Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Produce Business.
A fixture at foodservice and produce industry events, Don Odiorne has amassed a steadfast following since joining the Eagle, ID-based Idaho Potato Commission in 1989.
As vice president of foodservice, Odiorne has engendered the respect of colleagues, competitors, growers, restaurateurs and just about every newbie who meets him at the outset of their career.
First and foremost, he is the caliber of man others come to admire more and more with each encounter and the passage of time. He is passionate about work and play, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
Prior to joining IPC, the industry veteran worked in several segments including casual dining, colleges and universities, business and industry foodservice management, quick service and as an independent operator and entrepreneur when he opened a fresh pasta restaurant in Los Altos, CA.
Despite a love affair with California, the Odiornes agreed to make the move to Boise because, in large measure, says Odiorne: “It reminded us of a small Denver — where Candy and I grew up.”
Odiorne, who will be retiring at the end of the year, would like nothing more than to exit stage left with as little fanfare as possible, but that is not likely.
His plans include more time at his Boise home — NeverDull Ranch — with his high school sweetheart and wife of 50 years, Candy. He also will be firing up his car collection, which changes frequently.
In an exclusive interview with Don, we discussed a wide range of topics including his role as Dr. Potato, as well as some of the lighter moments in his near 30-year tenure with the IPC.
Can you talk about the impact you have made during your time with the IPC?
My background in foodservice has served me well in understanding potatoes from an end-user perspective. I started out my professional career in the non-commercial side of the business, including colleges and universities and business dining. After that I moved onto restaurants with two pizza chains and my own fresh-pasta restaurant. All this gave me a unique perspective on how to implement the foodservice program. These experiences applied to so many ongoing projects, the 20 years of annual chef calendars and creating useful educational and training resources, including the blog, Dr. Potato, on preparation, storage and food safety tips.
My predecessors spent most of their time calling on Purchasing. I defined early on that chain chefs were often more accessible and the overlooked gateway to the addition of new menu items using Idaho potatoes.
What is your assessment of the state of produce and specifically potatoes in foodservice today?
I have seen all foodservice produce come so far since the days of not really responding to the customers’ needs. Remember when “fresh” in fast food meant adding a slice of tomato and a leaf of lettuce to a newly introduced sandwich? It’s just as important to look back at where we have come from, as it is to see how “plant-forward” we have become now.
Foodservice operators used to find metal staples in the tops of cartons, or receive packaged salads made from lettuce that had been in the fields too long before harvesting. Tomatoes were stored ice cold.
Foodservice used to be the stepchild of commissions, boards and associations. Retail was the more visible segment for seeing volume movement go up by being on ad, for example. Foodservice is a 52-week-a-year pull for product. It may be harder to track, but when prices rise, it’s still on the menu.
Other than fresh mashed potatoes, we didn’t get much attention from our industry with potatoes until chains started promoting fresh-cut French fries. McDonald’s had been the first big chain to roll this out, but then stopped in 1957. Chili’s was one of the first casual dining chains, making fries in the back of the house but changed to frozen in 1989. So many of the restaurants that are “legacy” chains now were previously doing everything from scratch with potatoes. Most went to processed frozen or dehydrated dry potatoes for consistency and cost.
Then Five Guys came along making fresh Idaho French fries in 1986. When Five Guys quickly broke past 150 units and still made fresh-cut French fries, it caught everyone’s attention.
Who were some of the standout foodservice specialists that you came to admire during those early days?
Pioneers like David Stidolf, from Mann Packing in Salinas, CA. He was so smart to come up with different cuts of broccoli, including florets and Broccoli Wokly. He went to college in Idaho, so I got to know him toward the end of his career. Joe Stubbs of Sunkist (vice president of foodservice), for creating the table top machines, seen in school foodservice kitchens, to section oranges. Joe knew if you cut fruit into pieces the students would take what they wanted and could always come back for more.
I can still also visualize Joe Brennan of Marriott Corporation on a panel at PMA, chastising the industry to “take the staples out of the cartons” of lettuce. Or, the unknown person who came up to me at our booth at the NRA (National Restaurant Show in Chicago) complaining that Idaho potatoes often had short hairs when they cooked French fries. (This resulted from packing No. 2 potatoes in burlap, as a loose strand could fry up to look like human hair.)
How have you successfully used social media to get the Idaho Potato Commission’s message out?
I asked our chief executive some 15 years ago if I could oversee the website, and I got serious about figuring out how the IPC could be an early adopter of non-traditional methods of reaching consumers by working with food bloggers. It is now a cornerstone of our recipe additions, with more than 500 added to the website, as well as content for our programs with consumers. Think about what many food bloggers have done for fresh produce consumption.
Doing food videos with bloggers was such a winner. Typically, a professionally produced recipe video cost upward of $25,000. And, we still had to figure out how to get the information out to a large audience. Bloggers were already doing this at a fraction of the cost. It’s worked very well for us.
