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Southern Innovations 2021 celebrates on many levels

Gordon M. Hochberg, editor emeritus and vice president

SAVANNAH, GA — After having to cancel last year's Southern Innovations conference and trade show due to the worldwide pandemic, the Southeast Produce Council enthusiastically welcomed back the fresh produce industry to its 2021 fall event, held early September in Savannah, the oldest city in the state of Georgia.

logoThe in-person event was a celebration on many levels. Attendees heard what's new in farming, retail, foodservice and the planet; the council introduced its new officers and board of directors; the council recognized the service of some longtime members; and attendees saw the latest products from exhibitors at the trade show.

But perhaps the most enjoyable — and emotional — aspects of this year's event were just being able to greet colleagues and friends in person, seeing actual produce on display at the trade show, and sharing hugs and laughs at the social events, all while observing the safety protocols and guidelines that remain in effect to battle the ongoing pandemic.

As David Sherrod, the council's president and CEO, said Monday, Sept. 13, after the event, "We can show the industry that we can gather. I think we did that. We wanted to see each other, we wanted to be together. We're not going to let the pandemic stop us. It's hard to sell produce without seeing somebody. We're still going to try to make this connection. It really did feel like a family reunion."

Southern Innovations took place Sept. 9-11 at the Savannah Convention Center and the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa, in the city's historic river district.

Following the board of directors and STEP-UPP dinner on Wednesday, evening, Sept. 8, Southern Innovations got under way the next day with the Southern Roots luncheon in the afternoon and the Welcome Reception in the evening.

SEPC's STEP-UPP participants.

On Friday, Sept. 10, there were two educational sessions in the morning, followed by the general session and keynote luncheon, with the trade show taking place for most of the afternoon.

During that general session, Sherrod recognized all of the nominees for the council's Next Generation Award, and said that the winner would be announced at Southern Exposure 2022, set for March 3-5 in Orlando, FL.

At the Chairman's Dinner Dance in the evening, Sherrod presented two Lifetime Membership Awards: one to Steve Pinkston, retired from Sunny Valley International, and one to Frank Swanson, retired from U.S. Foods. Sherrod also presented service awards to three people retiring from the board of directors: Blair Greenhill of Nickey Gregory Co. and Jon Schwalls of Southern Valley, who were there in person, as well as outgoing Chairman of the Board Harold Paivarinta of Red Sun Farms, who was not able to attend due to COVID travel restrictions.

Sherrod then introduced the 2021-22 officers — Chairman Raina Nelson of Westfalia Fruit, Vice Chairman Tim Graas of Associated Wholesale Grocers, Secretary Mike Roberts of Harps Food Stores and Treasurer Kristin Yerecic Scott of Yerecic Label — as well as the rest of the new board of directors.

"We're excited about Raina taking over the helm," said Sherrod. "She has a passion for the next generation of superheroes and really getting that new generation engaged with the produce industry. We're excited to see where that takes us through this coming year. This is probably the youngest group of officers we've ever had."

under 40 nominees
SEPC's Under 40 nominees.

On Saturday, Sept. 11, attendees chose from three social activities: the Founders Memorial Golf Tournament, the Sporting Clays Tournament and the local tour.

The winning foursome at the golf tournament, with a score of 59, were Cale Blocker of Potandon Produce, Todd Gosule of B&W, Mike Casazza of FreshSource and Dave Verdrager of B&W.

"We had 110 golfers, and it was an absolutely beautiful day with very little humidity," said Andrew Scott, who is with Nickey Gregory Co. and who coordinates all SEPC golf events. "We may have set a timing record for a scramble tournament in that we finished in four hours and 15 minutes. Everyone had a great time. With COVID and the world we are living in now, this was a very successful day for the SEPC."

The concluding event, as always, was the Ultimate Tailgate Experience, where attendees could unwind while watching a variety of college football games on some big screen televisions.

Asked for his initial assessment and views about Southern Innovations 2021, Sherrod replied, "Given the circumstances, I think we had more buyers than we anticipated. I was really glad to see some of the top 20 retailers there, and also some of the smaller to mid-size chains. We were excited about seeing who was there."

