Southeast Produce Council Chairman Steve Pinkston is one of those hard-to-find produce professionals who knows the game from both sides.
He is Director of Business Development at Sunny Valley International of Glassboro, NJ, representing that firm from his home in Spencer, NC. Before that, he was on the buying side, holding various management positions with Walmart Stores, Inc. for more than 20 years, including six years with Sam’s Club big box stores and a decade at HQ in Bentonville, AK as Senior Buyer/Category Manager in produce for both Sam’s Club and Walmart Supercenter. Before that he spent 19 years with Food Lion Stores, Inc. in operations and buying.
In it’s 20th anniversary year, SEPC has a history of great volunteer leadership, but Pinkston’s round-the-horn experience may well make him uniquely qualified to understand the needs of all players in the industry.
We caught up with Steve to get his thoughts about the upcoming Southern Exposure Expo and tradeshow March 6-9 at Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort in Orlando:
SPW – Things seem to get busy for SEPC Chairpersons this time of year Steve… what does this do to your schedule? As the show gets closer, everything takes on a new sense of urgency, everything is the most important thing.
PINKSTON – It sure does. Being chairman this year there will be less time to walk around the show and more time taking care of SEPC business. I’m looking very much forward to being there. I’ve been in retail for most of my time with SEPC and now I’m on the marketing side of it. This is one of the best industry conferences you can attend whether you’re a grower-shipper or a retailer. For a retailer it’s very personal and it’s very productive because you have time to walk around and talk to the suppliers that are there and the show is not so large you can’t get to everyone.
SPW — I would think as a buyer this show helps you do part of your job by winnowing down the prospect pool to a certain degree.
PINKSTON — It gives you more time to look at new stuff that’s out there, that’s key. One thing we have this year is the Innovation Stations and the Bright Ideas platform as well, you can look at the new things coming up as a buyer and it gives the grower-shipper a chance to tout those new things to buyers.
SPW – And of course there is a famous waiting list for new exhibitors at this show. Limiting that number is a major reason for the success of Southern Exposure. Does that give a buyer confidence to know as he comes to this show and walks that floor he’s dealing with the cream of the crop?
PINKSTON — I think so, yeah. You have to be careful how you make that statement – there are a lot of great grower-shippers out there that are trying to get into the show and can’t just due to space. But the suppliers and the marketers that we have presenting are some of the best in the industry bar none and their ability to connect with the retail/foodservice group is even better because of the limited number of booths. The purpose of SEPC is to promote the consumption of produce in the Southeast through fellowship, cooperation and mutual interest among its members. That kind of nails it together right there. We’re all there for one purpose. It takes the grower-shippers and the buyers and sellers to get out there to make all that happen. And what a great place to make it happen. This year, being the 20th anniversary, we’re going to highlight farm-to-store experiences based on a new community-centric expo we’re setting up. It really shows that we’re there for one purpose, to make sure the experience at retail that will drive sales of fresh produce happens.
SPW — As this show has grown and prospered it has diversified – there’s never a Southern Exposure or Southern Innovations where I don’t hear people who are surprised to see so many faces from California and Canada and everywhere else.
PINKSTON — When you look at the retail food business in the Southeast there are companies that buy tremendous amounts of product, so we need all the growing areas engaged. And the growers need facetime with the retailers.
SPW – I’ve had the privilege of knowing and talking to a decade worth of SEPC volunteer leaders like yourself. They all have told me that the organization of the council, the support and structure of the leadership chain, the programs that are in place – and the amazing support they receive from the SEPC staff – have made the chairman’s job much easier than it might otherwise be.
PINKSTON – Absolutely. I can’t give enough kudos to the Board of Directors and the Board of Governors and I also have to take my hat off to [Council Executive Director and President] David [Sherrod] and his team because they really make it easy for us as far as keeping us focused on what’s important. David does a great job of administrating and organizing and making sure everything’s taken care of for these events to happen. So it’s really a joy to serve. There is time consumed, there is work to be done, but if you like what you’re doing, you don’t consider it work. It’s a privilege and an honor just to be able to serve.
SPW – Let’s talk about this particular show. We’ve got some interesting focal points. Dr. Travis Stork as the keynote – that reflects a direction that as an industry is something we can capitalize on, the promise of food as medicine, the incredible research and medical news about the products we grow and sell. A lot of us are in this industry because we want to be making a positive impact on the world, but we also have the opportunity to utilize those as a marketing advantage.
PINKSTON – The people in the industry have always known about the qualities and health values of produce. When you look at it from a marketing side, with the keynote speaker – and we also have Dr. James Hebert from the University of South Carolina, creator of the Dietary Inflammatory Index, talking about the healing benefits of produce also – it’s really great to get out there and be able to show that to the public, which in turn should increase consumption.
SPW – I’m seeing elements of the industry coalesce and come together and begin to understand the power of this marketing message.
PINKSTON — What’s really a good thing right now is we have these organizations reaching out to the SEPC and getting us engaged in some of their campaigns to promote healthy living.
SPW – Which again promotes consumption. I don’t know as a nation if we can eat any more beef, pork, chicken or even grain than we do, but Americans can certainly make more room for produce on their plate.
PINKSTON – There’s always an opportunity to promote that consumption within, but we need to get behind the right items that are out there and the health values behind all of the items in produce to make it part of a growing dietary decision that consumers make.
SPW – What are you looking forward to most at the show?
PINKSTON – Being there for the expo to see what’s new and coming out. Visiting with the industry professionals that we deal with on a day-to-day basis and seeing them firsthand – visiting with our friends and family so to speak. And we’ve really enhanced our educational series. We have The Healing Benefits of Produce, the annual Power of Produce presentation, Southern Roots for women in the industry, a food safety session and a marketing session to teach us how to better sell product. It’s all about the healing power of produce and how to keep it safe and how to market it to our consumers. We’ve got a great program set up this year.