Southern Innovations 2018 Highlights; David Sherrod, Faye Westfall, Dan'l Mackey Almy, Chris Keetch, Harold Paivarinta, and More Comment
NASHVILLE, TN - Welcoming the fresh produce industry to a setting that I imagine to be Nashville’s own Disneyland, it was a dynamic few days as the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center hosted this year’s Southern Innovations Organic and Foodservice Expo. With 92 booths and upward of 160 retailers and foodservice operators in attendance, this was a showdown of a show.
“We felt that the atmosphere and overall expo was well received by almost every attendee,” David Sherrod, President and CEO of the Southeast Produce Council, shared with me as the festivities came to a close. “The educational content and expert panels were very evident in the standing room-only sessions on Friday morning. The 3 to 4 days were packed with so many networking opportunities, and having Nashville as our backdrop didn’t hurt either. We are looking forward to coming back next year and setting the bar once again!”
And set the bar it did.
Thursday kicked off with SEPC’s Southern Roots reception, an event summarized best by Outgoing Chairman, Faye Westfall.
“Southern Roots is SEPC's networking opportunity which provides a wonderful, intimate environment for mentoring for women in the industry today,” she shared.
Led by Founder and CEO of DMA Solutions’ Dan’l Mackey Almy, women of all positions in fresh produce were presented with more than a networking opportunity. The room saw genuine connections formed as several attendees said they could have gone another hour in a session that was a resounding success.
“It is a very rare occurrence to experience 120 women finding common ground, opening up and sharing ways we can foster and maintain relationships in this industry. I felt so moved to have the opportunity to open up this discussion and to see everyone in the room engaged,” Dan’l told me. “I do believe we all left that session with a desire to improve and strengthen relationships. I believe this session is the exact outcome the Southern Roots leaders had hoped for.”
Thursday wound down with a beautiful reception, where many got to dine on a platform that is usually a musically-synched water show, before Friday morning’s back-to-back educational sessions.
Early risers were treated to key foodservice, organic-focused insights from Blue Apron’s Senior Culinary Director John Adler, Chick-fil-A’s Senior Culinary Lead Chef Stuart Tracy, and TC Restaurant Group’s Chef Tomasz Wosiak in Conception to Table: How Menus are Created.
Moderated by “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert, each culinary influencer spoke to everything from meal kit trends and motivations to struggles in getting more fresh produce, organic or conventional, on a bigger portion of the plate.
“I think the thing that we haven’t talked about is people want more produce, they want healthy options, and then they see the price tag associated with it and say, ‘You know, I’m okay with the chicken biscuit.’ The dollar price difference is enough for them to say no,” Adler commented at a point, sharing that while the demand and desire is there, fresh produce can cost as much or more than meat products for foodservice providers.
The panel agreed, hypothesizing that the food industry’s challenge might be either redistributing costs or even convincing consumers that fresh produce should be a higher dollar item like steak or chicken.
Conversations and insights continued into the second educational session Organic Produce Merchandising, with Lempert moderating and posing questions for Chris Dove, VP Produce Category, Merchandising, and Pricing for Food Lion, Vic Savanello, Vice President of Produce for The Fresh Market, and Chris Keetch, Director of Produce and Floral for Giant/Martin’s.
Among the topics were organic produce’s reaching $5.5 billion in sales while produce overall stands at $65.8 billion. The organic industry, the panel shared, also saw 16.4% dollar growth over last year and a 3% increase in trips with organic produce.
After a delicious keynote luncheon, led by legendary college coach and former NFL player Steve Spurrier and surprise speaker Gregory Ibach, Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Marketing and Regulators Programs’, the show floor had its “brand” opening—yes, an actual branding of the ribbon was involved.
“The SEPC has long been recognized as a first-class organization and this year's Southern Innovations event in Nashville further established that fact. From the opening reception through the educational sessions and expo, culminating with a toe-tapping dinner dance finale, Tennessee charm and hospitality was on full display!” Chris Keetch reflected.
While it was clear the event has seen growth, too, the intimate feeling of friends reuniting amongst budding business relationships remained.
“The evolution and growth of Southern Innovations has been amazing,” Harold Paivarinta, Education Committee Chair, commented. “The event has doubled in attendance in just two years. This is a testament of our dedicated membership. The SEPC will continue to add valuable content to our Organic and Foodservice Expo that should result in breaking another attendance record when we reconvene in Nashville once again in September 2019.”
Friday night’s festive Roots-N-Boots Dinner Dance can only be described as laughter and tears, starting with the exciting graduation of the STEPP-UPP Class of 2018, and the announcement of the Lifetime Membership Award to Martin Eubanks.
“When we look at our foundation I’ve got four to add,” Martin said as he accepted the honor. “I believe we were founded on faith: we still pray and I think that’s important. Family: we don’t just shake hands, we embrace and we tell each other we love each other and we mean it. And fairness: we give the small grower the same chance as the big corporation. There’s a chance here to be a part of something bigger than yourself.”
Parallel to this award is SEPC’s Next Generation Award, which the council bestows to honor the other half of the equation, presented to Titan Farms’ Director of Packaging Operations and Food Safety, Ross Williams.
Finally, there was the bitter-sweet passing of the torch as the council bid a tearful farewell to Faye Westfall’s term as Chairman, before welcoming her successor, Steve Pinkston, to his new role.
Before flying back into reality, though, SEPC treated attendees to a Saturday of golf, local tours of Music City, and of course, the ultimate “Saturdays in the South” Tailgate Experience.
Needless to say, I can’t wait to see what next year’s event might have in store for us and I hope to get a hint at next spring’s Southern Exposure. See y’all there!