Asparagus is the new green bean on restaurant menus.
“Every restaurant serves some sort of asparagus dish,” said Bruce Klein, director of marketing for South Hackensack, N.J.-based Maurice A. Auerbach Inc., which distributes to mid-Atlantic retailers and foodservice distributors.
“Chefs like it because they know they can get it year-round, and they trust the quality we give them,” said Klein.
Tom Travers, general manager of Miami-based Harvest Sensations, said foodservice asparagus volumes have been softer since the beginning of the year, but he hoped things would pick up as Easter approached.
“I think it’s because a lot of people are buying direct from Mexico at a great price,” said Travers, who distributes to restaurants as far west as Houston and north to Boston and Chicago.
He also blames the high price of gas.
“I’m no economist,” he said, “but when people put that extra dollar or two a gallon in their tank they come up shorter when it comes time to go to a higher-end restaurant that serves asparagus.”
He takes comfort, however, knowing that when prices skyrocketed in the past, young people accustomed to restaurants continued to eat out, though they may have chosen a less expensive restaurant.
Travers said he’s seen a shift from green beans to asparagus, both economical so far this year.
Bill Tarleton, director of marketing and communication for Oxnard, Calif.-based Mission Produce Inc., said per capita asparagus usage in the U.S. has more than doubled in the past decade, from just over half a pound per person to 1.3 pounds annually.
“According to the experts, that trend is going to continue, and asparagus will remain a huge item on restaurant menus, high end and lower,” he said.
When it comes to size, every restaurant has its own preference.
“Standard and large are still the standard bearers, but some chefs like thin stalks and steak houses want jumbo,” Klein said.
Earl Herrick, owner of Earl’s Organic Produce in the San Francisco wholesale produce market, said his retail and restaurant customers are also particular about size, and he’s seeing a growing market for asparagus tips.
“They’re priced higher,” he said, “but some customers feel it’s worth it instead of paying $3 to $4 when they’re just going to snap off the bottom.”
Asparagus tips also help the grower, Herrick said, since they always have cracked or broken stalks they can now trim and sell as a value-added item.