At the virtual edition of The New York Produce Show and Conference this past December we had an all-star collection of industry luminaries who were willing to share their knowledge and experience with the broader industry.
There were many robust discussions, and we are sharing some of these insightful conversations here on the Pundit. You can read the transcript below or watch the video below the transcript.
First up, in the midst of a pandemic that crushed the foodservice industry, the largest foodservice distributor in the world, Sysco, has displayed amazing resiliency. Truly a lesson for every company in the world.
We were fortunate that Juliet Olivarria, Vice President, Produce at Sysco, was willing and able to share the incredible experience:
Vice President, Produce
Q: Good day and welcome to The New York Produce Show and Conference. Today we have a superstar of the produce industry joining us, and one who has really been at the epicenter of this pandemic year for produce. As we’ve been talking to retailers, many of the stories have been about how to handle the increased demand that they were experiencing. Julie has a different story for us. So Julie, why don’t you introduce yourself? Tell us your life story and how you came to be sitting where you are today, and then we can go from there.
A: Okay, good morning, Jim. Thanks so much for having me. It’s great catching up. I sure wish we were in New York City doing it in person, but next year I look forward to seeing you. So I am Julie Olivarria. I’m the vice president of produce for Sysco Corporation. I’ve been with Sysco now 21 years, but I started my career a little earlier than that for a supplier. So I worked for a shipper for about seven years before joining the team at Sysco. Then I came on as a buyer and just progressed and accepted this role of vice president nearly a year ago now.
So I’m fairly new at this position, and what a way to start this new role in leading a category for the largest foodservice company in the world!
Q: Yeah, well, you certainly have had a baptism of fire, as they say, in this year. So, you’re busy running this giant foodservice distributor, enormously successful in its operations in produce and many other things, and you’re here in say, March, and all of a sudden, the world changes. What was your experience? What happened? What did it feel like?
A: It truly did feel like the world changed overnight for us. March 19th, I think, we sent everybody home from the office and said, “We’ll see you in two weeks.” Now, here we are December and we still haven’t returned to that office environment. Overnight, our business just completely fell. At our lowest point back in March, we were at 60 percent of what our normal business is. And it really caused us to have to pivot and look at things differently and much more rapidly than we’re used to moving.
As you can imagine, we were focused on redirecting our excess inventory. We had a lot of inventory coming into the start of this, and we really kind of flexed and found avenues that we hadn’t explored before or had explored very lightly. So we sold product directly to consumers. That’s something we hadn’t done in the past. We sold to restaurants that converted into grocery markets and sold groceries rather than prepared meals, which was something very different.
And we sold to retailers and really produced or developed these relationships or strengthened some that already existed with these retailers that really, as you stated earlier, needed our help at that time. So it was a much different environment.
We also worked to stabilize the supply chain for our customers, strengthened processes to communicate more frequently with our customer to try to help understand their needs. Their needs were changing just as ours were. So, there were changes in demand and availability for certain. Things worked much differently than they had in the past.
Many of our customers had to narrow their menus, right? They could no longer have that gigantic offering that they’d had because the business wasn’t there for it. So we worked really closely with our restaurant customers, helping them develop new menus with different offerings and making sure that we were aligned with suppliers to be able to provide those.
Q: That’s fantastic. What about on the supply side? You obviously work with many, many producers of many different items. And some of them are hard to reposition into retail. Some are not sold traditionally in that way. How was the relationship with those suppliers? And I assume many of them you probably had commitments to take large amounts of produce you didn’t need right now. How did all that work out?
A: You know… it’s amazing what you see in times like this where people really, really step up and go above and beyond, and our supplier partners were no different. To say that they were patient with us or that worked with us, it was amazing. We had supplier partners working with us to help fill orders that were not our traditional pack sizes and help us to move product that we had. And it was amazing to see what they were willing to do. They all understood completely.
Q: You were at this kind of massive change that had to be made in one day, basically, because the whole world changed. Restaurants were closed in many areas. Well, now we still have this pandemic. It hasn’t gone away. But how has the business absorbed these changes and moved into some kind of new normal with this current situation?
A: Right. So today we’re focused on helping customers navigate this new normal. And from a produce perspective, we’re still offering the traditional foodservice packs of the larger sizes, but we’ve also increased our offering on smaller pack sizes because our customers really don’t know if they’re going to be open from one week to the next or one day to the next. So it makes it very difficult for them to plan what their purchases are.
We’ve also — I don’t know if you’ve seen — but we’ve also taken away our delivery minimum. So in the past, there were minimum orders and we’ve taken that away for now so that customers can order just what they need and aren’t ordering extra product in hopes that they’re going to remain open or that their business is going to remain strong. And that’s pretty exciting for us. We’ve become that flexible partner that our customers need from us.
Q: I know you have enormous capacity — warehouses and trucking and things like this — have you been able to redirect some of that to the retail need that grew or is this all sitting idle? What’s going on?
A: Initially, we redirected a lot of our resources to the retail segment and helping customers. We had a large inventory that we helped move to people in need as well. So if it wasn’t something that we could sell, we definitely helped with donating and making sure we were helping those that were in most need of it.
Q: Well, that’s fantastic. And we’ve heard of that story across the produce industry. Lots of efforts that have sprung up to try to help people in need. There is a lot of product that you have in your warehouse, or you have this ongoing relationship but there’s just no place to move that now because the world has changed…
A: Absolutely. Initially, for certain, there were products that were donated out. Produce… it wouldn’t be still sitting in the warehouse at this point or it would be a problem if it was. So absolutely. And like I said, we’ve had to change some pack sizes and our offerings a bit just to accommodate this customer today that their needs are much different than they were pre-COVID.
Q: What about your own teams of people? You obviously had a large staff devoted to being the largest foodservice distributor in the world. How has that interaction gone on with people? Are there issues with people who are delivering and things like that being hesitant because of COVID? Or are there ways you’ve had to take some short-term layoffs and things in the hope of rejoining later? What’s the overall people picture?
A: Our overall people picture of now is we have our full team in action so initially, there were a little bit of some layoffs or temporary. But everyone is back working, which is helping through this situation. We’re still working from home, at least the team in Salinas and my team in Salinas. We’re all becoming masters of the Zoom meeting and Skype and getting it done remotely as best we can.
Obviously, we are all looking forward to the day that can go back and have those face-to-face meetings.
Q: Well, now there’s word of several new vaccines out and some optimistic hope that this will come to an end. The exact schedule on which that will roll out is still maybe a little unclear. But there’s reason to think there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that we’ll get through this and move ahead.
What’s your thought on this? Do you have any picture…? I read in the newspaper that perhaps a third of all the restaurants may be insolvent or go out of business. What’s your thought about the foodservice sector bouncing back after this? I mean I know some of us want nothing more desperately than to be able to enjoy those nights out at restaurants as we always did. But I imagine there also will be people who are still afraid, and I also imagine the economics of things… if there are so many people who lost jobs and so forth, that doesn’t usually encourage more eating out. So do you have a picture of what you’re imagining it’s going to mean to be in this new normal?
A: I think that picture changes daily. It really does. Initially, we thought it would be past us much quicker. Obviously, Sysco is very strong. We’re stronger than any other foodservice company coming out of this, and we are going to continue to change and be there for our customers, continue to help them thrive in this environment.
But who’s to say? It would be very difficult to say what foodservice looks like post-pandemic. We don’t even know at this point, to your point, when will the vaccine be available to everybody and when will people be able to go back out and enjoy those restaurants? California just shut back down again. And truthfully, we were never really all the way open. We haven’t had indoor dining since March, so it’s very different, and I wouldn’t have a clue what it’s going to look like going forward. But know that we will continue to be that partner to our customers and help them with their needs when it is time.
Q: So we just don’t know how it’s all going to evolve. What would you think if you were talking to the supply base, the producers of produce who, of course, they can’t wait until the day before everyone orders to decide to plant items, things like this? How would you think they should be thinking about foodservice demand as we go through this next year and enter into a post pandemic phase?
A: We’ve been very, very closely connected with all of our suppliers. We are having weekly meetings with most of our core suppliers. If not, every other week or so, keeping them abreast of where we’re at, what we’re seeing, what we’re hearing in the marketplace, and then also helping them to find outlets initially for product that was already planted, to your point, and then talking about ramping up or planting going forward.
So it’s been interesting because it’s really difficult to predict, and to your point, they’re planting 90, 120 days out. And we’re talking about today what our needs are going to be in March or April now. And it’s difficult. So we worked close together. We’ve changed some pack sizes and done some things to make us a better partner to those suppliers, and that communication piece is really key.
