(UPDATED COVERAGE, Nov. 5) Low consumer confidence, not enough attention given to younger consumers and not enough collaboration between sectors of the supply chain are just a few of the core forces working against produce in the foodservice industry, according to recently released reports.

The Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association and the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association and International Foodservice Distributors Association announced a new partnership, with a goal of doubling the use of fresh produce in restaurants by 2020, this summer at PMA’s Foodservice Conference and Exposition in Monterey, Calif.

One of the group’s first initiatives was an Executive Think Tank to discuss produce opportunities in foodservice. A panel of 25 senior executives throughout the foodservice supply chain convened to discuss the opportunities and challenges, which are now compiled into an 18-page report.

To achieve its goal, the group focused on five strategies:

  • Re-imagine the restaurant experience with a stronger produce presence and story;
  • Improve consumer confidence in produce;
  • Demonstrate social responsibility;
  • Closer collaboration between sectors; and
  • Closer collaboration with government and other stakeholders.

“There is an opportunity for foodservice to be the leaders of a movement in increasing the use and consumption of fresh produce,” one unnamed participant said, according to the report. “Foodservice and celebrity chefs can impact retail and consumer choices. What consumers learn to eat and prepare from a restaurant will impact their choices at home. Chefs drive consumers in the grocery store.”

The need for closer collaboration between the sectors was one of the takeaways from the meeting. For example, growers should be working more directly with chefs and menu planners to find way to meet consumers’ demands for a wider variety of flavors, textures and traditions in fresh produce, according to the report.

The group also recognized the need to work more with government and other stakeholders, and the need for suppliers and distributors to better understand how foodservice operations are run.

Group members also suggested taking a tip from the California wine industry by helping consumers experience fresh produce.

“Tourists could go on field tours with chefs,” one group member suggested, according to the report.

“To sell we must tell the story,” another added. “Even waiters need to hear the story.”

Before the discussion, the group commissioned a study of fresh produce use in restaurants with operators, owners and purchasing executives.

“We wanted to look at how produce is used and impediments to produce usage at foodservice operations,” said Tim York, president of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Corp., which sponsored the partnership. “We have some work and dialogue going.”

This 56-page report includes data and feedback on:

  • Where purchasers source fresh produce;
  • Importance of factors when purchasing fresh produce;
  • Current and future trends in fresh produce at restaurants;
  • Locally sourced produce in restaurants; and
  • Peak freshness versus offering an item throughout the year.

According to survey data, a majority of produce served in U.S. restaurants is domestic.

“We don’t have a supplier preference so much by geographic region, but the preference is for food safety, so they have to pass audits, and they have to be regulars in the food industry,” one full-service restaurant chain purchasing executive said in the report.

When asked what were the most important factors when purchasing fresh produce, freshness came out on the top of the list, followed by flavor/taste and food safety.

When asked about organic produce, a chain restaurant purchasing executive reported organic as a low priority. Some said the consumer appeal for these offerings has worn off, according to the report.

For restaurants that reported serving more fresh produce than they did two years ago, a higher demand for healthful items was the No. 1 reason. Others reported sales being up in general, menu changes with more variety and the availability of local produce as factors spurring them to serve more fresh produce.

For those serving less fresh produce, suffering sales in general was the main reason.

“Our produce use and consumption is up about 12% this year over last year because there is a greater desire for people to eat fresh produce,” one quick-service restaurant chain purchasing executive said, according to the report. “We are seeing a lot more salad orders, after we introduced fresh fruit into our salads.”

Demand for more healthful menu options is a top reason survey respondents reported thinking they’ll serve more fresh produce in the next two years. Nearly all respondents said they predicted serving the same (56%) or more (41%).

Overall, though, they expect sales to head back up, and expect a lift in general.

Members of three associations can access the reports free. For non-members, the reports can be purchased through PMA’s online store.