(March 25, 11:49 a.m.) NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Spending money to make money — the old concept came with some new spin at the Produce Marketing Association’s final Produce Solutions Conference, March 19-21.

Through a series of seminars, forums and networking sessions, conference attendees learned that a recession doesn’t necessarily mean end to profits for fresh produce companies — or curtailing of marketing spending.

“The key take-away was the current economy is forcing us to be more creative, developing new products, pack styles and marketing activities to add value for the retailers and consumers,” Mark Cassius, director of sales and marketing at Eurofresh Inc., Willcox, Ariz., wrote during an insight forum asking for his opinions on the session.

Roundtable discussions featured produce industry experts on topics such as dealing with market disruptions and produce buying and distribution challenges.

Speakers focused on how produce companies could benefit financially in hard times —specifically, by spending as much or more money as they typically do on advertising, marketing and promotion and sampling events at retail.

“We found we couldn’t get people to buy food, but when we gave it away, we we’re pretty successful,” joked Gene Harris, senior purchasing manager for Denny’s Restaurants, Spartanburg, S.C., during a panel discussion, “A Day in the Lives of Buyers.”

Harris got serious, however, when detailing how Denny’s $7 million investment in a Super Bowl-related free breakfast promotion translated into an estimated $400 million in advertising value to the chain. Harris implied fresh produce companies could get similar return on marketing investments.

“We felt the economic situation wasn’t going to improve dramatically anytime soon, so this was our opportunity to go for greater market share and be aggressive,” he said.

Mike O’ Brien, vice president of produce for Schnuck Markets Inc., St. Louis, said his company is enjoying success by educating consumers through sampling.

“They’re not going to buy something they haven’t tasted. We get customers to try something new and try to engage our customers through sampling,” O’Brien said.

“Trial in restaurants” and the locally grown and sustainability phenomena are also intriguing trends that could end up helping fresh produce sales at retail, O’Brien said.

“Foodservice is not the enemy, especially with regard to fresh produce because, a lot of times, consumers are coming into retailers wanting fresh produce items they first tasted at a restaurant,” O’Brien said.

In response to a forum, Anthony DeAngelis, director of sales and operations the northeastern division of Gilroy, Calif.-based Christopher Ranch LLC, agreed “consumer education is key to consumption decisions.”

At least one discussion group after the consumer panel concluded it’s vital to at least maintain, if not increase, financial commitment to marketing efforts in a bear market to be able to survive and eventually come out ahead.

“We’re getting really creative with our marketing, and the more you think about it, the more it makes sense,” said Harris, who noted Denny’s has enlisted rock bands to help create late-night menu selections featuring fresh produce.