Q: What’s your sense in terms of Sysco and these new relationships or newly emphasized relationships with retailers that developed during this pandemic? Is it your expectation that these things are just going to fall to the wayside when we reach post-pandemic stages? Or is this also part of a new normal that may have developed as they’ve experienced your competencies and abilities to help their own businesses?
A: I think, obviously, it’s a long-term. It’s a really good relationship. We complement each other very, very well. The traditional retail pack sizes are not the same as the foodservice, but really, the industry needs both because you need to be able to… somebody needs to take those large potatoes that the retailers don’t want or somebody needs to take those bigger pack sizes for the retail sizes to work. So we have definitely formed some solid relationships with retailers, and that’s been one of the greatest things to come out of this. I expect that it’ll continue long after we’re all back to work and things return.
Q: Well, what you’re saying is that you can be a more valuable partner to producers because now you can maybe take a larger range of sizes and things of that sort that before you wouldn’t have been comfortable doing.
Q: Well, it’s very interesting. Sysco, of course, is an incredible company with incredible capabilities. Some of the people haven’t had the ability to flex in the way that Sysco has. They haven’t had the same resources. And that Sysco is able to go into a situation like this and come out stronger because they went through it is really a testimony to you and other people on the team who managed to pivot so effectively.
Many, many distributors that we’ve spoken to around the country have not been able to make those kind of pivots. So it just shows the opportunities that exist when you’re really on top of the game and able to seize all the different ways of moving ahead. So we really appreciate your sharing some of that with us here at the New York Produce Show. It’s always been a pleasure to have you and your team live and in person at the event, and we hope that you’ll certainly join us again next year when we’re going to be live with an additional digital component.
Q: So we hope you’ll be part of it and I thank you so much for joining us and wish you great success in testing all these new systems you’ve developed through the holiday season.
A: Okay. Thanks, Jim. Great seeing you.
Survival is one thing and, indeed, had Sysco done nothing but survive a situation that crushed foodservice in America, that would have been all that was accomplished. But, in the midst of a pandemic, to reimagine the business so that it will come out of this with new competencies, new relationships and a new future is nothing short of extraordinary.
Of course, corporations do nothing… people have to make these things happen, and Juliet Olivarria and her produce team at Sysco were a crucial part of making the change that had to happen, actually happen.
When this is all over, we will remember the people and the moments when the future was created.
Many thanks to Juliet Olivarria and Sysco for sharing the transformative story.
Perhaps because we were born into a family working on Manhattan’s old Washington Street Market, and the family was an original tenant at the opening of the Hunts Point Market… or, perhaps because the Pundit Poppa was both a wholesaler on Hunts Point and a major exporter to the United Kingdom, working with firms on the old Covent Garden Market, we’ve always had a soft spot for the UK and those on the New Covent Garden Market.
Of course, since we launched The London Produce Show and Conference (on hiatus for the pandemic but coming back as part of the UK’s largest food show next year) and ProduceBusinessUK.com, we’ve had a more direct interest in the UK and its produce industry.
Of course, having watched the difficulty our friends at the Hunts Point Market in New York have had trying to build a new future for their market and having watched how the government tried to bully our friends on the Chicago market back when the city wanted their land, it is with incredible pride and enormous pleasure that we acknowledge the enormous triumph of traders on the New Covent Garden Market.
On 26 November 2020, the traders and market authority at London’s original and largest fruit, veg and flower wholesale market New Covent Garden Market (NCGM) reached a landmark settlement that paves the way for the redevelopment of the 46-year-old site to secure NCGM’s position as a thriving, sustainable, and world-class market for the future.
After a lengthy dispute that resulted in legal action, the Covent Garden Tenants Association (CGTA) and the Covent Garden Market Authority (CGMA) have agreed to a set of proposed amendments to the original £200m redevelopment plan unveiled in 2018.
We asked Gill McShane, contributing editor for Pundit sister publication, ProduceBusinessUK.com, to speak with Gary Marshall, Chairman of the CGTA and managing director of Bevington Salads; David Frankish, Chairman of the CGMA; Jason Tanner, Deputy Chairman of the CGTA and founder of Premier Fruits; and Amanda Cane, Finance, Operations & Compliance Manager at P&I Fruits, to understand the motivations, the outcome and the impact of this historic resolution for London’s leading wholesale horticultural market.
Q: Gary, in late 2018, the CGTA began a high Court legal appeal against the CGMA to seek an injunction against the redevelopment plans for NCGM, followed by a second legal action in the late summer of 2019. What were the motivations and concerns that led to the legal dispute?
Covent Garden Tenants Association
Gary Marshall (GM): After 12 years of discussions and ideas being put forward for the redevelopment, it became apparent that there would be no compromise from the CGMA. Secondly, the market’s tenants weren’t being consulted in any way, and the fault didn’t only lie with the CGMA but sadly also with Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to whom the CGMA is accountable], where our concerns fell on deaf ears.
This gave us, the market tenants, basically two options. Option 1 was to capitulate or to attempt a negotiation to get the best outcome, for which I was willing to resign as Chairman of the CGTA. Option 2 was to take legal action on the basis that the proposals were unfair and unlawful. The CGTA called an extraordinary general meeting in which both options were put to the floor. In particular, we had to make the tenants aware that legal action would be an expensive process as we would need to raise £1 million.
The decision was made to proceed with legal action. Our case was based on the fact that the new market the CGMA was constructing would not work logistically; there was not enough parking, and it was not suitable for the market’s vehicle traffic. Also, there was a lack of real consultancy and a possibility that it hadn’t been carried out in a proper, meaningful way, which the CGMA had a statutory responsibility to do. That was our legal challenge. Obviously, the CGMA refuted our claims and made a very robust counter claim. Sadly, it looked like this was going to be the way forward for a long time.
Q: Evidently, the dispute had reached an impasse. When did the situation change, and what paved the way for the beginning of the resolution?
GM: Pam Alexander lost her post as Chairwoman of the CGMA, and in January 2019 Defra brought in David Frankish, who has a lot of commercial experience and a very good professional background. David has a real understanding of logistics, and he had a true belief that the only way we could settle our differences was to work together.
Q: The appointment of David Frankish as Chairman of the CGMA was clearly significant. What did David do differently?
GM: Between January 2019 through to April 2019, David listened to his own team at the CGMA and to us at the CGTA. He did not jump into any decisions or make any promises. He took his time. After a period of six months, he realised that for the project to proceed successfully, changes needed to be made.
That led to a different dynamic. The CGMA began asking us what were the problems, and they started to look at how to solve them rather than ignoring them or pretending that they weren’t apparent. It was a very different and professional approach that took place under David. He was supported by some very good commercial advisers too, notably Garry Connolly [Legal Director at Agilia, a specialist infrastructure consultancy], who was very helpful.
By the end of March 2019, myself, Jason Tanner, the CGTA Deputy Chairman (and Chairman of Premier Fruits), and Amanda Cane, the Finance, Operations and Compliance Manager at P&I Fruits, were having face-to-face conversations with David Frankish and Garry Connolly about the logistical challenges, as well as the incentives and support needed for the traders who would have to invest in new units.
We were confident we were in a good place, and myself, Jason and Amanda had the full support of the market community. At the end of the day, common sense prevailed. We found a way of communicating, listening, and making our challenges.
Q: David, you were appointed as the Chairman of the CGMA effective 1 February 2019 and have been credited with bringing an inclusive approach to resolving the disagreements over the redevelopment. How did you succeed in bringing both sides together? Did it help that you had a fresh pair of eyes and were detached from the original plan? Did your background in grocery logistics also play a role in resolving the concerns of the CGTA?
Chairman of CGT
David Frankish (DF): The simple answer is, yes, it really does help if you come into a situation like this with fresh eyes and no baggage. If you’re too close to something, you lose that ability to step back and have a clear perspective. There were issues that had been outstanding, and there were genuine concerns about logistics among the tenants. My background was helpful to understand those concerns, and to understand that there were solutions fairly readily available.
By putting the logistics into context, it brought to the fore the deeper issues, some of which were related to the market’s design. From my point of view, I felt that we could accommodate those concerns in part, although not necessarily in whole. To get the dialogue going, it was important to listen genuinely and to come back with constructive proposals. To be fair to the tenants, they responded to that. Then once you enter into a dialogue, and you achieve a momentum, you find that people start looking for solutions rather than problems. So both sides started to look for solutions, and we delivered a deal in the end. It was very much down to mutual efforts.
Q: How difficult was it to reach a final agreement after the lengthy disagreements? What held back the resolution?
DF: I think the two parties [CGMA and CGTA] weren’t talking in a common language, and without that you won’t find a deal. Both sides had a clear view of what they wanted but the two views didn’t reconcile naturally. It was difficult to get the discussions going because both sides were stating why what they wanted was reasonable, and both sides had reasonable points to make.
