(UPDATED COVERAGE, Aug. 6) MONTEREY, Calif. — The Produce Marketing Association’s annual foodservice show was bigger than ever.

The Newark, Del.-based association said a record 1,745 people pre-registered for the Foodservice Conference & Exposition, 15% more than in 2009, said Bryan Silbermann, PMA president and chief executive officer.

More cross-supply chain collaboration was a theme of the show. Panelists at the workshop on locally grown urged the need for more collaboration to make any small farm supply situation work.

William Bloxsom-Carter, executive chef and food and beverage director for Playboy Mansion West, said a strong relationship with his produce supplier is necessary to make his program successful.

“My (job) is to look good to my guests, and I like my produce company to be my partner in that,” Carter said. “The food we serve is a very, very important element to Mr. Hefner.”

A partnership with Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc. led Oxnard, Calif-based Boskovich Farms to its latest product release — bunched washed herbs. Traditionally, herbs like parsley come in unwashed bunches straight from the field or washed but loose in bags.

“For chefs, it’s more convenient to whack off the stems when it’s bunched,” said Mike O’Leary, vice president of sales and marketing for Boskovich.

For Darden, whose Olive Garden chain was looking for this type of item, the partnership with Boskovich gives it more control over where its products are coming from, O’Leary said.

“It was traditionally a volume item they didn’t pay a lot of attention to, but it can also be considered high-risk, so they partnered with us and now they can control who’s supplying them,” O’Leary said.

Before the July 30-Aug. 1 conference, executives from produce supply, distribution and buying organizations, as well as the associations that represent them, met for a second year to discuss their goal of doubling the use of produce in foodservice by 2020.

The three organizations that sponsor Foodservice 2020 — PMA, the National Restaurant Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association — have spent the past year laying the groundwork for the decade ahead and have come up with an operational plan and strategy, Silbermann said.

Silbermann said the topic that inspired the group the most was focused on flavor and reimagining the restaurant experience.

“In the past, we haven’t grown for flavor. We’ve grown for appearance. That simply isn’t enough for today’s consumers,” Silbermann said. “We must put flavor back in the equation, in how we ship, how we grow, how we handle.”

The message was well received, and produce companies are already responding with new product releases and product improvements. One attendee said his company jokingly dubbed this year’s convention “The Year of the Lettuce,” because many leafy green shippers launched new varieties and pack options.

“They’ve talked a lot about the flavor of produce, and I thought it was amazing the target of the goal (to double produce in restaurants),” said Cindy Wong, vice president of foodservice for Saginaw, Texas-based Fresherized Foods. “As a produce supply company, that’s making a lot of sense.”

Avocados are a commodity that’s already on the rise in a big way, and Wong said she’s seeing the applications for her company’s value-added products to grow and diversify.

Silbermann called for more transparency at every level of the supply chain, saying, “We have to stop hiding behind the farm gate, the distribution center dock or the restaurant prep table. Folks, we have an amazing story to tell.”

Communication comes with the opportunities for more business and the need to heed off consumer media waiting to tell its own version of the truth, Silbermann said, referring to media attacks on pesticides and growing and distribution practices in the industry.

The Foodservice 2020 initiative also has a group working on food safety and consumer confidence, on generating accurate data about the use of produce in foodservice and on creating a common definition for sustainability and sharing best practices and metrics.

Silbermann said he’s getting strong feedback on the conference’s workshop sessions, which also included the locally grown movement, food safety and business networking.

Exhibiting produce suppliers said they noticed a bump in traffic.

“It’s been very good,” said Mike Aiton, director of marketing for Prime Time International. “The one thing about this show is people are really looking for information. They’re really involved. They like talking about their business. They’re passionate about it.”

The show is always the best of the year for Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers, but this year was exceptional, said Ed Beckman, president.

“For example, with Subway, a lot of their repackers are coming by to talk to us,” Beckman said. “Everybody’s looking to fill in the gap, and that’s a little different from past years.”

The 3-day show caps the end of a long week in California for many distributors, many of whom use the trip as a chance to visit produce operations and to have company-wide meetings. Silbermann said distributors help drum up interest in new produce products and opportunities, and they’re able to learn more about the produce that’s available, which makes them more valuable to their customers.

“You always get to see all the shippers you do business with, folks you haven’t done business with but would like to,” said Michael Gonzalez from Sysco’s corporate buying offices in Florida.

The exhibition is in Monterey’s Portola Plaza conference center every year and floor space consistently sells out. Silbermann said PMA was able to fit in more booths this year and it has plans to reconfigure to fit in four more booths in 2011.

“We exceeded all of our revenue goals and set new records,” Silbermann said. “But to me the biggest thing was the excitement in the room. There was a lot of energy.”

The 2011 conference is scheduled for July 29-31 in Monterey.

UPDATED: PMA Foodservice fosters collaboration, ideas

Ashley Bentley

Chefs William Bloxsom-Carter (left), executive chef and food and beverage director for the Playboy Mansion West, and Rick Bayless, owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, banter during cooking demonstrations Aug. 1 at the PMA Foodservice Conference & Exposition in Monterey, Calif.