Q&A – Joe Loiacano, Wendy’s senior manager of fresh produce.

Editor’s Note: At the 2016 Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, held in conjunction with the New York Produce Show in Manhattan, Loiacano accepted the inaugural FRESH IN PRODUCE Award from Jim Prevor, editor of PRODUCE BUSINESS. The award was bestowed on Wendy’s for its commitment to “outstanding industry collaboration, promotion and marketing of fresh produce.”

The following is an interview with Loiacano about the chain and its guiding principles.

Q: Tell me about the emphasis on fresh at Wendy’s and why that’s important to the brand.
A: The legacy of Dave Thomas is that he started with all fresh ingredients. They used to grind the burger meat in the store and make patties at the store level. They used only whole tomatoes, onions and lettuce. Every sandwich had the same thing on it. It was the standard and the company has maintained that all along. So Dave Thomas’s legacy, we’re just not going to mess with it.

Q: Was there ever a diversion from that fresh vision or has it stuck?
A: We’ve looked at pre-cut many times because of labor and so forth, and it just never pans out for us. I don’t know if we’ll ever make a change, but we’re constantly looking for the best-tasting product. For us that is switching from a yellow onion to a red onion, going from a green tomato to a vine-ripe, or changing our spring mix or our buns. We’re always looking.

Q: Tell us about the FIRST IN FRESH Award that you accepted on behalf of Wendy’s.
A: Well, I was significantly surprised, had no clue. But I think it validates what Wendy’s has done over the last 10 or 15 years, promoting salads and promoting fresh ingredients, from what it took for us to do the blackberry, strawberry salad … to revamping our entire salad structure and promoting the apple pecan salad. We don’t buy more apple slices than say my competition, but we buy more apple chunks than anybody in the country. The reason we do that is because we sell a very popular salad and it just continues to deliver day in and day out. We are selling a strawberry mango salad with honey citrus vinaigrette. I have to tell you the combination is really tasty. That’s the cool part. That’s the exciting part.

Q: What have you learned from the salad items on Wendy’s menu?
A: Every time we look at doing a new salad or some type of LTO (limited time offer) product, we look at items that are not traditional to our core menu. It could be something like watercress or something like a wild arugula that we would not normally promote. Then we look at the intricacies of the different products, the supply availability and the handling issues that will come along with it. A perfect example is mango. It’s a very high brix count, a very sweet fruit. We have to be able to get it in, get it out and get it turned. So that’s a product that we won’t allow for a mistake because a mistake can be very detrimental to the overall program. So we have to partner up with Fresh Point and Sysco to insist that we get the correct cut, time, date, ship and that everything is done correctly and our DCs are managed. So it’s kind of a pretty big deal, but because we already ship fresh strawberries and fresh berries, it’s almost like second nature.

Q: Have there been any fresh experiments that haven’t worked out for Wendy’s?
A: With everything we do, we think we are going to be the very, very best. We found out last year our customers were expecting in May to get a summer berry salad or a summer fruit salad. With blackberries, we had to wait until the third week in June before we could even start bringing the fruit in. That kind of caused us some issues. I think had we been able to get the product we needed and started in May and June, we would have slayed it. It was a very successful program. We exceeded our numbers. But me personally, I was expecting double. So I guess that was one I was a little disappointed in, but overall it met our expectations.

Q: Are there fresh menu items that surprised you and did better than expected?
A: Obviously, jalapeno fresco on the chicken sandwich. We did a spicy guacamole, spicy chicken sandwich promotion and we used more guacamole in eight weeks than we did in the previous two years, just by saying it was available. I think sometimes that’s really what is takes, just telling people what you have versus giving it away.

Q: How do you think Wendy’s compares to the rest of the industry? Is the industry taking your lead?
A: I think so. You’ve got McDonald’s testing fresh ground beef, promoting salads. It’s flattering to have people mimic what you do. On the flip side, we really don’t look at everybody else and what they’re doing. We look at what we can be doing and what our next steps to get to those levels should be. It’s flattery, it’s complimentary when Panera Bread runs a strawberry salad after we introduce ours. On the flip side, we don’t run a salad based on what anyone else is doing. We don’t promote a burger or chicken sandwich based on anyone else. We think, based on what we’re seeing from white-tablecloth restaurants that spicy was the way to go. So that’s why we did what we did.
Doing toppings on fries, we just thought it was a comfort food for a consumer. Who doesn’t like bacon and cheese on fries?

Q: Moving forward, what are your goals for fresh?
A: Well we always maintain a continuous supply of our approved products. We don’t go outside that mantra. I’m looking at always adding additional or new growers that can supply product according to our specifications. We’re looking for the best-flavored product, whether it’s a fruit or vegetable. We’re concerned about the best technology, the best growing, the best seed varieties — characteristics that will give us the best product. Most of our consumers probably have no clue about some of the things we do, and we understand that. The proof is in the consistency of the sales and the traffic. People can promote that they sell the biggest chicken breast sandwich, but we know we do. We just don’t pound our chest.

Q: Anything to add?
A: I’m just very grateful to the produce business and the New York Produce Show for recognizing Wendy’s. It’s just pretty exciting to be the first to get this award. It means a lot to Wendy’s, and it means a lot to me. I really appreciate it.