CHICAGO — The United Fresh Produce Association made an impression with some new elements at its conference and expo June 10-12.

About 5,000 people attended the show, and nearly 1,000 attended the opening night reception at Navy Pier and the lively late-night concert at the House of Blues the following evening.

The new Partner X-Change, a speed-dating style event for buyers and suppliers, was another part of the conference that impressed. 

Michael Castagnetto, vice president of global sourcing for Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Robinson Fresh, said the Partner X-Change was fantastic.

“I thought that both groups, the vendors and customers, went into those meetings pretty engaged, and so it felt like those who participated were there for the right reasons, and that’s all you want, is the opportunity to meet with somebody who’s willing to listen and give you a chance to follow up after,” Castagnetto said. “I thought it was really well done.”

Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral for Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Friendly Markets, also gave the event a ringing endorsement.

“My initial impression is it was a home run,” Cady said. “The companies I met with, I would say 60% of them will probably result in more business.”

The format of the meetings appealed to Cady.

“No time’s getting wasted, you’re cutting right to the point,” Cady said. “I think a lot of the things that are important, food safety and all that, how long the farm’s been along, those are almost a gimme now … Let’s get to the point: what can you do, how can we help each other grow?”

He encouraged suppliers to participate in future such events.

“I think they’re making a mistake if they don’t,” Cady said. “Money well spent, I’m sure.”
Castagnetto described the show overall as a good experience and said the changes United Fresh made resonated. 

Abby Prior, vice president of marketing for Irvington, N.Y.-based BrightFarms, also shared positive feedback.

“The show overall has been great,” Prior said. “We’ve had a lot of retailer activity and have made some great connections. This is the first year we exhibited here at United Fresh, and we have found that it’s been a really good investment. We will be back next year.”

United had a wide range of education sessions across the three-day event, starting with a full day of panels on topics that included marketing, food safety and family business. 

The event started with a panel of industry executives, including Walmart’s vice president of global produce sourcing Rich Gonzales, discussed their outlook on the challenges and opportunities for produce.

Brittany Vetter, business development manager for Pleasant Prairie, Wis.-based Good Foods, said the company had some team members that attended specifically for the sessions.

“We really appreciate that help (to) educate our people about the industry, especially when they’re new to the team,” Vetter said.

Other elements included a new international trade center, a general session focused on women in produce, and a retail-foodservice celebration after the close of the show floor June 12. 

“As we launched the first day of the show yesterday, there was a lot of buzz on the floor,” Mary Coppola, vice president of marketing and communication, said June 12. “There was energy, people were feeling the change, and that really was our biggest goal coming to Chicago. We made a bold statement and we needed to deliver on it, and I feel that we did.”

In 2020 the United Fresh conference and expo moves to San Diego, Calif. The event next year is scheduled for June 16-18.


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