Offer Spring's Fresh Produce for Increased Sales

Sysco Shape April 2013

Spring is the perfect time to introduce more fresh fruits and vegetables to menus, especially locally grown produce. In April, people think not only about warmer weather, but also about Earth Day, going green and sustainable choices. These thoughts all tie into buying locally grown produce, which is very on-trend right now. In fact, according to the National Restaurant Association's 2013 What's Hot Survey, locally grown produce was ranked second among the Top Ten Menu Trends. (Locally sourced meat and seafood was ranked number one.)

To help restaurants offer more local produce to these consumers, Sysco is working with growers nationwide to make sure their produce is grown and processed safely. FreshPoint, Sysco's fresh produce division, works with the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) as a way to offer food safety training programs to growers nationwide. The one-day sessions show growers how to earn USDA GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) Food Safety Certification.

"They have to be audited in order to be GAP-certified, and we take them through that process," says Nancy Johnston, strategic purchasing manager for FreshPoint. "Usually, we have 65 to 80 growers show up for these seminars."

The seminars cover everything from hand washing to how-to-build a customized food safety program that can help the grower sell to more restaurant customers. Sysco also works to help restaurants and noncommercial foodservice representatives learn more about these local farms. Pat Cipolla, director of produce marketing for Sysco Kansas City, says the company partners with Good Natured Family Farms, a cooperative of 150 farms in Missouri. "In the spring, we take some of our customers out to tour the farms," he says. "You want to be able to tell the story about the food in order to sell the food."

Cipolla says buying local is probably the fastest growing trend in restaurants and foodservice. Another trend is that consumers are looking for more fresh produce when they dine out. People are moving away from traditional entrees that showcase a large cut of meat plus a small side of vegetables, says Elizabeth Pivonka, president and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation. "Everybody knows that half the plate should be fruits and vegetables," she says. "They see value in a full plate."

Both the desire for fresh produce and the demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables can be good news for restaurants and noncommercial foodservice. Not only is produce typically less expensive than proteins, but serving healthful foods can help boost the bottom line, according to "Better-For-You Foods: An Opportunity to Improve Public Health and Increase Food Industry Profits", a report issued by the Hudson Institute. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group researched 21 quick-service chains and 12 full-service chains. Its study found that the Better-For-You/lower-calorie items accounted for 37.5 percent of total restaurant servings in 2011, a slight increase from 36.2 percent in 2006. Chains that increased their BFY/lower-calorie servings saw a 5.5 percent increase in same-store sales, while those that did not saw a 5.5 percent decline.

Also, according to the report, chains that increased their BFY/lower-calorie food servings saw a 10.9 percent increase in total traffic, compared to a 14.7 percent decline in total traffic by chains whose BFY/lower-calorie food servings declined.

The Hockessin, Del.-based PBH, a nonprofit group supported by 400 donors including Sysco, offers marketing tips on how to add fruits and vegetables to menu items. For example, offer a variety of entrée salads, with or without chicken or beef. Consumers do not expect meat in every meal these days, Pivonka says; also, eating beans and legumes is a more environmentally responsible way to consume protein, just in time for Earth Day. Toss salads with nuts, for additional crunch and protein. Also, add vegetable soup as a daily special or limited time offer.

PBH also suggests offering seasonal fruits, which ties into the buying local trend. Restaurant diners know that buying fruits in-season means the restaurant is likely buying the produce from local suppliers. That also means less shipping, an important environmental attribute.

Here are more tips for incorporating more fruits and vegetables in menus:

  • Top baked potatoes with kale or collard greens.
  • Add vegetables to pasta for color.
  • Make the vegetable the center of the plate. Try stuffing a summer squash or peppers with other vegetables and grains.
  • For customers who prefer meat, offer fruits in a chutney.
  • Add dried fruits to baked goods.
  • Present a dessert cobbler with a nontraditional fruit, or a mixture of fruits.

For foodservice, such as those in schools, PBH offers these tips:

  • Add a "new and different" section to the salad bar, such as "this week's locally grown vegetable."
  • Display signage explaining how much of a vegetable equals one serving.
  • Feature different colors of produce on different days of the week.
  • For kids, decorate the menu items with faces or figures made of fruits or vegetables.

Use table tents, menu inserts and other signage to let customers know about the healthful menu items. "Health and wellness are here to stay, and the trend continues to grow," Pivonka says. "If you do not have fresh fruits and vegetables on your menu, you are missing out."

FreshPoint offers information on seasonality of produce items. April is a good time to plan menu items that use fruits such as avocados, mangoes or strawberries, vegetables including asparagus, corn from California and sweet onions, and specialty items such as baby artichokes, English peas and blood oranges.

FreshPoint also offers a weekly newsletter, FreshPress, which features information on produce. To sign up for the newsletter, visit


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