This is where my business background helped because my natural inclination is to find a way to make a deal. We needed to look for the common aims rather than the stated aims – what could we agree on, what was the gap and could we close that gap to reach a deal? I felt that there was a deal to be made because deep down both parties wanted to have a successful market; that was in their common interest. So, with the goodwill of all parties, finally we got there.
Q: Gary, what was the outcome of the open discussions between the CGTA and the CGMA? What has been agreed under the settlement following the public consultation in July this year?
GM: The CGTA wanted the design for the new wholesale market buildings to be changed. So, we have altered the dynamic of those buildings to make them more operational and fit for purpose. That was the major point. That then enabled us to achieve some more financial support for the tenants, and to negotiate some other parts of the deal.
At that point we requested from the court that the dates should be extended to allow for talks to continue. The talks were positive and resulted in us negotiating a new lease and a full settlement agreement. Once that was agreed, I’m pleased to say there was no point in going to court because there was no more to be achieved.
We secured long leases for the market tenants, ranging from 15-years plus. The most significant point is that these long leases are all protected by the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954. [Known as ‘Security of Tenure’, under the 1954 Act, the landlord is obliged, except in specified circumstances, at the end of the lease and where the tenant wishes to remain, to grant a new lease of the premises to the tenant at the then current market rent]. This gives the traders a really brilliant future!
Also, whilst we were campaigning for the support of our plight, we managed to get a great deal of support from Members of Parliament (MPs). MP Chris Heaton-Harris [Minister of State at the Department for Transport] was very helpful in getting some of our questions to the right people in government.
It took 14 years of real hard work, commitment, tenacity, professionalism and solidarity on the part of the market tenants. We took on not just the landlord but the government. When they realised what was right, they helped us. We’ve come to a phenomenal position that gives NCGM the biggest future in London, maybe the UK. We have more security now than any other London market, and perhaps any wholesale market in the UK.
Q: What has changed since the original redevelopment plans? There were concerns about a lack of traffic and trading space, and instead of knocking down and turning around the wholesale market buildings, the CGTA wanted to make significant upgrades… Is that going to happen?
GM: The old buildings are still coming down, but whereas they were going to be replaced with buildings that were not fit for purpose, now they will be replaced with buildings that will work effectively. The market will still be rebuilt, but now it is with our blessing and our assistance.
The fundamental change is to the length of the building, which will be reduced by 9 metres [on the ground floor] to allow for more customer parking and more tenant parking for vehicle loading and unloading. That is a significant change and one that makes the market far better operationally.
Also, we are extending the very famous Buyers’ Walk [to 6 metres wide]. We are enhancing the width of the Buyers’ Walk for better access, whereas under the CGMA’s originalplan, that width was reduced to the point where it wouldn’t work [4 metres]. These are the two biggest changes. What we’re going to build now will be better for market operations.
Q: David, where did both sides have to compromise for the market’s redesign to be approved?
DF: In a wholesale market, the purpose of the Buyers’ Walk is to display the fantastic quality and variety of fresh produce. The tenants felt that the original design wouldn’t allow them to show off their produce and move around in the way that they wanted, plus they wanted additional parking space outside for the vans. To make this possible, the tenants were willing to forgo some internal space that would have been for their trading units. So, the CGMA was able to accommodate both requests.
The wholesale market building consists of three, double-story unit blocks. What is changing is that the ground-floor wall of Block A and Block C will be set back by 9 metres to provide more parking space downstairs, while the second-floor wall of these blocks will protrude as a mezzanine level above the ground floor.
[Visual images of the newly approved design are featured in the consultation document for the proposed changes of the NCGM redevelopment.]
Q: Gary, what will be the size of the new wholesale building, and are you happy with the space?
GM: To accommodate parking and operational logistics, the building will measure about 23-metres long and 6.5-metres wide, whereas originally the plan was for a 32-metres long building. There has been a compromise, of course, but we have done the best we can to make the most for the market within the space allocated. We are satisfied that now NCGM will be able to challenge any other market in Europe and beyond!
Q: There was also the traffic dispute concerning the demolition of the Southern Vehicle Car Park (SVCP), an area encompassing several acres that included covered space for the unloading and loading for produce by customers. What has happened in that respect?
GM: The SVCP ceases to exist, but we are working together with the CGMA to find new tenants who don’t have a lot of vehicles for whom those buildings [constructed on the old SVCP site] would suit.
Q: How are you ensuring that traders can continue operating while the new buildings are constructed as this was a concern previously?
GM: Currently, we’re going through a migration strategy, including vacating buildings that will be demolished. Previously, the site developer [Vinci St. Modwen]was telling the CGMA when they needed traders to vacate their building units without either party having in-depth knowledge about the trading requirements of those individual businesses. Now, the CGTA is giving them specific information on every single company.
No move is easy for a business to make, but the CGTA can recommend which company to move at what time. If you understand what each company does and what they need, there is a way to make the move as easy as possible. Plus, of course, now the traders are in full support of the redevelopment.
Q: Jason, as Deputy Chairman of the Covent Garden Tenants Association (CGTA), can you explain what the resolution agreement means to you and your fellow tenants?
Deputy Chairman of CGT
Jason Tanner (JT): After 14 years of negotiations, 26 November 2020 marked a truly historic moment for New Covent Garden Market when the agreement with the CGMA was signed, securing the future of the market and its tenants. Whilst the contract was a compromise for both sides, it ensures steady and solid logistical improvements for the future operation of the market; developments that we know will instill a sense of confidence and optimism as we begin to look forward. The mutually beneficial settlement will facilitate the way in which market tenants work, offering affordability and sustainability with regards to the coming years.
Q: In what ways will this deal safeguard the history and the future of NCGM?
JT: The CGTA, alongside the CGMA, firmly believes that this will help shape our heritage and legacy as the best wholesale market in the UK, with tenants signing 25-year leases whilst remaining protected under the 1954 Landlord and Tenant Act. As ever, this milestone comes as a result of the CGTA’s hard work in guaranteeing that the voices of all tenants within the market were heard, ensuring the plans for rebuilding the market mirror the individual needs of their businesses.
The New Covent Garden Market is London’s largest wholesale fresh produce market, home to 175 businesses, all of whom provide some of the country’s finest hospitality and retail sites with the freshest and best produce. We are thrilled that this decision has been reached as it protects and safeguards the very foundations that the market was founded upon, one of community and diversity.
The range of people who depend upon the functionality of the market is what makes this news all the more powerful, as we believe it was an integral step that had to be made in order to maintain our history whilst assuring the future of both our tenants and the businesses we serve country-wide.
Q: Amanda, you are the Finance, Operations & Compliance Manager at P&I Fruits, one of the wholesalers at NCGM. When did you get fully involved with the negotiations, and who else did you work with that deserves a mention for their efforts in reaching this landmark agreement?
Amanda Cane (AC): I joined the CGTA’s executive committee about six years ago. Very quickly, I formed a sub-administration committee to look at the planning applications for the redevelopment of NCGM, working in collaboration with local residents in particular. When the planning application went through, we turned our attention to the legal bid. We had excellent legal representation; we received great advice, and our lawyers held us strong and steady.
When the legal action began, I believe that Defra assigned Marian Holliday to observe the processes at CGMA, and, subsequently, I met her at one of the early meetings between the CGTA and the CGMA at the Food Exchange. At that time, Marian was the Deputy Director for the Commercial Policy Division at Defra, and she became our main point of contact at Defra right up to the deal being signed.
I believe Marian understood our concerns very well and that she worked hard in the background to help us to find a workable solution. I think Marian’s consistency throughout the last few years, despite the several changes to the Minister during that time, also contributed to the positive outcome. Then the pivotal moment came when David Frankish was appointed as Chairman of the CGMA, as he brought a fresh, collaborative approach to the negotiations.
We also received tremendous support from Nigel Jenney, the CEO of the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC), and previously a board member of the CGMA. Nigel was a real advocate for the CGTA, and he has always provided excellent advice to the industry. Nigel often promoted the CGTA during CGMA board meetings; encouraging the previous board members to value our contribution to the discussions, rather than dismiss our ideas, as was often the case historically. Nigel is another person who works tirelessly in the background to support the produce industry and to lobby the government on our behalf as required.
Q: How important is solidarity and cooperation for the wholesale market community?
AC: We are all stronger when we stand together. The outcome at NCGM is a really positive message to share with market communities everywhere, not just for tenants to understand the importance of standing together, but for landlords to realise that the tenants are the solution to any issues, or ideas for the development of their markets – we are not the problem. The tenants are entrepreneurs that have run successful businesses for many years, and we have credible and innovative ideas. We should be at the heart of any discussions about the future of our markets.
