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Stars Among Seeds: A Q&A with Julie Olivarria, Vice President of Produce, Sysco

Stars Among Seeds: A Q&A with Julie Olivarria, Vice President of Produce, Sysco

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

The inarguable truth of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s immortal words rang in my mind as Julie Olivarria painted lines for me between well-laid plans to galvanize change, perpetuate sustainability, and realize potential.

As the Vice President of Produce for Sysco, Julie knows all about goals and the strategizing it takes to realize them, and she was kind enough to let me navigate the map of the amazing mind that is this organization. Settle in as desires become actionable gains we all might follow.

 


Melissa De Leon Chavez: Julie, while much of the industry has been incorporating sustainability into its strategies, Sysco has a very unique tool on its belt. Can you tell me a bit about that and fresh produce’s significance in it?

Julie Olivarria: Sysco was the first foodservice distributor to develop our own sustainable agriculture program in 2004 and has continued to advance best practices, expanding the program to its fresh produce supply chain. We initially planned on growing our sustainable agriculture program to include at least five fresh crop commodities. Today, we have exceeded our goal and doubled it to include 10 fresh crops. Our sourcing team is working closely with our industry partners to identify and award business to those growers that operate with sustainability not only in mind, but in practice. We also have several initiatives in the pipeline to promote and expand sustainable offerings sourced from local farms in each of our markets.

Sysco has a history of having the highest standards for quality in our industry. However, the execution of our programs can always be improved. This means ensuring that our sites are purchasing and handling products with both the customer experience and the mitigation of waste in mind. It also means utilizing post-harvest technologies where appropriate to help extend shelf-life, thereby reducing waste for our end users. All these things ultimately help keep good produce on plates and out of landfills, which we have committed to diverting by up to 90 percent in the next few years.

We all have a part to play in reducing waste and leaving our planet better than how we found it; we are excited that the produce category has a key role in helping Sysco meet its 2025 corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals.


MDC: It sounds as though partnership, too, has a big part to play in this strategy. What are some of the unsung advantages of fresh and foodservice partnerships that we might lean into more as the industry explores varying avenues of growth?

JO: Collaboration as an industry is a must. From our chefs, we get insights into the food trends of tomorrow. From our customers, we gain an understanding of how best to go to market and what packs and sizes make sense as our product gets into foodservice production. Distributors tie it all together with efficiency in mind. Let’s face it, nothing is possible without the hard work of our grower community. Identifying opportunities needed to move our category into the future takes all of us working together.


MDC: So true, and that togetherness has felt especially crucial over the past few years. Most recently, inflation has left no market untouched—but some food categories have seen higher prices than others. Could this be an advantage to the fresh side?

JO: It is true that all categories have seen their fair share of inflationary trends. However, there is no better value in today’s market than fresh, unprocessed produce.

Predictions from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service show fresh produce to be on track to increase by 7–8 percent in 2022. This is roughly half the inflation of other categories of fresh and further processed goods, which look to increase by as much as 13.5 percent in 2022. For one of the first times in our history, we are also seeing greater inflation in the “food-at-home” sector (up 13.1 percent since 2021) than we are in the “food-away-from-home” sector (up 7.6 percent since 2021)(Source). Simply put, now is a great time to patron one of your local restaurants and order a nice big salad.

For our part, Sysco is committed to taking meaningful cost out of the procurement and operational process. This allows us to pass the savings along to customers and fund innovation. We took the downturn of COVID-19 as an opportunity to better define and deploy best practices for our category. At our scale, something as simple as reorganizing vendors so that our trucks make fewer stops on their West Coast-originating produce loads can literally take millions of dollars in costs out of our distribution model over the course of a year. This allows us to be far more efficient and, ultimately, provide a more competitive price for consumers—this is just one of many changes made in the last few years.

“Let’s face it, nothing is possible without the hard work of our grower community. Identifying opportunities needed to move our category into the future takes all of us working together.”

Julie Olivarria, Vice President of Produce, Sysco


MDC: Our industry—and the economy as a whole—has certainly evolved rapidly since 2019. Are there any other practices from this period of change Sysco can see sticking around?

JO: Since 2019, we have seen a dramatic shift in the buying habits of our customers, particularly as it pertains to produce and other fresh categories. For the better part of two years, many of our markets endured a constant barrage of on-again, off-again mandates that impacted our customers’ ability to operate with any sense of continuity over time.

Customers that once looked to buy fresh items in bulk were asking about smaller pack sizes, not because they were necessarily serving less—though some certainly were—but because they simply did not want to take on the liability of a cooler full of product not knowing if they would be allowed to be open the following week. This approach is continuing today, and we are currently more focused on smaller and different pack sizes than we ever have been.


MDC: Another more organic change I noticed is which fresh items are rising in popularity. Consumers are making different purchase choices around which fruits and veg they love. How can we continue the positive momentum fresh produce is seeing as items like Brussels sprouts and celery shift appetites?

JO: The best way to continue the positive momentum we are currently enjoying is to present fresh produce as part of the overall plate, not just a standalone category. This might be a bit controversial, but the success of Brussels sprouts over the past five years would not have been possible without the addition of other ingredients, including bacon. They are two fantastic products that go exceptionally well together.

To be successful, we must be willing and able to effectively cross-merchandise with other categories. Sysco’s strength is in its ability to provide deep expertise through our culinary team to offer exciting ideas to complement entrées with fresh produce or innovative ways to prepare plant-based meals.

“...Sysco is committed to taking meaningful cost out of the procurement and operational process. This allows us to pass the savings along to customers and fund innovation.”


MDC: Just talking about these combos has my imagination and stomach hungry! What are some fresh foods you would like to see showcased more on the plate and why?

JO: We’ve really been excited about mangos lately. It is not a category in which we, or any other broadline operator, really excel; but that’s part of the fun. We see the success of mangos in retail over the last few years and, by the numbers, it is a category that could easily take off just like avocados did these past 20 years. The foodservice sector certainly has some catching up to do, but we expect great things out of this category in the future.


As de Saint-Exupéry observed in The Little Prince, “What makes the desert beautiful, is that somewhere it hides a well…” Likewise, what makes our industry intriguing is the chase; questing for the next star among the seeds, seeing a desire achieved as the steps to reach it fall into place.

It is this spirit that steers Sysco—and those who lead it—toward transforming potential wishes into attainable goals, showing us all what is possible. 

Stars Among Seeds: A Q&A with Julie Olivarria, Vice President of Produce, Sysco