty award-winner, and Harold McClarty, president of HMC Farms, headquartered in Kingsburg, in the heart of California’s Central San Joaquin Valley, were on hand to share their expertise and stories.
The McClarty family has been farming tree fruit and grapes in the Central Valley since 1887, and in 1987, Harold McClarty launched HMC Farms, which grew into one of the largest tree fruit and value-added grape suppliers. HMC Farms is the creator of the Lunch Bunch Grapes, a portioned 2- to 4-ounce cluster of seedless grapes used everywhere in foodservice, from school cafeterias to cruise ships, and even airline meals.
These two experts know grapes and they know foodservice. We asked Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to talk with Jon prior to the Summit:
Q. Let’s dive right in: What could boost grape use in foodservice?
A. I feel one of the best or biggest ways to increase grape consumption in foodservice is to do what retail has done — to be purchasing more of the higher end, better presentation, higher-sugar-level, better-color-presentation grapes. There are so many new varieties that are coming out now, and it seems that in foodservice for years, all the different companies really just purchased green or red grapes — it was more about having fruit, as opposed to having top grapes as fruit.
Q. And so how are you building that awareness with your foodservice clients?
A. One of the things we try to do is be as far ahead of the season as we can, not necessarily worrying about whether we have this contract price, but do we have the best grapes for the time of the year? Can we get into Peru at the end of the storage season? Can we get into the new growing regions sooner than anyone else?
We’re now contracting with more growers. It used to be we would only contract with someone who would provide a product year-round, whereas now we’ve developed so many more relationships, and really do contract with different growers seasonally. So, we’ll be with one grower who provides Peruvian product, a completely different grower-importer that has the Chilean, and then, of course, different growers for the domestic and Mexican program. As opposed to trying to make it fit into what we wanted, we’re trying to direct it, so it fits into what’s best for the grower and, more importantly, the consumer.
Q. What are you hearing from your customers? Are they on board with where you’re headed?
A. I think it’s a mixed bag. Everyone has clients that range from those that just need to get the bare minimum and what is considered an approved serving, to certain customers that may not be white tablecloth, but what they want to serve is all about presentation. You don’t want to put an old, wilted grape on a nice buffet.
And there’s so many of the kids’ dishes in restaurants now that you can choose a fruit bowl, or you can choose grapes as opposed to fries. And the worst thing to do is scare children away from produce, because you’re not giving them a great flavor profile. So, our customers are looking for more of that, and they’re relying on relationships in place to know when to take them out of the region and when to put them into a region.
Q. What are you looking for in new varieties of grapes for foodservice versus the varieties catering to retail?
A. I think that’s one of the challenges many commodities will have. No. 1, retail will buy fancy citrus, and even though we buy fancy also, we can use a lot of Choice because with grapes there’s really nothing to prepare. It is what it is. Which is one of the reasons that I think in foodservice, it’s hard to be more like retail. Retail is all about the look — granted, almost everyone at least takes one or two out of the bag before they choose. But we’re definitely looking for big berries; we’re looking for firm berries and then good sugar levels. Varietals aren’t nearly as important as overall presentation and flavor.
Q. What does foodservice need from growers or suppliers to build stronger grape demand or sales?
A. One of the biggest things that foodservice probably needs help on would be more aggressive marketing on the grapes. I don’t mean giving anything away and getting specials but help us come up with something that will grab more corporate chefs, so that we can better convince them — whether it be the nutritional facts behind specific varieties, or just a better presentation.
When you’re talking about what we service, you’ve got hospitals, you’ve got schools, and other health care facilities, and then you have the full gamut of restaurants, from quick service restaurants to white tablecloth. How do we bring the different varieties there across the customer base?
I think what we really need are people who know how to market grapes much better than we’ve seen in the past. That’s where we could really use some help. For example, you have Driscoll’s that markets strawberries, and I don’t know that you really have anybody in the grape industry that does anything even close to that.
Foodservice just has not made the impact in certain commodities like retail. And that’s where I’d really like to see more impact — for people to go to a restaurant and get some type of meal or some item and then ask for that at the grocery store. And I think that’s where more marketing would really help us, because we do have to give a reason for the consumer to pay more money for a certain variety of grape than just an old-school red globe.
For me, I truly believe in partnership. And my goal is to literally put more fruit and veg on everybody’s plate in North America, and the world, actually. All the help that growers can give us to do that is a win.
Foodservice reminds us a bit of Winston Churchill’s famous quote about Russia: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Especially when it comes to grapes at a moment in history such as this.
We have an explosion of new varieties representing enhanced quality, but very few foodservice operators are specifying any of these varieties. And in most cases, the use of the grapes is such that it is hard to imagine that improved flavor will really make much of a difference if it is a few grapes in a salad.
One could start to imagine some innovative uses, say, an ice cream sundae with Cotton Candy grapes or grapes used in appetizers or other meal-parts.
One wonders, though, with months depending on imports, if a location-focused approach really is optimal. Even more so than at retail, foodservice operators are hesitant to add things to menus that are not available year-round.
It may be true that California table grapes are “readily available May through January” as the Commission promotes, but is that the relevant information for foodservice? Wouldn’t it be more relevant to say, “This variety is available May through January from California and January through May from Peru, Chile and South Africa.”?
Foodservice is very important because it is an ideal sampling venue. We remember doing a presentation at a pistachio convention with Dick Spezzano, back when he was still with Von’s, and we remember when he was asked about building demand. He suggested getting pistachios into the salad bars at Sizzler restaurants even if the industry had to pay to get placement.
Getting new varieties showcased in recipes at great restaurants is a premier sampling opportunity. But precious little effort is going into making young chefs utilize grapes and showcasing fresh new varieties.