7 of the past 9 years, the Provender Alliance annual conference has been held at the Hood River Inn. We’ve developed a unique relationship with Provender whose mission to nourish, educate and inspire while promoting community in the natural products trade, aligns with my values as a chef, and is practiced in Riverside’s kitchen.
What makes this conference so unusual is that Provender sources donations for 90% of ingredients used in meal preparation, and over the course of the conference, Riverside creates and serves nine meals.
“Every other place we’ve held the conference, we’ve had to reestablish our needs each year. At the Hood River Inn, we’ve enjoyed working with the same people year after year, so we haven’t had to reinvent the wheel, “ says Susan Schechter. Executive Director of Provender Alliance. “They’ve learned the ins and outs of our event, and strive to make it better each year. That’s priceless.”
We have seemed to develop a good system with a cooperative team that’s always working to improve. Initially, Provender set up menus and asked us to create a shopping list that they could source as much as possible with donations. Now we create the menu and give Provender the shopping list. Then Susan and Mellissa Elkins (who sources ingredients and helps at the conference) go over menus together to ensure every dietary need can be met. Provender conference attendees run the gamut for dietary restrictions — for example, raw vegans, soy-free, dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free, grain-free — and we attempt to meet them all with selections in each meal.
Susan and Melissa usually suggest some menu tweaks, then Riverside prepares the final shopping list. Melissa, who works at Bellingham’s Community Food Co-op, (a gigantic supporter of Provender) solicits donations from members and supporters of the organization, gaining assistance from Susan if she runs into challenges. With Melissa’s magic, only 10% of ingredients are actually purchased.
If Provender is significantly about food, we always want to know, how is the food? “The Hood River Inn’s meals have been excellent–exceptional,” Susan explains. “We are a food organization, and the meals get better every year. We receive a lot of evaluations rating conference meals 4s, 5s and 5+s on 1-5 scale. And so they should!”
Provender Alliance , founded in Oregon in 1977, is composed of over 150 members, primarily from the Northwest, but with national and international members making up about 15% of the alliance.
Members represent retailers, manufacturers, brokers, distributors, consultants, and individuals, all under the categories of food, supplements and body care products in a wide range of business models, from sole proprietors or mom & pop operations, to national and international brands.
Last month, more than 260 people attended the Provender Alliance conference, which features keynote speakers, panels covering current issues, educational sessions, a “Meet Your Maker” event, and social functions.
If our banquet staff receives questions from prospective meeting attendants about specific dietary needs, Susan has volunteered to be used as a reference. “They totally have it down. They’ve been able to ace every limitation,” Susan promises. “Ask and they will provide!”
Susan reflects on the 2014 event: “At the conference, I am always amazed and humbled at the level of integrity our members have. Some have been in business over 50 years, and still value their Provender membership.”
Susan emphasizes that it comes down to basics. “It’s all about food. It has to be great and Hood River Inn and Chef Mark have made that possible, year after year.”