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Social media helps spur produce consumption

A report from the Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference

A campaign to double the amount of produce served in restaurants by 2020 has reached a critical juncture, and social media and new consumer-facing technologies can help push the movement forward, according to foodservice operators and industry trade group leaders.

The Millennial generation is “much more adventurous” than Generation X and Baby Boomers, and that is leading to “more plant-based foods” on menus, said Rick Wolff, director of culinary standards for Bethesda, Md.-based contract feeder HMSHost Corp., during the opening educational presentation of the 30th Annual Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference & Expo in Monterey, Calif.

Wolff, who was part of a panel comprising operators, growers and distributors, was referring to college-age consumers. But he added that even in the airport settings where his company conducts most of its business, customers increasingly are asking questions about ingredients, such as “Is it sustainable? Is there a farmer behind it? What is the reality [or impact on the carbon footprint] when you bring us that product and it is out of season?”

Michael Pursell, associate vice president of marketing for Philadelphia-based contract feeder Aramark’s education division, said there is a “big push” on college campuses for convenience in the form of grab-and-go stations with packaged individual portions of fruits, vegetables and other foods, and retail-style multi-concept, food-and-beverage presentations, such as one might find in a commercial mall food court.

“Another trend that is up and coming,” not only at colleges but high schools as well, “is the idea of customization,” or the concept of “made-for-you,” such as is exemplified by Chipotle Mexican Grill’s assemble-to-order service format, among others, he said.

Pursell underscored the importance of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare, when dealing with consumers.

“The Millennial generation is more in tune with that,” the Aramark executive said of social media. “So, as a marketing strategy, if you don’t have one [a social media platform] it is very important that you come up with one.”

Dawn Sweeney, chief executive and president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, who co-hosted the educational presentation with her PMA counterpart, Bryan Silbermann, too, felt that social media can play a key role in meeting the goals of Foodservice 2020. That campaign to increase produce sales at restaurants was launched two years ago by the NRA, the Newark, Del.-based PMA and the International Foodservice Distributors Association of McLean, Va.

“Social media applications are the tools to enable the connection” with consumers, Sweeney said, addressing growers in the audience as well as distributors and operators. “The story you tell once you get the consumer’s attention is what builds the relationship. Based on what I saw here yesterday [during farm tours], you have plenty of stories to tell a hungry American population crying out for great flavor wrapped in health and wellness.”

The PMA’s Silbermann maintained that research and other evidence suggests, “We are at a tipping point” and near “a major shift in demand for fresh produce on menus.”

Silbermann and the NRA’s Sweeney presented a variety of statistics about produce and healthful foods marketing by restaurants that may be indicators of the increased availability of such items. They also mentioned other industry trends to the audience made up from among the nearly 1,700 conference attendees reported by PMA.

They included:

• Menu items listed as “healthy” grew by 65 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to Mintel Menu Insights. “This is in direct response to consumers actions: Last year the NRA’s National Household Survey revealed that 70 percent of adults say they try to eat healthier when they’re out than they did just two years previously,” Sweeney said. “And we know that one out of three have searched online for nutritional information about restaurant food.”

• Citing research by Mintel Menu Insights, which was sponsored by the Markon Cooperative for produce and Paramount Citrus company, Silbermann said that since 2007, mentions of fruit and vegetables on menus increased 15.2 percent, with the greatest increase, or 7.1 percent, happening since 2009 and the inception of Foodservice 2020. He said menu mentions of fruit grew more than 30 percent and on-menu references to vegetables increased 9.7 percent.

• Expanding on those findings and others, Sweeney added that more than 80 percent of the menu mentions occurred in the menus of casual-dining restaurants, which saw an 18.6-percent increase in such mentions. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see that the most significant growth in fruit mentions took place in kids’ meals, with an increase of 77 percent. Vegetables weighed in at a healthy 33.5-percent increase in kids meals,” the NRA executive added.

“According to Nation’s Restaurant News, 92 percent of social media users eat at a sit-down restaurant at least once a month, 58 percent of Americans now view restaurants online and 16 percent of all consumers are connecting with their favorite restaurants through Facebook, YouTube or MySpace,” Sweeney said. “NRN also reports that digital upselling is emerging as a powerful new trend [and that] some operators are seeing 15 to 20 percent average check increases [from it, and] guests are staying longer and seem to spend more through the use of videos, interactive games, digital signage and Internet ordering interfaces.”

Silbermann cited NPD Group research data showing that breakfast and brunch accounted for 60 percent of the foodservice industry’s traffic growth over the past five years and wondered if that might not be the reason for the dramatic increase in mentions of fruit items on menus.

“C-stores and retailers are moving into this area with a vengeance,” the PMA leader said before adding, rhetorically, “So what are your breakfast plans to hold onto and grow your market share?”

Among the other panelists for the opening session, “Foodservice 2020 - Challenges Met with Opportunities,” were Rich Dachman, vice president of produce for Sysco Corp.; Lorri Koster, co-chairman of the board of Mann Packing Company Inc.; Robert Verloop, executive vice president of marketing for Naturipe Farms LLC; Greg Drescher, executive director of strategic initiatives for the Culinary Institute of America; and Peter Testa, president of Testa Produce Inc.

Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @AJ_NRN

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