Freebie Jeebies

SYSCO Food Services of Arizona's annual food service exhibition came off without a hitch the other week -- great for SYSCO and its vendors, but a bit disappointing for the industry folks hoping to stock their pantries for free as they've done in years past. Instead of being allowed to plunder and pillage food displays at the show's closing, attendees this year were turned away with empty shopping bags.

The reason: Those dastardly folks at SYSCO decided at the last second that the homeless citizens of the Valley needed the mountains of free eats more than our local chefs and food service professionals. Imagine -- instead of going home in chefs' duffels, leftovers went to St. Vincent de Paul. Oh, sure, such a gesture serves the community and all, but it also quashes the unbridled mayhem that always resulted within seconds of the show's 3 p.m. end. In the past, SYSCO's displays -- particularly produce -- became a free-for-all, with attendees climbing over each other to snag designer fruits and veggies. It was a sick delight to behold, with white-uniformed kitchen staffers literally knocking each other aside as they clawed for porcini mushrooms.

The change came as a surprise to everyone. On the first day of this year's two-day event, SYSCO produce managers were gearing up for full-on assault -- the guy manning the tomato stand predicted chefs would swoop on his specialty fruit, including tear drop, grape, hydroponic and hot house varieties. On the second day, the crowd was ready, too, skulking like vultures outside the 10 tents housing broccolini, cactus leaves, baby beets, fresh herbs, Pink Lady apples, mangoes, star fruit, purple potatoes, yellow and blue oyster mushrooms and lobster mushrooms. A few women even packed in baby carriages stocked with burlap sacks. But no such luck. At 3:01, SYSCO produce director John Migala suddenly directed his team to ward off the masses.

Value wasn't an issue, Migala had assured me the day before, with most of the $5,000 worth of produce donated by SYSCO's vendors. Health codes weren't a concern, as he was "sure" food professionals would only take items for their personal use -- although I wonder what type of food pro would really want perishable ingredients that had been on open-air display and fondled by visitors for two days.

SYSCO simply feels that donating the food to charity is the right thing to do from now on, says Migala, adding that next year, scavengers will be told in advance to leave their sacks at home. And of course it is the right thing, even if it means that the Valley's local production of When Chefs Attack has been canceled.


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