Together, we have achieved something wonderful at NCGM. It’s been a very long road, but the reason we were successful was because the CGTA had the full backing of the tenant community. They backed it with their hearts, souls and their money. We can look forward now to a really collaborative relationship between the CGTA and the CGMA, and the development of a really fantastic wholesale market for decades to come.
Q: Gary, having overcome your differences, how does the relationship now stand between the CGTA and the CGMA?
GM: We are in a really positive position for both parties. The CGTA is working together with the CGMA on many aspects. We are talking to them in a very open and frank way about the migration process in terms of which tenants to locate in certain areas of the new market buildings. For example, if you placed tenants together who use many vehicles, you would consolidate a lot of vehicle traffic. But if certain traders with heavy vehicle usage are located with non-vehicle users, that makes the site more workable and viable. That type of discussion wasn’t happening before.
Also, for the first time, the CGTA is sitting down and talking with Vinci St. Modwen. Now, we have the developer, the landlord and the tenants all sitting in open, transparent meetings, which is the right step forward. There will be challenges ahead – we have a lengthy market re-development going on in the midst of a global pandemic – but we are working and facing it together.
Q: David, is it fair to say that this renewed relationship is critical for a successful future at New Covent Garden Market?
DF: Our relationship with the CGTA is absolutely critical for the future of NCGM. A market cannot be successful unless the traders are operating in an environment that gives them success within the space we have. Our role at the CGMA is to enable the traders to do just that and not just via the physical assets (such as the redevelopment) but also through the knowledge economy.
The CGMA is part of the supply chain, and there is a lot of information that we can share with our traders to help identify new opportunities or potential new suppliers or customers. Plus, we can help with the PR to attract more wholesale and retail customers to the market as well as members of the public. Working together is crucial to maximise the potential of NCGM. Both sides understand that, and that is what we are doing.
Q: David, the CGMA appointed a number of new board members during 2020. What has the new board brought to the table, and how significant are these personnel changes for NCGMgoing forward?
DF: When I joined the CGMA, three to four board members were naturally reaching the conclusion of their terms. Then, we focused deliberately on bringing in people with a background in horticulture who understand the industry directly from the perspective of various parts of the supply chain; those who can empathise with the challenges faced by the market.
That’s our mandate; the CGMA has a statutory duty to provide a full wholesale horticultural market to London. I understand grocery logistics but not necessarily the trading of horticulture. So it was important to bring in people with complementary skills and knowledge. Ultimately, we have a better balance now, and a new board with a fresh pair of eyes eager to lead NCGM forward, especially during this testing time during the pandemic.
Q: Gary, now that the delays are behind you, and work to redevelop NCGM able to continue at pace, when will the new wholesale market will be ready?
GM: The redevelopment programme is a further seven years. But now we’re working together there may be ways and opportunities to shorten that timeframe. The power of working together is incredible! I’m pretty confident that we’ll shave time off the schedule, we’ll find better ways of doing things, and new ideas will come up that will enhance the plan further.
Q: NCGM has a history dating back over 350 years. Gary, you’ve said before that NCGM has the potential to become a truly iconic market and a leader on not only the London but also the European wholesale scene. Can NCGM achieve that standard in view of the amended redevelopment?
GM: From the outset, that was our inspiration and our desire, and certainly now that is our goal! Now more than ever, that is achievable because the three main parties [CGTA, CGMA and Vinci St. Modwen] are aligned with that same goal in mind.
I honestly believe we’ve got the knowledge, the support and the entrepreneurs to achieve that position of leadership. NCGM traders have the passion, desire, professionalism and community spirit. It’s a fantastic opportunity for us all, and I’m very confident because of the solidarity we’ve shown over the years in the face of all this adversity.
Within the next five to seven years, NCGM will become the envy of Europe; we will be the best market out there without a shadow of a doubt!
Q: David, what do you feel the redeveloped NCGM will accomplish?
DF: The broader vision for New Covent Garden Market has always been shared between CGMA and CGTA. The sticking point was how to get there. At the CGMA, we fully endorse Gary’s comments on the future of NCGM. On this site we want to have a very successful, vibrant and working wholesale market and flower market, as well as the Food Exchange.
We want this regenerated area of London to be attractive to both the horticultural industry and members of the public. London is a world city, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that in seven years’ time, NCGM will be a destination not only for traders, buyers and food businesses in the UK, but also for tourists from the UK and further afield.
Q: Jason, what’s your outlook for the future of NCGM, especially considering the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19?
JT: As we live in uncertain times, this news offers a glimmer of hope as we look toward growing and progressing in the future. We are confident that with the new plans for roads, buildings and state-of-the-art facilities being built, the safety and reputability of New Covent Garden Market will sustain and flourish.
Throughout the pandemic, we have been a source of availability and refuge for many, offering home deliveries and supporting our customers as best as we can. We are excited to continue to grow from strength to strength, sourcing and delivering to some of the largest hospitality companies in the country whilst always remaining open to smaller retailers and individuals.
Q: Gary, does NCGM have the added opportunity of embracing more business considering the proposed consolidation and move of Billingsgate, New Spitalfields and Smithfields markets outside of London?
GM: The Corporation of London is talking about moving New Spitalfields fruit and veg market further out of London, while obviously there’s a desire among the traders for it to stay put. If the market does move, it would give NCGM a great opportunity to pick up some of their trade, as they’ve picked up some of our trade in the past.
The same can be said of Western International Market… there are talks and a desire within the local council to move the market to land that is not as valuable. Western International will do all it can to challenge that and stay where they are. Fortunately, for NCGM, the simple fact is that we aren’t going anywhere. We are staying put, and we will be here [in London’s Nine Elms] for the next 20, 50, or 100 years. No other market can make that statement.
Q: What’s been the reaction from NCGM customers to this settlement? Gary, you raised concerns previously that customers might use a different market because they couldn’t operate effectively within the redeveloped NCGM. Have you seen any future commitment from customers?
GM: As a market for customers, suppliers and tenants, we couldn’t have received this great news at a worse time. It’s fantastic news, but it doesn’t solve the problems we’ve all got dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, our customers are extremely pleased. I must say that our external customers have been phenomenal in their support of the market during this really difficult time. A lot of local, independent retailers, such as local grocery stores, fruit and veg shops and farm shops, have picked up some business from shoppers avoiding big supermarkets. Where they’ve picked up a bit of business they’ve taken that to NCGM. We’ve also found a few new customers coming to NCGM to get the quality, consistency and price we can offer.
Throughout this redevelopment process, we have managed to keep our customers involved and informed. Now with the efforts of the CGMA, there is a real dialogue about how we deal with our customers; their interests, views and concerns are being dealt with in a proper way. So I’m very confident we will keep our customers and gain more.
We are really hoping that we can get back to trading at full capacity at NCGM, but for that to happen, we realise the country needs to repair itself. We need the restaurants to be fully open, and the hospitality and events sectors back to normal.
Q: What does this successful resolution mean for other wholesale markets around the world?
GM: NCGM should be taken as a shining example to show the whole industry the importance of wholesale markets. There is a massive underestimation of what wholesale markets bring to Great Britain. The three London wholesale markets [NCGM, Western International and New Spitalfields] turn over nearly £2 billion alone, which rises to £5 billion if you include the rest of the wholesale markets in Great Britain. Plus, we provide more than 50,000 jobs, I believe.
If any market traders in the UK, Europe or globally are being challenged, they should stand together to ensure they can maintain this incredibly important job that we do for our countries.
What a journey, what a story, what a triumph!
How fortunate the industry was to have Gary, Jason, Amanda and others to fight the good fight, and how fortuitous that just at the right moment David came into a position of authority. There is a sense in which this great triumph is the exception that proves the rule, because long term, it seems to us that markets around the world almost inevitably will wind up being pushed out of urbanizing areas.
It is better if markets own their land. If governments own the markets, they are tempted to push them out sooner since they don’t experience the loss caused by business disruption. And, of course, the vendors lose the upside of land-price appreciation. On the other side of the industry, we have known many growers who have struggled for decades, but increasing urbanization increased the value of their land and, at some point, they were able to get paid in a moment for 100 years of hard work..
This all saddens us in a way. There is an energy and vibrancy that markets bring to a city. There is, surely, a gain in efficiency when markets are moved to remote locations. The warehouses can be on one floor, space for the largest trucks backing up can be accommodated, food safety is facilitated as people and the outside environment are separated from the produce. It is all a triumph. But the urban core becomes sterile, all white-collar workers sitting in offices.
The energy and the exuberance, are missing. In that there is loss all over the world.
But not today. Not for New Covent Garden in the great city of London. We congratulate our produce brethren working there and applaud David and the public authorities for seeing a way forward.
We can’t wait to visit the reimagined market and showcase it at the next iteration of The London Produce Show and Conference!
