Still in the glow of its first decade, the ever-expanding Southeast Produce Council enjoyed another successful winter bash and looks forward to starting new events this spring and summer.

Doug Ohlemeier
Eastern Editor

The Southern Exposure retail and foodservice conference and expo, in Tampa on an unseasonably cold early March weekend, had golfers donning winter wear during the pre-event golf tournament.

Despite the colder weather, large numbers of participants packed the trade show floor and participated in field tours.

Each year, the field tours see expanded interest and attendance, said Tom Page, the council’s president and East Coast procurement manager for the Lakeland, Fla., office of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu Inc.

“The first few years we had to beg people to tour their operations,” he said. “They didn’t want people stomping around their packinghouses. This year, however, they were begging us to come.”

Steve Williams, director of produce and floral for Sweetbay Supermarkets, Tampa, a division of the Brussels-based Delhaize Group, has been attending Southern Exposure since the council began hosting them in Lakeland in 2004.

“This low-cost event offers a very good return on investment for us,” he said. “It’s the relationships I value the most and hooking up with the right people. Each year, this show continues to get more perfected.”

Joseph Bunting, produce category manager for United Supermarkets Ltd., Lubbock, Texas, doubled his supermarket’s participation at this year’s conference.

Instead of two people, this year, he and his director of produce procurement brought the chain’s senior buyer and company business manager.

Bunting said he was able to expand his Southeastern business by visiting with a major Vidalia onion grower-shipper who also helped him with Florida and Carolinas-grown produce.

“This show gives us a time to plan ahead for the next crop,” Bunting said. “This show is structured well and there is plenty of time to visit everyone. It’s not like PMA where you have to run through the entire show to see everyone.”

Major wholesalers, including Sysco and U.S. Foodservice, brought large groups to Tampa.

Up to 30 U.S. Foodservice representatives arrived days before the conference to attend company meetings. 

Associated Wholesale Grocers of Kansas City, Kan., attended for the first time.

Terry Vorhees, the council’s executive director, said some large groups told him they may also schedule meetings next year in conjunction with the conference.

Vorhees said planning for next year’s event began almost immediately after the finish of this year’s extravaganza.

Minor changes to next year’s event, scheduled for March 3-5 at the Caribe Royale Resort and Conference Center in Orlando, involve providing a longer set-up time for exhibitors and expanding the Friday evening opening gala reception from a half hour to an hour.

The changes should prevent loading dock issues many exhibitors experienced this year, Vorhees said.

He said the council plans a produce inspection training course in May, and looks to sponsor some summer road show workshops in several Southeastern cities such as Atlanta and in the Carolinas to discuss an industry issue such as local- and regional-grown produce.

The council is also receiving strong interest in its annual fall conference. This year’s is scheduled to relocate from northern Georgia to Savannah, Ga., a city that many council participants haven’t visited, Vorhees said.

“We have created something here in the Southeast that is kind of unique,” Vorhees said.

“Whether they’re retail or foodservice, the biggest thing a lot of people tell me when they come is they expected a lot of Southeastern grower-shippers to be here. They tell me they didn’t realize that this isn’t only a regional show. The people are coming from all over the U.S. and Canada.”

When they arrive, the buyers see shippers from California, up to 10 Washington apple shippers and six to eight mushroom shippers.

Vorhees and others helped create the council to bring produce buyers and grower-shippers together.

Southern Exposure’s record retail and foodservice buyer attendance demonstrates the value of this industry gathering.

E-mail dohlemeier@thepacker.com

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