I will give you two examples. Kale consumption was off the chart, and I couldn’t find any chain chefs putting it on mainstream menus with potatoes. We reached out to bloggers from the Los Angeles area, and we asked them to pair Idaho potatoes with kale. We received some great executions to share with operators.
Another example — Hasselback potatoes seemed such a natural for taking the baked potato past “loaded with sour cream and butter,” to another level. In 2011, Sara O’Donnell of Average Betty produced a video on YouTube that now has half a million views.
You have been writing the Dr. Potato blog since its inception. What will happen to Dr. Potato now that you are leaving?
Just like so many things with the Internet, this will live till the next form of communication catches on. I take great pride in the more than 700 posts that have helped consumers, foodservice executives and retailers with tips. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to share my knowledge gained in the produce industry.
I hope to continue to post and learn more about potatoes by visiting with French fry machine producers and companies that are processing fresh vegetables, etc.
What will you miss most about the foodservice and produce industries?
The opportunity to see and learn by going to conferences, expos, traveling with chefs as we find out what’s new and happening in a city with menu immersions. I will miss the people and talent you meet along the way. The friendships that you make along the way and will, in many instances, continue to grow for years to come. I will miss going to the National Restaurant Show in Chicago (since 1973) or the PMA Foodservice Conference in Monterey, CA, and touring fields, seeing how food is grown and harvested and brought to market.
How has the International Foodservice Editorial Council, or IFEC, helped you do your job at the IPC?
This organization places so much emphasis on helping each other, from finding leads about a menu item that includes the ingredients you represent, to partnerships on programs. There is a great deal of overall openness within the IFEC community. I’ll miss the 10-minute “office hours” — being across the table from an editor and trying to come up with creative ways to get our recipes, photos and stories out to a larger audience.
What needs to happen with consumers in order to raise produce consumption in the United States?
Everyone is on the right track; we just need to do more of it. It starts with sampling, anytime we can. Increasing exposure to what a cook, or chef, or mixologist or culinary teacher can do to elevate produce is going to get more people excited about fruits and vegetables.
I also think it has to include increasing the perceived value of fruits and vegetables. We somehow have to create enough profitability with every crop, so we can get out of the peaks and valleys of short-term thinking.
What are some of your favorite ways/recipes to enjoy Idaho potatoes?
There’s nothing like a baked Idaho Russet Burbank, or fresh-cut fries. I dream about Aligot mashed potatoes with lots of cream and butter and cheese. We have more than 100 potato salad recipes on IdahoPotato.com. I may just make them all.
How you will stay in contact with your legions of friends in the industry?
Thank goodness for Facebook and other social media websites. I promise not to flood them with recycled jokes or political views.
What are some of the more humorous incidences you have experienced since joining the Commission?
Demonstrating how to cut fresh-made French fries to a group of chefs in Atlanta, and having the machine come off the wall in the kitchen because it wasn’t properly installed into the wooden studs.
Having a waiter plunk down a full carton of Idaho potatoes at our table when a Commissioner wanted proof that the steakhouse actually used our state’s potatoes. The whole dining room and kitchen staff was watching us.
What situation proved to be a real learning experience?
This goes back to a ‘Food Editor Lunch’ we scheduled with New York-based chef David Burke. He created a 12-course potato menu. Several of the dishes were the first time I had ever seen so many creative and delicious ways to incorporate potatoes within a meal.
Going to my first blogging conference, Camp Blogaway, and discovering how far behind we were on adopting social media to help build the Idaho potato brand awareness. I vowed that we would catch up by the next year’s event.
Can you talk a little bit about how you will fill your time once you leave the IPC?
Looking forward to not getting on early-morning flights across the country; spending more time with Candy and dog, Baker, who loves going for walks and keeping me fit.
I’ll probably have a big list for a few months of projects that haven’t been done for years at our place and continuing to go to car events across the country.
I’ve always loved the travel; it’s a wonderful and ongoing learning experience. So, the answer is: I still hope to travel but more like once in a while, instead of every week.
What type of leader do you admire?
The leaders I have admired in work situations have been patient, constantly mentoring and challenging me to think outside the box.
How has the IPC changed you?
Of course, it’s made me so much more aware of the risks and dedication of Idaho potato growers every crop year. I’m in awe of the efforts so many before me made to create such a well-recognized brand, Famous Idaho Potatoes. I love seeing the creative dishes chefs are making now with potatoes. Combine food and produce, how can you not like that? Anyone who follows me on Facebook or Instagram has probably thought, “I want that guy’s job; he looks like he’s having fun,” and that’s true.
What advice do you have for your successor?
Be a good listener; take advice; but then figure out a path that fits your skills and helps grow the industry to the next level.