He added, "I think there were some meaningful connections made from the exhibitor side. There weren't a lot of associates from each individual organization in attendance, but there was good representation. I was able to talk to a lot of the buyers, and they felt like they really got a lot of business done and made a lot of connections. All in all, I think that we achieved what we needed to achieve. And when it was all said and done, we were able to do it in person, and we did it safely. We were excited that we were able to get the show in this year."

Asked what he thought some of the highlights were, Sherrod replied, "The great thing about Southern Innovations every year is for us to be able to honor those individuals who have meant so much to the council. So this year it meant a lot to me to be able to give the Lifetime Membership Awards and to highlight the achievements of our outgoing board members."

Regarding the "What's New" theme of Southern Innovations, he stated, "I do believe that we were able to emphasize innovation and technology throughout the conference. I believe that we can benchmark from there and going forward. I feel like this can be a place where we can highlight those achievements on the technological side and innovation side with new products and new developments each year."

Southern Innovations "will be a destination going forward," he declared. "We found a place where we can have a show that's going to be different from other trade shows and have its own identity. We want to bring an identity to Southern Innovations, and I think we found it this year. We got some good feedback from the people who were there, and we'll just build on that each year and make it better and better."

There were 93 exhibitors this year, and over 100 buyers, but the CEO stated, "Sometimes we look at numbers and try to get measured by those numbers. But we're living in a different world now. Instead of just numbers, it's more about relationships. That's what we built this council on, and I think that those relationships were reunited and fostered over the weekend. It was just a great event. There was business to be had."

He added, "We're making strides, and the only way we can make strides is to keep having events. The only way we're going to improve is to keep having these events where the industry can gather. We're making plans now for Southern Exposure to be better than ever. We hope it's going to be a doorbuster."

As to the just concluded SI, Sherrod declared, "We've got a lot to be thankful for. We're grateful for what happened over this past weekend. We're grateful for the buyers and the exhibitors that gave their time to be there. We're grateful that we were able to have it safely."

The Produce News spoke to some of the exhibitors during the trade show, who offered a variety of comments.

Sharon Robb-Anstett of North Bay Produce said, "We've had really good-quality meetings and interaction during the show. I think people have time to visit every both. Southern Roots was wonderful; they always do a lovely job. The speaker was really good and shared some good ideas with us. We're looking forward to Southern Exposure."

Charlie Eagle of Southern Specialties said, "I've never attended an SEPC event that hasn't brought value to me, my company and the industry. There's a reason companies in our industry are lined up to participate in this organization's events. This Savannah show is more lightly attended than previous shows, but they continue to bring value to the membership with impactful speakers and seminars. Those in our industry recognize that to have a successful show, we need to have only one or two meaningful contacts that can lead to increased business or new customers."

John Patrick of Eco Farms said, "We've had good conversations with people; they seem to be giving you a little more time. It's not as rushed as it sometimes is. The opening reception was great — a lot of fun. I really liked the band. They weren't too loud and you could carry on a conversation. The keynote speaker brought out a lot of good points. It certainly made me think."

Keith Hahn of The Little Potato Co. said, "I loved the opening party. The expo — the quantity of people is not huge, but the quality of the people is very good. The major foodservice companies are represented, and definitely makes it worthwhile."

Lucretia Parish of Giorgio Fresh Co. said, "We're enjoying the show. We're showing some new items such as barbecue Portabella that tastes like pulled pork. We have seen quite a few of our retail, foodservice and wholesale accounts. And it's always good to get back to the semblance of normalcy. We're looking forward to the Chairman's Dinner Dance."

Patrick Dueire and Bryan Garibay of Mission Produce said, "It's good to be back in person and see the customers again. There's good traffic. We're seeing a lot of existing customers from both the foodservice and retail sides, finding out how they are bouncing back from the pandemic and seeing what we can do to help them."

Rick Estess of RPE Inc. and a former chairman of the SEPC board said, "Traffic has been excellent. We're seeing a lot of decision-makers. The time we're spending with retailers is unbelievable. The opening party was one of the best we've ever had. The layout was good and well attended. The atmosphere was set by the tone of the band: relaxing. I'm looking forward to the local tour and the tailgate party."

Top photo: The winning foursome at the 2021 Founders Memorial Golf Tournament with a score of 59 comprised Cale Blocker of Potandon Produce, Todd Gosule of B&W, Mike Casazza of FreshSource and Dave Verdrager of B&W.

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