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Southern Exposure to celebrate 'the unseen heroes'

By
Gordon M. Hochberg

The Southeast Produce Council will celebrate "the unseen heroes" of the fresh produce industry and beyond at its flagship conference and trade show in early March.

As the video on the SEPC website proclaims: "Some heroes wear camouflage. But within our industry, they wear coveralls, workboots, gloves, aprons, hairnets, shiftcoats, safety glasses and wide-brimmed hats. At Southern Exposure, our produce industry heroes will be in plain sight. Explore the possibilities to be all you can be, together."

The event will take place March 7-9 at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, FL.

David Sherrod
David Sherrod

"Tampa was one of our original venues, and we're glad to be back there. It was always something special for Terry to be in Tampa," said David Sherrod, the council's president and CEO, referring to the late Terry Vorhees, longtime executive director and one of the founders of the council.

Before the official opening of Southern Exposure, the board of directors will meet Wednesday, March 6, followed by the VIP dinner that evening.

Things get going quickly on Thursday morning, March 7, with the Tom Page Golf Classic, which is named for one of the founders of the council. This will take place at the Lake Jovita Golf & Country Club, about a 45-minute drive from the hotels. Tee time is 9 a.m., a little later than usual.

"We have 288 golfers signed up, with a wait list," said Sherrod. "So, we're at full capacity. This is a course that Terry always liked to go to. We had been there a number of times in the early years."

Golfers should be back at the hotels by around 4 p.m.

Also that day, LINKS meetings will be taking place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and committee meetings will be taking place from noon to 5 p.m.

Registration and exhibit booth set-up will open at 1 p.m. at the Tampa Convention Center, continuing until 6 p.m.

The Future Generations Celebration Dinner will take place from 6-9:30 p.m. at the J.W. Marriott.

Anne-Marie Roerink
Anne-Marie Roerink

This event, by invitation only, will honor those involved in three of the council's premier programs: the Southeast Top Agricultural Recruits Scholarship program, the retail and foodservice wings of the Southeast Training Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals, and the Next Generation Leadership Academy.

"We look forward to coming together to honor all those groups," said Sherrod. "This will get us kicked off for Friday, which is a big day."

The STARS breakfast will begin at 7 a.m. Friday, March 8, by invitation only.

"There will be several speakers coming in to talk about being part of the produce industry," said Sherrod. "It's really a recruitment for us to be able to retain some of these STARS students. We try to pick younger people to speak to the STARS students to give them an overview of all the opportunities in the produce industry."

The first educational session, from 8:30-9:45 a.m., will feature Kevin Brown, a motivational speaker and author of The Hero Effect and Unleashing Your Hero.

Brown will be "going over some very important information and what it means to be a hero, and what that means in relationship to the produce industry," said Sherrod. "So, this should be a really relevant session for everybody."

The second educational session, The Power of Produce 2024, will take place from 10:15-11:45 a.m., with co-presenters Rick Stein, vice president of fresh foods at FMI, and Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics LLC.

Mike Roberts
Mike Roberts

They will be joined by a star-studded panel of three people in the retail-foodservice sector of the produce industry: John Clear, senior director at A&M Consumer & Retail Group; Julie Olivarria, vice president of produce, canned and frozen at Sysco Corp.; and Melissa Thrasher, procurement team leader at Whole Foods Market.

"Those panelists represent the whole gamut from the dollar store format, the foodservice format and the conventional-type supermarket," said Sherrod. "We've got it covered with a real diversified panel, which is very exciting this year."

The Southern Roots luncheon (for women in produce) will take place from 12:30-2:30 p.m., where attendees will hear from Kristen Hadeed, founder and CEO of the Human Leadership Program. Her presentation is titled, Permission to Screw Up.

Building on the themes in her book, Permission to Screw Up, Hadeed will discuss how to let go of perfectionism, reframe your relationship with failure, and give yourself permission to be human.

"We have almost 350 ladies signed up for this session," noted Sherrod. "That's a huge number. There should be lots of good takeaways from this session, which shows that we're all human and we all make mistakes — and that's OK."