Now that we are in 2021, and with vaccines being distributed, we can see a light at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic tunnel, still, for a long time to come, there will be nothing normal when it comes to supplying supermarket shoppers with the fresh produce they want, when they want it and how they want it supplied.
So much has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, more consumers are eating at home. An analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ERS Food Expenditure Series data projects a $250 billion annual shift to a food-at-home spend. What’s more, there’s been a 300% jump in online grocery sales, according to the 71st annual The Food Retailing Industry Speaks report, by the Washington, DC-headquartered Food Marketing Institute.
A recently released customer research study on changing grocery shopper habits — led by C.H. Robinson's Robinson Fresh team — reveals some of the biggest change-drivers in retail are here to stay.
To help retailers and suppliers successfully navigate these changes and the unprecedented demand they represent, Carol Bareuther, RD, contributing editor with the Pundit’s sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, talked with Gina Garven, Eden Prairie, MN-based C.H. Robinson’s vice president of commercial development and analytics, about the global logistics company’s latest research and what it means for the future.
Vice President of Commercial Development
Eden Prairie, Minnesota
Q: Let’s start with the most immediate — We just finished the holiday season. What were food retailers experiencing during the lead-up to Christmas and the holiday season?
A: People were having several smaller gatherings rather than big holiday parties. We saw this at Halloween and at Thanksgiving and it continued into Christmas and New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day gatherings. Obviously in some areas, this was dictated by law; in other areas it was a function of personal caution. Therefore, cooking was in smaller quantities, and therefore buying was too. One way this translated is to smaller pack sizes. Greens, for example, are a big holiday item. The smartest retailers were, say, stocking more 12-ounce packs of greens rather than the 24-ounce size. And, they were prepared to sell the smaller packs at a greater frequency throughout the season.
Q: What produce items were in demand for the holidays? What does your research reveal about demand?
A: The top 10 categories in sales growth during the pandemic were cooking items like potatoes, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms. People are cooking more at home, and they want healthier ingredients like vegetables. The numbers aren’t all in yet, but I expect the data will show that there has been a heavy focus on these staple commodities during the holiday season. It will also show that there was more of an SKU reduction as retailers and producers both sought to assure ample inventory of these core items.
According to data provided by C.H. Robinson for year-to-year as of November:
● Top 10 Categories by Dollar Growth: Dry Veg, Berries, Tomato, Potato, Citrus, Tropicals, Salad Mix, Onion, Lettuce, Stone Fruit
● Top 10 Categories by Dollar Percent Growth (at least 0.5% $ Share or more of Produce): Garlic, Brussels, Potato, Corn, Mushrooms, Tomato, Sweet Potato & Yam, Dry Veg, Citrus, Onion
● Top 10 Categories by Pound Growth: Potato, Citrus, Tropicals, Dry Veg, Onion, Melons, Berries, Bananas, Tomato, Apples
● Top 10 Categories by Pound Percent Growth (at least 0.5% LB Share or more of Produce): Onion, Citrus, Sweet Potato/Yam, Potato, Tropical, Cabbage, Dry Veg, Mushrooms, Broccoli, Asparagus
Q: You mentioned people are cooking more at home now. In addition to safety precautions with the pandemic, this was certainly driven by restaurants being closed or having curtailed service. However, USDA Monthly Expenditure numbers are now showing a steady increase of Food Away from Home since an all-time low in April. Are restaurants slowly coming back?
A: We leverage a lot of information from Technomic. One of the points they’ve made recently is that there’s an improvement in the foodservice industry. Their Best-in-Class sales scenario for 2021 is still projected to be 13% below 2019, but they are seeing that creep up. I think this stems from consumers like myself.
I’ll give you a personal example. I see multiples of me out there. Here goes: I am so bored with what I’m cooking every single day. I thought this was going to be a month-long thing back in March. It’s now multiple, multiple months, and no matter how much support I get from my half- and full-prep meals, whether it’s from my retailer or the different companies I engage, like Blue Apron, it’s still not doing it for me.
I still need someone else to create something for me. I think a lot of the growth in foodservice stems from how restaurants have accelerated online ordering and delivery. I can order online and get my meal delivered curbside, so I don’t even have to get out and put my mask on. I think we’ll see an uptick in foodservice sales driven by consumers who need a little bit more, a desire to change up their meals.
Of course we don’t have data for the recent increase in cases and the actions by many states to close or restrict restaurant capacity. It is very possible that things in this area have gotten worse lately though may improve as people start to get vaccinated and as we move into warmer weather in the spring.
Q: Even though your research revealed 7 out of 10 consumers say they will shop online in the future, with Food-Away-from-Home expenditures increasing, do you think that online shopping will become less important over time?
A: No. Convenience is one of the biggest trends impacting retail grocery and foodservice today. This is nothing new. It’s been around for over 30 years. I think people lose sight of the fact that trends are not something that happen overnight. Take the trend toward convenience. I think of this starting back in the late 1980s when mass merchandisers came in, got into grocery retail and disrupted the whole supply chain of the food network.
We saw that with fast-casual dining in the early 1990s. Fast-casual came in and took charge because consumers wanted convenience, and they wanted an experience. Now, you see that with omnichannel. We’ve seen food dollars get to the near 50/50 point between expenditures at-home and out-of-home. I’m talking about pre-COVID. We saw this convergence come in, and you saw retailers start to offer a lot more foodservice.
The number of value-added products grew in stores as well as fully prepared and semi-prepared meals and meal kits. Now we’re seeing foodservice get into this. Chick-fil-A came out with a meal kit earlier this year. What the pandemic did was to accelerate the trend for convenience that we were already seeing.
As I said, this isn’t new. We are recycling this trend. But it means something different to us today. So, with the growth in omnichannel, I think we can anticipate consumers, 7 in 10, are going to continue buying online even after we get the all-clear from the pandemic. This is going to disrupt both foodservice and retail supply chains and transform what happens in these areas over the next five years.
Q: When it comes to online food shopping, to what extent does this apply to perishables — especially fresh fruits and vegetables?
A: Perishables, in general, and produce, were among the last departments in the store to get into this space. I think that’s because food, especially fresh produce, still has a very emotional connection for people, unlike electronics or other consumer goods. People still like to pick out their own fresh fruits and vegetables, and that’s across any demographic. But because of COVID, we had to get comfortable quickly with someone else doing this for us.
Our primary research stated 54% of consumers bought produce online for the first time during COVID. That’s remained constant because most of them have had a relatively good experience. That’s the other thing we got from our research… the fact that people had a decent experience buying their groceries including fresh produce online. I’m not sure if some of that was because expectations were lower.
After all, safety was the priority, but I do think overall that many online shoppers had a good experience. Some of this may be because even if an item was out of stock, some retailers substituted, and often did so with similar or higher quality to keep customers loyal. As a result, produce has seen growth overall, whether we’re talking online or in-store purchases. We’re talking nearly 11% in volume and in sales, year over year.
According to data provided by C.H. Robinson:
● There has been double-digit dollar and volume sales growth in 2020, while previous calendar years, like 2019, saw dollars grow by just +0.9% and pounds dipped -1.2% versus the previous year.
● Produce’s positive volume (+10.8%) and flat price mix (-0.1%) resulted in increased dollar sales growth (+10.7%) for the Year-To-Date period ending October 6, 2020, as seen in IRI for US MULO (Multi Outlet).
Q: Looking at your research, 1 in 3 online shoppers want the ability to review recipes on retailer sites and add specific ingredients directly to their cart from the recipe page. Shoppers also would like nutrition and tips for their produce after the purchase, such as how to store and cook, and yet another finding is that consumers value the ability to directly communicate with their retailer during purchasing. Can you tell us if retailers are doing this?
A: I would say that several retail customers are doing a fantastic job of rising to the occasion. They’ve had this in Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) for many years, so they’ve been able to partner with suppliers in CPG to bring high-resolution images and the 360-degree views to life for online shopping. With produce specifically, there’s a need to bring the in-store experience online. Every retailer is trying to figure out where to focus first. How do I achieve that and bring what’s established in these other departments to the forefront in fresh?
Some big-name customers that are in the news daily have done this extremely well under the circumstances. But I don’t think there is a winning strategy yet. I don’t think there is an absolute best-in-class that we all need to follow. I think that is evolving, and that’s because these things take time, trial and pilot. But I think there are certain things… there are attributes and elements… of really being best in class. That is, are you are making it easy for a person to click on a recipe and add all items? Or, if someone wants to boost their immune system and eat more vitamin C, do you have a platform to curate and personalize this information for the consumer? Or can pickers in-store maybe engage with customers while filling their order?
