Today we welcome guest blogger Pat Hynes, Senior Director at Darden Restaurants. Pat explains characteristics that qualify a Darden supplier and what you can do on the show floor to make a positive impression that could earn you a seat at the table. We invite your questions and comments in response.
What does it takes to be a Darden supplier? The short answer is this: be world class. Here’s the long answer.
Darden uses a huge volume of produce — we’re talking hundreds of thousands to a few million pounds of each individual commodity weekly. Because taste and appearance of the fruits and vegetables we serve are critical to our guests’ experience, we select suppliers as if needing one pound of produce for a single special meal.
We recognize produce as a powerful part of memorable dining experiences that begin with the eyes and then move to the palate. Food must appeal to the senses in order to connect positively with a guest. Consider, for example, if the tomato is pink or red, or if the strawberries have white shoulders or are deep red throughout. These are critical freshness and quality cues.
Whenever possible, we focus on seasonal produce. The flavors of fruits and vegetables are strongest when in season at their freshest. Seasonality of course is a key concept at Seasons 52. Here, produce is a major part of the menu. Instead of using produce as merely a side dish, our chefs make fruits and vegetables work in harmony with what else is being served.
The same perspective is being embraced in all of our restaurants where we’re moving away from the produce side to produce as a critical part of the dining experience. We’re doing so largely because our guests want it that way. People want fresh produce such as asparagus or broccoli, and they want it prepared correctly. The old days of the boiled vegetable medley are long gone — thankfully!
The cost of protein and people’s increased health consciousness are other reasons behind fresh produce’s importance, especially in casual dining. Add these factors to flavor and experience and you get a good sense of why produce is critical to Darden’s success. You’ll also understand why I’ll be at the Foodservice Produce Expo keeping an eye to new suppliers capable of helping Darden innovate uses of produce — which takes me back to world class.
Darden strives to be a world-class operation, but we can only be world class if our suppliers are as well. By that I mean great people always striving for excellence, never satisfied with status quo. Apply this thinking to the following characteristics we look for in suppliers:
- Food safety commitment – Food safety is our number one concern. We evaluate suppliers’ food safety programs and discern whether they’re leaders or just doing the minimum. Involvement in trade associations is an important indicator because these groups educate growers on current issues and advancements.
- Continuous improvement – We consider how suppliers are growing and improving their company. We look at whether they’re bringing innovations to the market. We look at industry involvement and anything else demonstrating they stay current and bring capabilities to the table beyond growing.
- Geographic diversity – To have stable supply, our growers must have geographic diversity because one natural disaster can wipe everything out.
- Account service – How well will Darden’s account be served? Can you handle large volumes? Is my contact a decision maker? Who is in charge of food safety and can they work directly with us on a regular basis?
As to my advice for exhibiting, I offer the following:
- Visually highlight your product to capture attention quickly.
- Demonstrate what makes your products and capabilities different. There are many lemon growers, for instance, why should I work with you?
- Make sure knowledgeable staff capable of handling any question works your booth. I can’t wait for the person who knows the answer to get back or finish the conversation they’re having with another attendee. If I ask you a question, I expect you to know the answer.
- Know the details of and highlight your food safety efforts. Be sure to have a real story to tell beyond “we do third-party audits.” For Darden, our suppliers need to understand how important food safety is to us.
- Be accessible the whole time. It never fails: we finally get to a company’s booth after a full day and they’ve already left. My staff and I are at the show the minute the doors open until the security guards kick us out; we expect exhibitors to be too.
I’ll be attending the show with five of my staff. As you may be able to tell, I take our time there very seriously. In fact, we keep a schedule color coded by person by hour (including meals) of who is seeing whom when and why. Because so many opportunities exist at this show to innovate and advance our business, we don’t want to miss an opportunity.
So tell me, why should you be on my schedule? What will you be doing to put your best efforts on display?