More than one year after the pandemic first hit, U.S. growers, shippers, chefs, foodservice operators, and other members of the supply chain are looking toward the future with bright eyes. As COVID-19-related dining regulatory restrictions are rolled back from New York to California and everywhere in between, many operators are preparing for — or have already returned to — full-capacity indoor dining for the first time in over a year.
Given this remarkable milestone, we connected with PMA® members Rick Alcocer, Jacqueline Chan, and Mark Garcia to get their feedback on how the U.S. produce and foodservice industries are preparing for summer and the return toward normalcy in dining out. While COVID-19 safety precautions have become the new normal, growers and foodservice professionals are facing new and different challenges this summer, and all three members offered valuable insight.
Chef Mark Garcia, business development manager at B&W Quality Growers, reports that overall produce needs are very strong from his foodservice customers. Garcia’s team is addressing the increased demand by keeping closer contact with customers about restaurant traffic forecasts than ever before. He shares that ”one of the challenges for the industry is that there is no consistent rollout of dining room capacity across the country…it's still very state-specific. As a grower, we have to balance and forecast the needs of current business, near-term business, and short-term business based on feedback from our customers and their projected sales increases.”
Rick Alcocer, senior vice president of sales at Duda Farm Fresh Foods, agrees. He stresses the importance of clear and constant communication between growers and foodservice operators: “It is important for foodservice operators to communicate in advance the increases in their level of business to allow their respective suppliers to get a feel for their business environment. If that communication is not made to their vendor partner, how is that vendor able to adequately plan and prepare to service that customer?”
One concern that kept many growers and foodservice operators up at night over the past year was the worry over whether produce supply would be able to meet demand this summer after the uncertainties of summer 2020. Teams on both ends of the supply chain have strengthened relationships and made sure that they’re in constant communication to avoid such problems, noted Jacqueline Chan, senior purchasing agent for Panda Express Supply Chain.
But Chan believes supply may still be an issue this summer, keeping in mind the pre-pandemic increase in U.S. restaurant industry sales, which were up 3.6% in 2019 from the year before: “I believe there will be decreased supply due to demand surpassing unprecedented pre-COVID levels and more guests opting to indulge, enjoy their summer, and gain a sense of normalcy again. I anticipate the scarcity could greatly impact specific buzz-trending items that continue to spotlight well in the plant-based arena.
“The trajectory of the pandemic has demonstrated how restaurants are the economic heartbeat of this country, and guests are more than ready to safely reengage with the world again through food. With grit and perseverance, I am confident that the produce industry will equip growers well with the resilience and necessary resources to swiftly meet the marketplace demand.” Garcia agrees, adding, “Unfortunately, there are some fresh produce items that are going to be affected or run out of supply earlier due to increased demand. Those isolated items will unfortunately attract some negative media attention, and my fear is that consumers will think shortages are more widespread than they actually are.”
However, Alcocer is hopeful supply will meet demand: “It’s difficult to gauge what every regional/local [business] has done to prepare for the summer, but I feel there will be enough to cover overall demand. Most have been cautiously optimistic that the summer of 2021 would be much better than that of 2020.”
A related challenge that many chefs and foodservice operators are seeing as we head into the U.S. summer season is how to make a creative menu out of a limited or a smaller number of ingredients. Garcia shares: “Chefs are engineering menus that they can produce with the limited culinary teams that they currently have on hand. Even though current business levels and demand are strong, operators want a certain amount of creativity and depth to their menus. They also want to make sure that they're going to be able to have these ingredients for their menus on a consistent basis. It’s a constant challenge to balance all of these [needs] equally.”
Chan adds, “Incorporating agility, adaptability, and contingency into the day-to-day level of planning and action through the collaboration of our strategic partnerships is a critical lesson from the past year that has influenced how the team enters and manages in the post-COVID world.”
Both growers and foodservice operators have shown enormous adaptability over the past year; the valuable lessons they’ve learned will help prepare them well for future impacts to production, whether they be weather-related or another pandemic. “Obviously, the growth cycle of fresh produce is quite varied, so I think some produce items with shorter cycles will fare better than others,” says Garcia. “Many growers are anticipating stronger demand, and they are smartly planting crops to meet this increase…I would say as an industry, the fresh produce industry is poised to do very well in reacting to the challenges and inconsistencies of demands this summer.”