Perhaps retailers can text a picture of the bananas to show the ripeness. If it’s not what the shopper wants, they can say skip the bananas and take me to the berries. These are some of the things retailers can do and act on quickly and easily to bring those experiences. And that’s what the shopper is looking for.
Q: So, how can retailers satisfy consumers’ need for immediate supply on demand. And especially when this spans from stocking in-store displays to delivering online orders curbside? I saw in Robinson Fresh's Fresh Perspective blog that consumer expectations are necessitating the shortening of the inventory replenishment window from days or weeks down to hours. How will this work?
A: We’ve been looking at how to advance supply chains to satisfy the consumer’s expectations of supply on-demand from a Robinson Fresh perspective for the past 3 to 4 years. We’ve even partnered and worked on a project with a couple of universities to figure out where this is going. Is it through a warehouse? Is it through the store and then out to the consumer? What’s most efficient from the supply chain perspective?
From what we’ve seen, it is really propelled closer to the side of through-the-store. This is very similar to what Best Buy did several years ago as they were feeling the pressure from Amazon. Best Buy reduced their front floor space and added space to the backroom in their stores. This gave them room to have more inventory on hand. So, they could get products out to customers direct from the store by operating as a micro fulfillment center.
I think we are going to see that evolution in grocery through retail as well. We’re starting to see that now. For example, I sometimes see more personal shoppers or pickers in the store today than I do shoppers. I think that’s going to evolve the footprint of the store. It’s also going to evolve the supply chain that supports it. Most customers I see today are moving toward the front end of the store executing on that inventory.
The inventory is being picked from the store. It’s continuing to evolve, but I don’t think anyone has determined what is best-in-class yet. That’s why we need to keep a pulse on this going forward, to drive the most efficient supply chain so that a fruit or vegetable is at its most fresh, and that we have the right items at the right time at the right place.
We were honored to have Gina Garven participate in our Amsterdam event. Very few companies in the industry are able to provide customers with the kinds of insight that she can surface. It is also true that many produce companies are so focused on meeting the business needs of the day that they don’t have time to examine the broader questions of how the business needs to evolve to be successful in the future.
The pandemic, of course, makes the future more difficult to ascertain. There is some evidence that those who have not been laid off or suffered financially from the pandemic might be inclined to go out and celebrate once vaccines make it safe. After all, the Roaring 20s followed the great influenza pandemic of 1918. So, very possibly, foodservice is the segment that will come roaring back, and retailers will be scrambling to explain declines in sales compared to the previous year.
The future also looks very different if one approaches it de novo. In other words, delivery from a retail store, where rents are high, might make sense — as the rent is covered, and necessitated, by the street traffic. If, however, the world transforms and the business switches so that most of it is delivery, then why pay for high rent locations? Indeed, it seems a little odd to bring in produce in bulk, then put it out on shelves, often out of refrigeration, then repackage it in a bag, so it can then be delivered. It would probably be much cheaper and higher quality to prepack typical sizes and quantities, assemble the orders in a heavily automated facility in a low rent district and then deliver either to each home or to depots where consumers can pick up.
The whole idea of bulk produce doesn’t really make sense if there is no consumer there to be enticed by the look, and it has to be packaged anyway for delivery.
The question is more whether it is cheaper and better to have packinghouses pack things in consumer-size packages or better to ship in bulk and have re-packers place things in consumer-size packages. In either case, this is likely to be a highly automated process.
Some things that happened during the pandemic, say an increase in online ordering, were already happening before the pandemic, and the pandemic may have just accelerated what was going to happen anyway. Other changes are likely just temporary. Retail sales zoomed both because consumers were fearful and felt a need to stockpile and because everyone was eating at home.
We know that some things will return to normal… say, people going on vacation. We don’t know how quickly, if ever, other things will “return” to the way they were — say businesspeople working out of offices on a full time basis.
The food industry will vary depending on how all these things play out. We are fortunate to have people like Gina Garven and companies investing in research, such as CH Robinson and Robinson Fresh, to help us navigate a brave new world.
One of the reasons for doing many different events around the world is that doing so brings you in touch with extraordinary people. One we were lucky to encounter is Nic Jooste, a South African long living in the Netherlands and long established in the Dutch produce industry. In time, Nic became a font of information and inspiration, helping us engage with the global produce trade. He has written many pieces and given many presentations. You can see some of his contributions here:
Fresh Data Leads To Successful Retail Decisions
THE GREY FOXES OF CIRCULAR PACKAGING
Sustainable Packaging Solutions
Putting Privilege Into Perspective
A Wake-Up Call From My Generation Z Son
Keep It Simple, For Goodness’ Sake
In Rugby And Business, Defeat Is An Opportunity
On The Side Of The Angels
Passion Vs. Efficiency
Does Size Really Matter?
Produce And Agriculture Are Just Part Of Dutch DNA
A ‘Red Flag’ Vision Of The Future
Future Success May Not Fall On Industry ‘Old-Timers’
The Times They Are A-Changing
‘Doing Good For Tomorrow’ Becomes Commonplace
Produce Opportunities In A Circular Economy
Exploring The Moral, Social, And Legal Limits Of Trade
Food Of The Future: Folly Or Fact?
Generation Z Habits
The Disruption Of Established Markets: How Four Strategies Can Help Transcend Today’s Dilemmas
Can Retailers Show A Little Love For Produce Marketing? Dutch Marketer Nic Jooste Will Share His Thoughts On Swimming Upstream At The Global Trade Symposium
PRODUCE AND GENERATION Z — Can We Make Our Pitch Effective In Eight Seconds Or Less?
There’s a Dutch Saying... Amsterdam Produce Show To Bridge Cultures And Channel Innovation
Making Produce Marketing Everything It’s Not: Creative, Innovative, In-your-face, Non-conventional, Digitally Driven, Attitude- And Adventure-oriented… Nic Jooste Of Cool Fresh Guides The Trade On How To Capture Gen Z And, Next, Gen Alpha!
As we move into 2021, Nic shared with us a quick recollection of a pandemic year — still well spent.
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
I start off January 2020 a really happy person. In my spare time, I have just written and published an article called ‘Keep it simple, for goodness sake’. It is all about putting sustainability in everybody’s reach.
I am reading Rutger Bregman’s great book ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’. The idea that ‘it is realistic, as well as revolutionary, to assume that people are good. The instinct is to cooperate rather than compete, trust rather than distrust. This makes me even happier.
I begin to focus on the fact that I have dedicated the past 20 years to sustainability. There must be good that comes from this. How do I make it happen?
Early in February, COVID-19 hits us. The then obscure virus intrudes aggressively in the freedom that the Dutch hold so dear. People start dying, and we go into a lockdown. The days blur by.
In South Africa, a total lockdown is enforced. A large part of the population in the country of my birth lives on daily wages. No work means no pay and no food. I receive frantic calls from friends about lots of people going hungry.
I come across a quote by the late Jules Deelder, a Dutch poet and musician: ‘De omgeving van de mens is de medemens’, meaning ‘The environment of mankind is the fellow man’.
Africa is in my blood; I cannot ignore that fact. Partly therapeutic to give myself something to do, together with my wife, we start a food relief scheme in South Africa. The Balls-n-Books Foundation that my friend Jan Greeve and I set up in 2016 commits all its resources to this project. Instead of giving money, we make a deal with a fresh produce distributor to buy vegetables at rock bottom prices. We engage our wonderful coaches of the Stars in their Eyes to start cooking and forming soup and food kitchens. Friends donate money. Businesses make contributions.
Within 4 weeks we have 20 feeders who are actively cooking and caring for the poor. People like Ricardo Phillips, Ricardo Kermis, Sharon Lombard, Theo Craven, Steven Jooste, Anri Jooste and Avril Adams become what I call ‘food angels’. Unknowingly, we are creating supply chain collusion in the purest sense. People and companies are caring selflessly for people they do not even know.
Being of value becomes my driving force. Soon we are feeding more than 10,000 people twice a week. My sense of purpose in helping others makes me strong again.
COVID-19 shows no signs of letting go. To create some head space, my wife and I withdraw into nature, cycling 680 km from the southernmost point of The Netherlands to the northernmost. Nature brings peace to our turmoil. We become much more thankful for what we have, instead of worrying about what we do not have. Our relationship changes. We come across a sign that says ‘Bij ware vriendschap is stilte niet pijnlijk’. Translated: ‘Silence is never painful when you are with a true friend’. I value the silence as we cycle through nature. I understand that my wife is also my truest friend, and that the challenges of this past year made our friendship so much stronger. During this amazing cycling trip, I become quieter as a person, and much more aware of my resilience, both mentally and physically.
I establish NJ Immersed, a consultancy for strategic sustainability. I hope to attract clients whom I could inspire to go with me on a journey of discovery into the wonderful world of sustainability. I decide forcefully that I will only accept assignments on the following conditions. (a) I must actually like the client; (b) Regardless of the type of assignment that I am hired for, the client must take a firm standpoint in favour of sustainability; (c) I must be convinced that I can add value.
