Melissa De Leon: So, I suppose we should start at the beginning. How did you carve out a foodservice program at Mastronardi?
Dean Taylor: When I first started at Mastronardi, we had a young foodservice division that wasn’t getting the attention it needed. It lacked the “glamour” of the retail business, so there wasn’t much attention paid to it. I set up our foodservice division in a way that differentiated it from the rest of our business. We gave it its own name, Mastronardi Fresh; we built a team of people dedicated to foodservice, and we really catered to the foodservice
buyers. We made a concerted effort to demonstrate that we weren’t just a retail-focused company, but that we were genuinely committed to foodservice.
MD: What unique perspective would you say that gives you?
DT: When you’re involved in foodservice day-to-day, you begin to see trends. And a lot of the trends we see at restaurants make their way into retail markets. Ten years ago, for example, you wouldn’t see aioli in a bottle at the grocery store, but now it’s a perfectly normal item for consumers to buy. This vantage point led to the success of our SHAZAM!™ shishito peppers, a breakthrough item in the fresh pepper category. When we launched them last year, shishitos were a popular item in restaurants, but we were the first to bring them into people’s homes.
So, being in the foodservice sector serves a couple of purposes: It helps us keep ahead of foodie trends and supports product innovation. It also diversifies our customer base and allows us to connect with consumers where they eat—at home, in restaurants, and on-the-go.
MD: Why separate the business from the already well-established SUNSET brand?
DT: Generally, people are either foodservice suppliers or retail suppliers; there are few that do both well. So, we intentionally created a small, focused operation to assure customers they had a dedicated foodservice supply and support team. When we did so, our CEO, Paul Mastronardi, made a commitment to me to stand behind and support the growth of this branch of the business, and the result was that we really shined.
About five years in, we started reintegrating the foodservice division back into the known SUNSET brand, rather than only attending restaurant-specific events. Today, there is no separation—in perception or otherwise—and we have accomplished our goal: to be the single largest greenhouse supplier with a dedicated foodservice distribution team. To this day, everyone on my team remains solely focused on foodservice, and they truly understand the operators. We have always delivered a high level of service to the biggest foodservice distributors in America, and now we not only sell to these broadline foodservice distributors, but more and more restaurant chains are coming to us directly saying they want to talk greenhouse.
Ten years ago, greenhouse was largely a specialty. Today, it’s become much more mainstream in foodservice—just like its progression in retail.
MD: That’s interesting to hear, isn’t it more usual for trends to start in foodservice before making their way into retail?
DT: Yes! But greenhouse products are the exception. They took off in retail before foodservice caught on to the benefits greenhouse offers: flavorful, year-round availability and high-quality food safety standards. It’s easy to understand the benefit of greenhouse produce when they are presented alongside other impressive SUNSET offerings in store, in award-winning packaging that clearly articulates their difference. It’s harder to articulate the value of a greenhouse-grown product when it’s sliced and buried in a burger. But ultimately, it comes down to flavor and consistency. When operators got tired of having to hang “Sorry, no tomatoes” signs in their windows due to supply issues they had with some field-grown supplies, they came looking for us—and they haven’t looked back.
MD: On that note, you’re now involved in all product development, not just foodservice. Tell me about how this role led you to get involved there.
DT: Seeing all these new trends, I began working more closely with Paul on product development, and it really started changing what I do professionally. I began traveling with him to Europe on our seed expeditions looking for new varieties and tasting new flavors. Each year, we challenge ourselves to taste thousands of new tomato varieties from Holland, Italy, France, Asia, and beyond. And after these flavor trips, we bring 400 or 500 seed varieties back to SUNSET greenhouses in hopes of growing the next great tomato. So, my role has expanded largely in that area—especially over the past two years—to where I’m managing the SUNSET varietal program throughout North America, alongside Paul.
MD: Are there some differentiators between products for retail versus foodservice that you’ve noticed?
DT: With foodservice, it’s about consistent size, color, and shape. In order to successfully run their businesses, chefs and operators need to present the same dish time and again at the same cost; whereas the home chef goes shopping with their eyes first. They may be open to trying exciting new varieties, and they’re empowered to experiment because they know they can count on a high-quality, flavorful product from SUNSET.
MD: What’s new from SUNSET?
DT: At United Fresh, we launched a new approach to berries. By marrying the beautiful branding we have under SUNSET and applying our reputation for flavor to the berry segment, we’re going to revolutionize expectations for how a berry should taste. Imagine consumers buying multiple strawberry varieties in a single grocery trip. When they do, it will be because we have given them the opportunity and a reason to, driven by the unique flavor notes each berry delivers. SUNSET revolutionized the tomato category by delivering a new level of quality and innovation, and we’re going to do it again with berries.
MD: So, from heading the foodservice division to product and varietal development to Interim President of Berry World...what is the connection?
DT: FLAVOR! It’s all centered around flavor, which is the culture at SUNSET and the driving force behind the incredible work, effort, expense, and resources Paul Mastronardi puts into our search for flavor. My involvement in foodservice was about going out and finding the trends, finding out what consumers are searching for—what they want and enjoy when they are dining out—and bringing that into households. Then, when I moved into varietal development, that goes without saying: We seek out new flavors, colors, textures, and literally create new segments in the tomato, pepper, cucumber, and now berry markets.
Everything is about flavor. I travel all over the world over one hundred days a year in search of flavor to help SUNSET transform the American offering.
I should have known that Dean’s journey, like all things SUNSET, would come down to this component. Often, the complex boils down to a simple seed of truth, and for Dean and those he works with, it’s flavor. Seeking it out, imagine where he and his team might go.