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Q&A with Sysco's Rich Dachman, Vice President of Produce

If we trace Rich’s roots back, we find that this produce aficionado and fresh foods curator has always had a taste for our dynamic industry. Having first planted the seed of his lifelong career at his family-owned business in Denver, Colorado, Rich knew that he had found his calling. Following the sale of the family business, he and his father opened a new foodservice operation in Denver for Kraft Foods, Inc. before Rich joined Kraft’s corporate office in Chicago as National Director of Produce in 1987. 

Jumping ahead to 1992, we find this pioneer at the coveted FreshPoint Inc., where he was President of FreshPoint Operating Companies in Houston, Denver, Atlanta, and its central procurement office in Salinas, California. In 2000, when Sysco acquired FreshPoint, Rich was appointed to the position of Senior Vice President, Western Region and in 2007 he was promoted to Vice President of Produce for Sysco Corporation. It has been quite a ride for Rich, and as we watch the foodservice arena drive trends from inception to table, the industry veteran took the time to share his take on the fresh produce giant Sysco and how the company is playing its role in evolving menus across the U.S.

What are Sysco/FreshPoint’s current growth initiatives in fresh produce, and what is your go-to-market vision?

RICH DACHMAN: We believe there are no secret formulas to growing our produce category. It’s all about balancing and valuing our customers’ needs and partnering with our suppliers.

We have gone to great lengths to be sure that we are executing our vision at the highest level from A-Z. This includes partnering with the best quality suppliers, using logistic tactics to move our produce to our distribution centers in the most expedient fashion to ensure freshness, and having the right quantity and quality of personnel at our companies to manage the program properly. In the end, we understand how critical it is to deliver what the customer ordered on-time, and with high-quality produce. Every other thing that comes down the pipeline is simply about fine-tuning, and that is the basis of our mission.

What is your produce philosophy at present, and how do you see it evolving in the future?

RD: Produce is the ultimate supply and demand industry. It is backwards in regard to all that we are accustomed to. When supplies are short, the product quality gets worse and the price gets higher. This challenge is where we prove our worth to our customers. We have a very committed philosophy to our suppliers, and partner with them at the highest level by aligning our values and committing our program to them on a year-round basis, regardless of the market. The result is, our suppliers take care of us, filling our orders in short supply scenarios and allowing us to satisfy our customers’ needs during the most extreme markets. That is where we prove our worth.

What are some of the highlights you’ve noticed in current food trends, including fresh produce; both with the consumer and within the culinary sector?

RD: We are seeing the boundaries of the culinary world mixing flavors and watching items expand, and noticing that some even disappear. A great example is the rise of fruit/vegetable mixed smoothies on breakfast bars. The green salad is now common, and we are seeing more cauliflower, beets, and broccoli salads being offered. Both transparency and integrity of clean ingredients continue to grow as well, as the millennial generation develops as a higher percentage of consumers.

Can you share some of the hot items, preparation methods, or flavors you anticipate will rise on foodservice menus in 2017 and beyond?

RD: Pickling is definitely a strong trend. Also, food waste is really being brought to the forefront, and the industry is being pushed to find ways to offer variations of products that may have previously remained in the field, unused for retail or foodservice. Although kale remains strong, more chefs are turning to beets, greens, chard, turnip greens, mustard greens, and carrot tops.

I have had many people tell me that trends really catch fire at the foodservice level. How do you perceive trends forming?

RD: The genesis and the evolution of a trend or innovation in produce starts with the chef. We have a formal innovative initiative where we are constantly working with our suppliers to introduce new items to our customers. Once the consumer tries the product on the menu they want to go home and experience it themselves. They will then go to retail to find the product and experiment accordingly, and then it grows. That is the process.

You have some great ways of capturing the pulse of leading-edge trends and product ideas. As part of such a large organization, do you face any specific challenges in commercializing those ideas into the mass market?

RD: Due to our size and the number of customers we reach, we are often the first contact a grower will make with a new innovative product. The challenge of gaining momentum for these items is part of our business: getting the chef to put it on the menu and then moving it farther into the mainstream such as in national chain restaurants. Then, consumers go to retail to purchase the product after being introduced to it in the restaurant, and the real growth of the item begins.

We are well positioned to introduce new items and have a very specific chain of command to do so. We realize our clients are looking to always stay on the cutting-edge, and it is our commitment to oblige them accordingly.

The creative spark, the foodservice menu, the consumer’s introduction to the versatility of fresh produce—these all occur in Rich’s world at Sysco. Through  collaboration and the promise to bring the best products to the table, that world seems ever-expanding and ever-evolving. I know that the restaurant menu was the first place I saw beets paired with goat cheese years ago, where kale evolved from garnish to centerpiece, and where a crispy slice of bacon, a pickled carrot, and green bean first made it into my Bloody Maria. It is the table where we taste that first spark.