Very soon, I am tasked with developing a website for a solar energy company. I immerse myself in the world of sustainable energy and, together with creative genius Igor Moulder, we create the website www.jaguarnewenergies.com. My first project is born.
In the same month, I publish an international article on the most sustainable supermarket in The Netherlands — Plus Retail. This opens my eyes to what can be achieved by a business that operates with the clear purpose of integrating sustainability into every facet of its activities. I become even more excited about advising companies on the benefits that sustainability brings. I am energised to make a real difference in the world.
On 11 May, I am abruptly reminded of how fragile life is. Five young surfers from an adjacent village drown in a freak accident. My son is also a surfer, and the realization hits me hard: life is never to be taken for granted. The Netherlands mourns.
Then George Floyd dies. The world burns. I look at the energy that my sons display at being passionate advocates against racism and senseless violence. I feel proud but realise that it is not just their battle. If I want my sons to respect me, I have to be serious in my standpoint against racism, gender bias and violence.
My 23-year-old son writes me a letter. ‘As a Generation Z citizen, I believe that we are sure to see a mass revolution of the mind very soon. This letter is not about foreign politics; it is aimed to give you a look into my mind. The power of Generation Z is that one day we will be your only clientele. We will be the ones who will need to be marketed to. We will have to be provided with reasons why we should buy your products. I urge you to listen to the younger generations; we are on the frontlines of the social and environmental revolutions.’ I understand that I really have to listen to the new generations in order to understand where businesses should focus in order to build a sustainable profile.
I am honoured when the iconic South African sportswoman Desiree Ellis asks me to become a Director of the Desiree Ellis Foundation. The wheel has come full circle as I join my long-time friends Desiree and South African lawyer Elton Hart in this nonprofit organisation. Desiree’s profile as a community leader is amazing.
Desiree Ellis is the current coach of Banyana Banyana, the South Africa women's national football team of which she was a founding member, and captained for a record 10 years in the period 1993-2002. Desiree was appointed head coach of Banyana Banyana in February 2018. In the same year she coached her team (then ranked 50th in the world), to a second place finish in the Africa Women Cup of Nations. In 2019 she led Banyana Banyana to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in history. Desiree received the Confederation of African Football Women's Coach of the Year Award in 2018 and 2019, and also received the Presidential Silver Sports Award in 2000. She was a FIFA Ambassador during the 2010 World Cup and is still an ambassador of the prestigious Laureus Foundation. In December 2020 Desiree received the Sports Lifetime Community Award at the Hollard Sport Industry Awards. She is also a football analyst on television.
On 8 July, my wife and I get on our bicycles again, and in the hottest June ever recorded we cycle 375 kilometers in Friesland, the province that is famous for the ‘Elfstedentocht’ (the ‘Eleven Cities Skating Marathon’). The last one was held in 1996. It feels as if the Netherlands has become a tropical paradise. I become much more aware of environmental sustainability, and start immersing myself in this topic. The book ‘Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto’ by Adam Werbach becomes my bedtime companion.
Igor and I create websites for Oxodias, a company that manages the affairs of highly skilled labour migrants, and for Raad International, a financial and taxation advisory services company. I have great fun with people who run a very serious business with laughter AND integrity. ww.oxodias.com and www.raadinternational.nl go live.
The wheel of goodwill keeps turning. My physician (Dr Joost van Der Sijp) is also fully into sustainability and asks me to create a website for his company, active in circular medical instruments. We are really proud when we launch www.greencycl.org
My ex-colleagues Arie Havelaar and Sander Kleinjan task Immersed with creating a corporate logo, a website and new packaging for their garlic and ginger. Sawari becomes a pride of joy for Immersed!
I base my next article on the quote that ‘Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because you aren’t affected personally.’ Having just experienced the effects of global warming in my own country, I am very aware of the fragility of nature. Shortly after publishing this article, five of the six largest wildfires in California’s history start, burning more than 2 million acres, and killing 22 people. Yet, at a political level, there is still denial that climate change is creating havoc with our nature.
I write an environmental policy for one of my clients. I realise that such a statement is not only the first, but probably also the most crucial step for a business to take in terms of environmental sustainability. The title of the policy? RESPECT AND PROTECT.
USA Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies. While many people would not immediately link her to sustainability, for me she sits way up there with the icons. She changed the playing field with her passionate advocacy of women's rights, civil liberties and the rule of law. She never budged: her purpose in life was solid as a rock.
During September, my sons and I discuss a complex issue that seems to be the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ in the business world: discrimination against people who are regarded as ‘being different’. My son shouts: ‘How can a business owner tolerate ANY form of discrimination in the workplace??’ I write a policy on creating a safe workplace in which employees can thrive, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or religion. I call it LOOKING IN THE MIRROR.
I listen to a great song by John Miles. ‘Music was my first love/And it'll be my last.’ Then the news breaks that Dutch-born rock legend Eddie Van Halen, 65, has died following a decades-long battle with cancer. I stand still in thankfulness that 8 years ago, I survived the dreaded disease. I remember how friends from all over the world supported me when I decided to walk 1 kilometer for every chemotherapy tablet that I had to swallow. Seven months later I had swallowed 784 pills, and walked 784 kilometers. During this time I was carried on the shoulders of 74 friends all over the world, who collectively walked, cycled or swam more than 57,000 kilometers to support me. Show me your friends, and I will show you your strength.
A wonderful thing happens. I am tasked to ‘sustainalize’ a group of companies. I start with the focus on turning their corporate headquarters into an energy-neutral facility, radically reducing the use of paper, and minimizing waste. This project will run for six months and include a communal herb garden, as well address all aspects of employee wellness.
On a personal level, my youngest son decides that we should no longer buy pre-packed milk for our household. He buys glass bottles and fetches fresh milk from an organic farm. He removes this product’s packaging waste from our household. He says that if all consumers in the Western world would do the same thing for just one item, we could indeed save the world.
I decide to start studying at Harvard Business School. In the ‘Sustainable Business Strategy’ course, I have to answer difficult questions. ‘Can the actions of one company make a difference? Is ‘purpose’ all just mushy talk? Does it matter if a company is purpose-driven? Is purpose an advantage or a liability?’ I lie awake at night thinking about the countless opportunities we all have to be powerful catalysts for sustainability.
We start experiencing the first sub-zero temperatures in The Netherlands. When I read an interview with the British social geographer Alastair Bonnett of Newcastle University, I am reminded that 2020 has been the hottest year ever since The Netherlands started recording daily temperatures. Bonnett says: ‘The ice slates of Greenland and Antarctica contain enough water to raise sea levels by about 65 meters. The caps have not been melting so far, but the finding in 2019 that the Greenland ice sheet is melting four times faster than previously thought is extremely worrying, even threatening. It is not that we have not been warned’. I rest my case for environmental sustainability.
On 10 December, I am extremely happy to secure a sponsorship for the Desiree Ellis Foundation. Kees Rijnhout, CEO of Dutch fresh produce specialist Jaguar The Fresh Company, commits to funding and supporting Desiree in her mission to empower rural women in South Africa in issues relating to gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, leadership and community development. It is a bold move by Kees, a fresh produce visionary. On 16 November, we kick off this partnership by hosting a Christmas meal for 500 underprivileged children. Caring means sharing....
Our last project for the year is concluded when www.raadbarendrecht.nl goes live on 17 December.
The year 2020 blessed me with a powerful purpose: to carry the flag for social and environmental sustainability. I started off the year with panic and depression. I am ending powerfully, taking Winston Churchill’s words with me into 2021: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.
Wishing you the best in 2021!
Nic Jooste, The Netherlands
PS: I wish that I could publish a list of all the people who played such an amazing, positive role in my life during the past year. Thank you all! You know who you are.
We would like to hope that we too would be on Nic’s list of those who played a positive role in his life. He certainly did in ours.
There are many interesting things in a list such as this. Some of it is how difficult it is to know what the right thing to do is. Every parent cannot but admire the earnestness of Nic’s son, buying organic milk fresh from a farm to reducing packaging and help save the world. So many questions arise: How does avoiding milk cartons actually impact the world? Are fewer trees planted because there is less profitable business to be had growing trees? Could his son’s time be used more productively elsewhere? Would that time better save the world? Does Nic’s son drive out of his way to the farm or is it on his way to and from work? If so, what is the carbon footprint of such a trip? We will enjoy thinking he is bicycling and using the time to get some exercise as well!