At the same time that Southern Roots is going on, the council will be offering a new luncheon event, a kind of men's mentoring group, called Good Seeds. Sherrod is expecting "about 100 men or so to seed this thing and get it going." Joe Pellegrino, founder and president of Legacy Minded Men, will be the speaker.

"This is still in the development stage, but we're looking for a group of men who can be examples in the industry," said Sherrod, noting that it was Mike Roberts, of Harp's Food Stores and chairman of the SEPC board of directors, who suggested this new program. "We're trying to lay the foundation here at Southern Exposure in Tampa," said Sherrod. "And then come Southern Innovations [Sept. 12-14 in Nashville] and continuing after that, it will be on the schedule just like Southern Roots."

Julie Olivarria
Julie Olivarria

STARS Fresh Futures, formerly called Cocktails and Careers, will take place from 3-5 p.m. "The committee's done an awesome job on this," said Sherrod. "Basically this is a job fair. We're expecting a pretty big turnout. It should be great for those kids to be exposed to the companies and should give them a little taste of what's going to go on before the expo. And that's what it's all about: being able to give them a job and a career in the produce industry."

The Healthy Family Project Reception (by invitation only) will take place from 5-6 p.m., and the Retail & Foodservice Reception (also by invitation only) will take place from 6-7 p.m.

Doors open at 7 p.m. for the Opening Gala at the Tampa Convention Center. "This year we'll carry out our theme about unseen heroes by incorporating a military appreciation, with kind of a USO feel, to the Opening Gala, which is exciting," said Sherrod. "Really, the unseen heroes theme has kind of morphed into a military appreciation as well as an appreciation of all the people in the produce industry who are always working behind the scenes."

On Saturday, March 9, the Keynote Brunch begins at 9 a.m. at the convention center, where attendees will have the opportunity to hear a brief State-of-the-Council report.

The 2024 Terry Vorhees Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Faye Westfall, whose involvement with the council goes back to its earliest days, and who helped build STEP-UPP into one of the council's premier programs.

Adam Mendler
Adam Mendler

Similar to last year, there will be two keynote speakers. Kurt Warner, a former National Football League quarterback for the Cardinals and Super Bowl winner with the Rams, will be the celebrity keynoter. Adam Mendler, creator and host of the "Thirty Minute Mentors Podcast," will be the moderator and industry keynoter.

Following the Keynote Brunch, the expo will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. There will be 288 booths, very similar to last year. "We're still trying to adhere to having an intimate setting," as Sherrod put it.

But there's no question that a lot of people will be heading to Southern Exposure 2024 in Tampa. "As of right now, our numbers are stellar," Sherrod declared on Feb. 1. "We expect more than 3,500 attendees when it's all said and done." Of those total attendees, "over 600 will be retail, wholesale and foodservice buyers, which is amazing."

The closing reception will take place from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

On Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., the Al Finch Memorial Prayer Breakfast will take place.

With Southern Exposure 2024 about a month away, Sherrod was looking forward to the event with anticipation, excitement and perhaps just a bit of healthy apprehension -- all while keeping especially mindful of this year's extraordinary theme.

"This is really a time to thank all the people who are working behind the scenes. It was Mike Roberts' theme to really show our gratitude for the people in this industry who bring produce to our tables each and every day," stated Sherrod. "That's the message we want people to take away from this conference. We're thankful for everybody who has a hand in delivering fresh produce. At the end of the day, we tried to get the speakers and content that really revolve around that. It certainly has taken a military turn, but we need to be appreciative of the people who protect us each day as well as the people who feed us each day. This is really a timely theme and platform."

Gordon Hochberg

Gordon Hochberg

About Gordon M. Hochberg  |  email

Gordon M. Hochberg was born in New York City, and grew up in Westchester County, NY. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from Lafayette College in 1973.

He started his career at The Produce News in the late 1970s, and has been with the publication ever since.

He served on the Board of Trustees of the New Jersey Agricultural Society from 2012 to 2018. He currently serves on the Southeast Produce Council’s Board of Governors.

He enjoys music, theater and reading (American and ancient history are his favorites). And he’s been a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees since attending his first game in the late 1950s. He and his wife, Kathi, have been married since 1974.

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