SEPC Southern Innovations Fall Conference Attracts Record Turnout

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SC – At this year’s Southeast Produce Council fall conference – which drew record attendance – participants learned how organics are driving retail sales and how Millennials are shutting-down restaurants.

The Sept. 28-30 conference – renamed the Southern Innovations Organics and Foodservice Expo –attracted 557 participants, higher than last year’s 317. Up to 112 retail and foodservice buyers – more than double over last year – trekked to the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort for the conference, and 73 companies exhibited their products at the expo. Last year’s smaller expo housed 26 exhibitors.

During a Sept. 29 keynote breakfast, outgoing council chairwoman Teri Miller, senior category manager at The Fresh Market in Greensboro, NC, reported on the council’s 2016-17 activities.  The council’s membership is listed at 2,600 individuals, up 700 members or 36 percent from the previous year. A little more than 1,000 of those members are in retail and foodservice, a 200 percent year-over-year increase, she says.

“With retail and foodservice, we see the importance of this organization,” says Miller. “This is where we want to be. This group does a lot for the industry. It’s about fresh produce bringing healthy relationships and partnerships. Others in this industry are emulating us and seek our help. Our mission is to be the premier produce industry resource in the Southeast.”

During Sept. 29 sessions, panels of industry leaders discussed organic sales growth and how restaurant operators should prepare for the younger demographics, which are shaping the way people dine at restaurants.

In the U.S., 92 million Millennials, or those born between 1980 and 2000, along with 61 million in Generation X, those born between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, are affecting restaurant operations. That compares to 77 million Baby Boomers. “We kill businesses” is the Millennials’ motto, says Ronnie De La Cruz, president of De La Cruz Training and Consulting Services.

Restaurant chains, including Applebee’s, Chili’s and TGI Fridays, are closing restaurants as a result of not attracting enough Millennials, says De La Cruz. “Millennials are key to foodservice success,” he says. “They prefer fast-fine and smaller footprint restaurants.”

While organics represent 8.4 percent of the total produce market, it accounts for 30 percent of dollar sales, says Anne-Marie Roerink, a principal at the 210 Analytics, LLC market research firm. “Organics are driving dollars for produce overall and for the store overall,” she says. “Organic sales are valuable for total store success. Given produce’s established organic penetration, it can be a key lever to growing other areas.”

Mike Prather, director of sales and marketing for Birmingham, AL-based Flavor-Pic Tomato Co., Inc., exhibited at the Sept. 29 expo. “We have had good response,” he says. “The show is going very well. We have had a lot of positive responses on the product lines. There have been quite a few people that have come here.”