Taste. Trust. Transparency. Truth in Menu.

Originally printed in the April 2023 issue of Produce Business.

Taste. Trust. Transparency. Truth in Menu. The four cornerstones of foodservice are built on relationships, knowledge and seasonality.

The recent weather and crop devastation in California and western growing regions have put ingredients and produce supply in peril and this is testing the connection some restaurateurs have with their suppliers. And it’s also taxing the patience of distributors with their supply chain and growers.

The ability of regional produce distributors to create solutions, be communicative and resourceful and diversify is what will maintain many a menu through the next four months. The willingness of chefs and menu developers to work with their suppliers and remain flexible in menu writing as spring rolls into summer will create a picture of seamless availability and preparation for U.S. restaurant patrons.

Suppliers who understand that taste is a primary driver for foodservice, paired with the responsibility of price and honest communication, will be able to maintain the important relationships with their customers.

Restaurants will need to allow flexibility in their expectations in receiving. Specifications may need to be more flexible as products arrive in the back door. Yet, the changes in specs need to be identified with advanced conversations about what is being shipped. It is better to be a good partner with a modified receiving protocol that allows a lower yield than to not receive the item at all.

Glenn Wilson, regional produce manager for Sysco Intermountain in Salt Lake City, has two clear recommendations for customers to survive the next four to five months: purchase value-added products and exercise contracts whenever possible. “By ordering value-added items, foodservice operators are ensuring that they’ll receive the best possible products, already prepared.”

Wilson’s other recommendation is to exercise secured contracts. “Not all operators have the volume or forecasting abilities to craft contracts with their suppliers, but if contracts are in place for situations like this spring’s weather, the volumes have been pre-ordered by the supplier and may be sourced from alternative growing regions — thus ensuring the continuity of product supply, despite the sourcing challenges,” he explains.

Wilson asks that customers trust the relationship they have created with their supplier and recognize that, while there may be some fluctuations in pricing during challenging sourcing, it remains a partnership with a mutual desire for success. This is not the time to shop around and turn to a competitor for a 50-cent reduction in price.

A final insight from Wilson was a suggestion to support local agriculture if possible, during difficult sourcing periods. “If weather has impacted one growing region, but a similar crop is available locally, take the opportunity to seek out regional and local farms to support their endeavors.”

Jin Ju Wilder, director of marketing and business development at Vesta Foodservice, offered additional suggestions, as we discussed her responsibilities to Vesta’s foodservice customers. Wilder stressed the importance of relationships throughout the value chain, mentioning Vesta’s frequent newsletters and product alerts.

“By staying in close contact with growers, Vesta is able to anticipate shorts well in advance and communicate this with our foodservice customers,” Wilder says. The opportunity to alert chains and small restaurants to the need to transition to a similar produce item to satisfy menu requirements in advance opens the door to transparency in supplier availability and pricing.

Plan spring menus in advance, with input from the people who are in constant contact with the growers.

The recent rains in California will create shorts with many of the brassicas and cruciferous vegetables, so alerting chains with advance warning about the low availability of items gives restaurants time to rethink menu offerings.

Wilder also mentions the importance of establishing contracts, while asking customers to understand that contracts are not a guarantee of product. “If the product isn’t available despite contracts with multiple growers, it’s time for a restaurateur to consider a different use or menu item.”

To maintain truth in menu for the next four to six months, communication along the entire supply chain will be a critical component of success. With Mother’s Day on the horizon and more rain predicted in many growing areas, it will be tantamount for restaurants to be in close contact with their suppliers, not necessarily asking about value or menued items, but asking about available items or appropriate substitutes.

There is time to evaluate and plan spring menus in advance, with input from the people who are in constant contact with the growers. Trust the relationships that have been cultivated as carefully as the food that is being grown, and believe in the information that is being shared with unprecedented transparency. These are the keys to maintaining the best possible flavor and truth on the menu.

Bon Appetit.

Jill Overdorf is the founder and president of The Produce Ambassador, based in Torrance, CA. An executive chef for more than 15 years before entering the produce industry, Overdorf founded The Produce Ambassador to provide culinary guidance and strategy to companies by connecting field, kitchen and consumer through education and advocacy for good food. Prior to founding The Produce Ambassador, she worked with Naturipe Farms as corporate chef and director of business development for foodservice for five years and held a similar position with Coosemans LA Shipping in Los Angeles for 10 years. Overdorf attended UMASS-Amherst and graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. In addition to her professional commitments, she is a former board member of both the Produce Marketing Association and the Center for Growing Talent by PMA.