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Bringing Purpose to the Plate: A Q&A With Gene Harris, Senior Purchasing Manager, Denny’s

Bringing Purpose to the Plate: A Q&A With Gene Harris, Senior Purchasing Manager, Denny’s

Gene Harris understands the act of placing a plate of delicious food in front of a customer the same way he understands the gesture of a handshake.

Within both acts, there is an intention and deep awareness of connection, joy, and gratitude—or, potentially, a lack thereof. Such a simple act has either consequences or benefits that echo through the hand or stomach to the heart.

Knowing that such an industry veteran is behind the product purchasing at Denny’s, brings an unshakable strength to that handshake we hold so dear, both in person and on the plate. While the foodservice industry rides the waves of fluctuating economies, consumer dining behaviors, and trends shifting into movements, the table continues to be the meeting ground to which our industry turns to steady its connection between the supplier and the consumer.

We speak much of ambassadors in this industry, those guiding lights that bridge the connection between the plant and its purpose to the consumer. As the Senior Purchasing Manager for the nearly 70-year-old restaurant chain founded in 1953, Gene does not take this description I have fixed to him lightly. As a devoted fresh produce industry veteran, friend, and source of leadership and guidance, I turn once again to the buy-side truthseeker for his insights on the industry today, his personal experiences in such an incredible time, and how Denny’s continues to ride the winds of change.

Jordan Okumura: Gene, thank you for always letting me invade your email inbox and bend your ear. I can only imagine what traffic looks like across your desk these days. So, I’ll get right to it. What is it about food, specifically gathering for a meal or even enjoying one in your own restaurants, that makes you passionate about what you do?

Gene Harris, Senior Purchasing Manager, Denny’s: Food brings people together! I believe people eat with friends and family most of the time, sometimes business associates or potential customers if it is strictly business-related. People tend to relax when enjoying a meal, especially with friends or family. Having a nice meal can help you get to know an acquaintance or potential customer better; it is a necessity, but also a vehicle for connection.

A nice meal can satisfy your hunger or cravings. It can relax you by showcasing familiar foods you love or excite you by asking you to try something new. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and holidays centered around meals, and that makes food a human experience we should value in the highest regard. We remember the meals we had with those we love and good friends. Sharing a table makes a difference in how we create and recall memories.

Food is also a method for communicating stories, rituals, and talents. People often share parts of themselves by teaching others—spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends—how to cook or bake. Food can be a way of showing love to those we care about and value. I appreciate foodservice and fresh produce so much for this.

JO: I can see why you remain an amazing ambassador to the plate in our industry. I also observe how your passion is not divided between the personal and the professional. For you personally, what flavors are driving your own decisions at the plate when you dine?

GH: I love mostly leaner proteins, fresh veggies—raw or cooked—as well as comfort foods like macaroni and cheese. My wife, Annie, makes delicious spaghetti sauce and also beef chili with beans.

While I’m not a vegetarian (obviously), I do eat vegetarian meals and enjoy them. Annie and I both love salads as well, with and without traditional proteins. With a range of specialty produce and high-quality, year-round fruits and vegetables, salads are the new meeting place for flavor invention and exploration.

I also love Asian and Mexican cuisines, and I’m not opposed to a little heat either. Speaking of heat, I have both a charcoal and pellet-type smoker, so we occasionally have ribs and beef brisket, and I love seeing more and more dishes executed with this preparation variation. It gives food a unique texture and flavor that you can really play with.

Halibut, swordfish, butterfish (black cod), ling cod, king crab, and shrimp are amazing as well. I suppose what you probably should have asked was: What don’t I like?

JO: Agreed! I navigate food the same way. I love options and variety, combining interesting flavors, and there is always a drive to find comfort at the end of my fork, spoon, or knife. What are some of the larger flavor, health, texture, and behavior trends driving the decision-making at Denny’s?

GH: While I am not currently in Culinary Innovation—I was prior to moving into purchasing—our departments do work closely together, and our talented and creative team of chefs is always trying to balance healthy options with familiar comfort foods.

Protein items prepared in a familiar way—sometimes with a twist to make it a little different—continue to be a part of that vision. Skillet meals have been well-received at both breakfast and dinner since they are great at combining flavors and bringing a warmth and excitement to the palate that really transcends seasonality.

While fresh fruit on pancakes and French toast isn’t new, people of all ages love it still! It is important to allow some of the generational favorites to be honored with the opportunity to kick it up a notch periodically. And do not let me leave out the burgers. We have very good burgers, as well as melt sandwiches.

JO: I really should have asked that question after lunch, but such is the fate of our food-loving readership! Looking ahead, what are your hopes for the future of foodservice in terms of evolution and the impact on how the consumer eats?