So many issues are challenging and interesting. ‘How can a business owner tolerate ANY form of discrimination in the workplace??’ It seems like a no-brainer to be opposed to discrimination. But what does that actually mean? If one is starting a business and chooses a partner, is it wrong to select someone one feels comfortable and compatible with? What if one is hiring a CEO? Isn’t compatibility and shared values with the owners a reasonable criteria? What if one’s customers will feel more comfortable with a certain type of person and so will patronize one’s establishment if you hire that type of person? Is that discrimination or shrewd business or both?
As an American, the mention of Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminds us of our global impact and responsibility. They have surely had great jurists in the Netherlands, and the Netherlands is an important country, yet we doubt that 99.99% of the US population could name even one Dutch, or even European, jurist.
So when we have situations such as the attempt to occupy the US Capitol Building, it is not just the end result that matters – there was no take-over of the government, and Joe Biden was confirmed. But all over the world, world leaders see and they judge, and they fear and they support. Some will misunderstand and, at the highest levels of government, they may make a mistake. Foreign governments could assume we are too divided to defend ourselves or our interests. Say China, for example, could assume we are distracted and be unable to respond if it invades Taiwan. It can be very dangerous.
In a difficult year, Nic’s month-by-month diary presents the story of a year well-lived. We pray that living well will be something each of us gets to do in the year ahead.
The pandemic has posed many challenges, both long and short term for the industry. Right now, foodservice is in despair and retail is riding high. But nothing is forever. Some changes, such as the move of consumers to purchase online, may pose long term challenges to the trade’s ability to effectively promote and introduce new products.
Despite being well-financed, PMA announced the layoff of a number of executives when its physical trade show was cancelled. We all, of course, hope for a better 2021 with the vaccines now rolling out.
Still, sometimes moments like these give people a chance to move ahead. What should our industry associations look like in the years ahead? This is an issue we have been dealing with for some time.
With the start of the pandemic, we raised this question:
Shouldn’t Our Industry Associations Try To Support One Another?
After Coronavirus, The Time May Be Right To Look At PMA/United Merger Once Again
That brought a former chairman of one of the two national produce associations to share an informed perspective:
Pundit’s Mailbag — Welcome Comments About Possible PMA/United Merger
Then Bruce Peterson, who had deep involvement in both produce and grocery trade associations when building the Walmart produce program — including becoming Chairman of PMA — shared his thoughts with us:
Bruce Peterson Asks The Question:
How Can Today’s Produce Associations Serve The Industry? ...And Who Will Pay For It?
Then a former Chair of one of the two big national produce associations, who has been involved with many produce institutions, wrote:
Painful Pivot for Produce Trade Associations:
To ‘Rightsize’ and Re-evaluate Their Purpose
Now we have more input, this time from the grower/shipper side of the business:
I am not afraid to be vocal and use my name. I think this article is on point and very timely.
We have begrudgingly gone to PMA’s Fresh Summit event over the past 10 years only to protect our family name. If we don’t show up, our competitors will slag us off and say our business isn’t doing well.
In the old days, this was the only way for everyone to really get together, and it was amazing. Now it is an excuse to piss away money on all levels. Whether that is meals, booths or entertainment that goes on well longer than necessary.
It is an excuse to promote the “good old boys” mentality. Nothing pisses me off more than being at a dinner, whether I am paying for it or not, and to watch everyone order seafood towers and surf and turf and buy bottles of wine by the price, only because they know someone else is paying.
It is complete trash. If you don’t behave like that at home when you are paying the bill, why then should you behave that way when someone else foots the tab? Honestly, there have been many times when I won’t even order food at these dinners, just because I know there will be plenty to go around. How in the world can you say you want to get rid of waste when you are promoting it?
Fight the good fight my man.
Director of Sales and Retail
Success Valley Produce
Backus’ note expresses a common feeling in the industry. Yet we are uncertain that the solution is clear.
We should say that we have had a wonderful experience exhibiting and sponsoring at PMA’s annual convention. We actually launched Pundit sister publication, the pater familias of our company, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, at the PMA back in 1985 in San Francisco!
We have spent over $3 million over the years at the PMA event: this includes exhibiting, sponsoring, doing special events there such as our Rising Star Reception, saluting our 40 under Forty. This includes flying in staff, staying in hotels, team meetings and meals, entertaining customers, prospects, editorial subjects and industry friends.
We would say the returns were good. But, as we grew and became more established, it is fair to say that the participation shifted from offense to defense.
Yet this strikes us not as an indictment of PMA, but as a commentary on the way of the world. If there is a show devoted to, say, cars, and it is 2003 and you are Tesla and have just launched, it is all upside and aggressive marketing for growth. Same year, but let the company be GM, Ford or Toyota, the upside is much smaller, the downside much greater – so a lot of the marketing is defense.
In produce, even more than in the automobile industry, much of the marketing is defense because production is often fixed. When things are good, a car manufacturing operation can speed up a line, can add a shift or have people work overtime. In the end, they can add a factory.
The produce industry, however, is filled with companies that own or farm a fixed acreage, and that is what they have — although, of course, as technology advances, they may have higher-yielding plants, better ways of planting, etc. Their market share is mostly fixed. Sure, they can always buy a competitor or start marketing for another producer, but none of this increases overall production.
So, many well established producers, which grow fixed acreage of commodity crops and have clients signed up for their production, will see the event’s availability of marketing opportunities as more a program to help people “steal” their customers than as an opportunity to grow. When they participate, these producers will also see a lot of unnecessary expense. They were going to sell 500 acres of Honeycrisp at the market price no matter what – now they are out to dinner looking at, and paying for, seafood towers and expensive wine.
Some companies fight this. When we were young and didn’t know the rules, we were once doing an event and had an important executive from Costco speaking. We happened to see him and an associate at a restaurant that night when we went to have dinner with another group. Without telling him, we picked up his bill as a thank-you for his coming to speak, and we left the restaurant. He approached me the next morning in a kind of panic, saying he could lose his job for letting me pay. The rules weren’t simple. He was allowed to join our “speaker dinner,” but he could not accept my picking up his tab at a restaurant. He wrote us a check to reimburse us.
On the other hand, it is very difficult for a company to even know what its people do. We remember when we were working on the terminal market, and there was a customer who we just couldn’t sell. But we found it worth marketing to the guy because if we had something he liked, another wholesaler down the block would show up and buy it. Maybe it was more convenient for the customer to consolidate his order or, maybe, he had a “special arrangement” with the other buyer and wanted the business to go through his organization.
One question is whether the realities of the industry will change because of who owns the trade show. In other words, if PMA sold its trade show to a private company, would that change the dynamic? For many years in the produce industry, the United Fresh Show – which used to be the largest show in the produce industry – had grumblings from exhibitors who didn’t feel they were getting value from the show because PMA had become the dominant buyer-attended show -- but these same companies didn’t want to be seen as not supporting United.
This Pundit, working with Alan Siger and others, focused on finding ways to make it possible for companies to support the government relations aspect of United, even if they didn’t find exhibiting at its trade show a good use of funds.
Our sense, however, is that people mostly do not support the Fresh Summit event in order to support PMA. It is a marketing decision, and, as Backus mentions, many who have to pay the bills would rather not do so, but marketing dynamics often lead marketers to spend money that, if the world was different, they would not have to spend.
Indeed, one suspects that people support PMA in order to get a discount on Fresh Summit. Right now, if you want to apply to be an exhibitor at the next PMA, you need to send $1,500 as a deposit. If you are not a member of PMA, you have to send $3,000! That is a $1,500 difference. A small company only pays $1,580 in dues to PMA, so one is really encouraged to be a member!
Numbers such as this make one question how deeply are many PMA members dedicated to the association. Put another way: How many industry members feel that what PMA does is worthy of their financial support — even if PMA didn’t give member discounts on its events? This is an important question.
The broader question, though, is what all this has to do in 2021 with running a trade association? Put another way, if PMA didn’t exist today, would we as an industry create it? And why? What would we expect this new creation of ours to do that other associations aren’t doing or couldn’t do?
It seems pretty easy to answer what the purpose of United is: Government Relations.
Now, imagine that we sold Fresh Summit. The National Restaurant Association sold its show in late 2018 keeping a minority stake — and this pandemic shows that business always carries risks — so it is probably very glad it did!
So if PMA sells its event business, sells its headquarters, and we took all the money and put it in a foundation to help the produce industry, what would the industry want PMA to do? What is its raison d'être — its reason for being.
Over the years, we have heard Bruce Peterson of Walmart fame ask this question many times.
This is a tough thing to resolve because few see an upside in being seen as an enemy of an industry association. But this process of analyzing what the industry would build if it was starting from scratch is really an important effort.
If you feel you have thoughts that could help the industry to advance, please let us know here. Let us know if you want to maintain confidentiality.
We thank and commend Backus Nahas for his bravery in being willing to express his thoughts.