Juan Acosta is the executive chef at the Motion Picture & Television Fund, a retirement community assisting former members of the entertainment industry, including three restaurants that offer a full-service experience to residents at dinner.
As soon as he enrolled in Compass Group USA’s Imperfectly Delicious Produce program, Acosta had a feeling there would be critics. Two of them to be exact.
“My biggest complainers, when they heard about what I was doing they gave me an earful,” Acosta says. “I served them the food and I asked ‘How is it?’ And they said, ‘Oh, these carrots are delicious. And this peanut salad and everything is great.’ I said ‘So you like it, right?’ I came back and showed them the product and said, ‘This is what you’re eating.’ They were really surprised.”
Acosta’s experience, while on a small scale, provides an accurate window into Compass Group’s IDP program, which currently operates in 16 states, and hopes to spread nationally by December 2016. Christine Seitz, the vice president of culinary at Compass Group business excellence, says it’s all about perception.
“If you think about it, it’s grocery stores that have helped set the standard of what produce should look like,” she says. “With restaurants and people in contract food service, we’re cutting and chopping that product up. What’s important to us is that we’re getting fresh, local, and seasonal produce. It can be misshapen.”
Simply, don’t judge spinach by its cover.
Thinking outside the visual box can change the face of farming, Seitz says. In the short term, it can save water, combat food waste, and help growers re-think agricultural practices. That’s more than enough for Compass, a foodservice management and support services company that has more than 220,000 associates in North America, and subsidiary Bon Appetit Management Company to continue expanding a program that began in April 2014.
Seitz says the team gathered and tried to figure out how to save produce that was being left behind for superficial reasons. The “learning” states were California and Washington. “Essentially with IDP we’ve created our own grade of produce. There’s no grading system out there for what we’re trying to capture,” she says.
The group headed to Church Brothers Farm in Salinas, California, and surveyed the field. Some questions started popping up.
“When we saw the spinach, we proposed the question to them. What if you let this grow another week?” Seitz recalls. “We would consider buying that. And they’re like, ‘Let’s look into it.’ They were so open about it. It was great.”
Initially, working out the kinks wasn’t easy. The possibilities were transparent but the concepts weren’t. Seitz says the processes involved were a work in progress, and still are to some degree.
“Some of our challenges have been with the ordering system and not with the product. I would say more of our challenges are with getting the systems in place than with them actually using the product,” she explains. “They’re happy when they get their product. It’s great product.”
And everyone, from chefs to growers to distributors, and even the most critical customers, marvel at the numbers. Acosta says when he first saw the report, although he had his suspicions, he couldn’t believe how deep the impact truly was.
During the onboarding stage, 221,000 pounds of produce were saved. The group estimates that for every pound of vegetables rescued, 20 gallons of water are kept from being wasted. That means 4.4 million gallons of water were saved before the program even expanded.
“I couldn’t believe from doing something as simple as this you’re saving so much water,” says Acosta, who deals with California’s drought-related struggles on a daily basis. “It’s really great.”
Acosta has seen the program grow and improve each week—something that’s led to its quick and smooth expansion into Texas and New England. Originally, Acosta had trouble ordering the produce. He also wasn’t sure what would be available and, like many chefs involved, wanted more variety.
“At the beginning, it was kind of confusing because we really didn’t have an availability list,” he says. “It was kind of hard to get it, but slowly but surely it got a lot better.” Getting patrons and chefs to move past their produce prejudice is simply going to take time and convincing, Acosta says.
“You hear imperfect and a lot of people don’t know what to think or what to make of that. They don’t really understand what it means,” he adds. “Some of them thought we were going to the dumpsters and picking out the stuff.”
Acosta says he’s had chefs who thought he was buying inferior product to keep costs down. That changes once the cooking begins.
“If we compare apples to apples, there’s really not that much difference,” he says.
In fact, some of the produce is even better, Acosta explains. When he made his first order, he received fingerling potatoes that showed up as a mix of colors and sizes. As soon as Acosta chopped them or roasted them, either for potato salads or as a side, nobody could tell.
He’s worked with carrots, some he says don’t even look like the same vegetable. Some were round, others were crooked. Either way, it didn’t make any difference in the end. “I actually got comments about those,” Acosta says. “People told me they tasted better than regular ones.”
Spinach, instead of looking uniform, comes in radically different sizes. There’s crisp outer leaves of lettuce initially tossed to form a perfectly shaped head; baby kale mixes; mushrooms that Acosta combines to make a “delicious” cream of mushroom soup; broccoli fines (also great for soup); beets; recently added cauliflower; and more. The menu continues to expand and has always been seasonal, Acosta says.
The program is following weather patterns in its growth, Seitz says. They’ll start to move to the warmer states as the winter approaches. She adds that it took about nine months before they had a system in place that would work seamlessly, and that they start with 40 to 50 accounts per state out of the gate.
“We’re thrilled meeting with these local farmers and national distributors,” she says. “They welcome us with open arms. They work with us. There is so much support for our program and we couldn’t do it without them. I hope that everyone walks away knowing that’s it’s just the right thing to do. And I’m glad that Compass Group asked the right questions and put the resources forward to make this happen.”