GH: There is such a vast array of options now. I do believe the endless combinations of meat and fish proteins with fresh veggies—raw and cooked—along with fresh fruit will remain the mainstream favorite.

JO: I think it’s important we bring a combination of options to the consumer, like you mentioned. There is room for the roots that sustained us as well as for palate growth and evolution. Now, after looking forward, let’s look back. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the foodservice space since entering the industry?

GH: WOW, that is a loaded question! Technology easily stands out and has changed the way we do things in recent decades. When I started with Denny’s in Operations in 1986, the servers took orders with a pen and a ticket book; they hung the checks on an aluminum wheel, and the cooks pulled them off and lined them up in order. From there, we moved to point-of-sale (POS) ordering stations, which send the orders to a printer or screen in the kitchens that displays the orders. That simple shift in technology improved our quality control, pace, timing, and efficiency. We are looking forward to the next phase of technology in our restaurants to make dining more convenient for our guests.

And, speaking of kitchens, what about ghost kitchens and the new online-only concepts (OLO)? That’s all new within the past two to three years. Online ordering and delivery have exploded! Denny’s started doing OLO and delivery in 2017. We were the first Family Dining Brand to do so! This was fortunate timing as we spent the money to invest in the talent and training for the IT side. And just as important was the new to-go packaging that we developed! This allowed us to meet our guests where they are!

JO: Speaking of technology, do you have a strong impression of how that has impacted the suppliers you work with today?

GH: Technology has been amazing in helping farmers and growers be more efficient with regard to growing, monitoring, and harvesting their crops. Today, growers can laser-level fields prior to planting. Drip irrigation, plant tape, and plastic film bags with various oxygen transfer rates (OTR)—depending on the produce item—are also great innovations.

The use of drones to monitor field conditions and crop progress helped farmers make a substantial shift in their business models, and the exponential growth of indoor and hothouse growing in urban America is pretty amazing as well! If I take just the impact on soybean farmers with the latest technology in harvesting equipment, they can monitor the moisture content and yield-per-acre as they are harvesting the crop.

“Food is also a method for communicating stories, rituals, and talents. People often share parts of themselves by teaching others—spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends—how to cook or bake. Food can be a way of showing love to those we care about.”

Gene Harris, Senior Purchasing Manager, Denny’s

Technology is also helping the produce industry in the food safety arena, but this is an area where we are still really in the thick of improvement. We need to continue to strive to be better as an industry. I know many people are working in unison—the Center for Produce Safety and the various Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements, to name a couple—to improve the processes, guidelines, and tools. I think the future is bright if technology can keep up with the heightening demand for fresh food paired with the stresses on the supply chain.

On top of our essential food safety needs, we have consumers that want convenience, which translates to, “I want it yesterday.” Combined with freshness, which is understandable, and don’t forget quality, this is challenging—but our industry has a history of rising up to meet challenges! Growers do it all and with an item coming from California for a consumer in Syracuse, New York, in January! Returning to the advent of more indoor ag operations, I believe the exponential growth of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) and greenhouse growers will allow fresh fruits and veggies to be sourced by consumers in their given geographies. Technology speaks to the way we execute food production but also how we think—the same as innovation. There is a mindset we need to stay within in order to feed our world.

These are just some advancements off the top of my head, and each supplier is investing in new ways to differentiate themselves and make their food more sustainable and regenerative. It is a wonderful time to be in fresh produce.

JO: I have to imagine that your constant curiosity and desire to build relationships has given you this deep insight into the supply chain and also made “partnership” more than just business acumen to you. How do you see the nature of relationships in fresh produce today?

GH: With regard to relationships, I think the produce industry is still dependent on personal business relationships, more so than other industries. But frankly, I sense that changing.

I am certain the pandemic had a very negative effect on this aspect, along with many other things we took for granted. It seems like more and more people are communicating via email and text rather than picking up the phone. The personal touch is just that: personal! It makes a good impression on people and shows that you care.

I still think the produce industry is the best! I love the people in this industry and their passion. I’m grateful to have been in it for several years, and I look forward to a few more.

Gene Harris sees the opportunity for handshakes wherever he goes, whether it’s on the plate, in person, or on the phone. This personal touch he infuses in all he does is a testament to the success Denny’s experiences even in the most challenging of times.

And, lucky for us, his desire to break bread with change, evolution, and tradition is keeping the consumer invested and the fresh produce industry at the center of the game, namely, the plate. 

Bringing Purpose to the Plate: A Q&A With Gene Harris, Senior Purchasing Manager, Denny’s