A higher price point sometimes has held asparagus back in the restaurant sector, but the vegetable is popping up in more menus at new venues, marketers say.
“For a massive restaurant and supply chain and pricing, you might not see it at the lower-end restaurants, but you see it at higher-end restaurants all the time,” said Peter Warren, marketing and sales director at Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Ayco Farms Inc.
Recent “downward pressure” on pricing may open a few more restaurant doors to asparagus, however, Warren said.
“We’re having more volumes at better pricing than ever before, so that does play well for more in foodservice,” he said.
Overall, though, the product cost does remain a daunting hurdle in foodservice, said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board in DeWitt.
“The biggest is that when most foodservice folks look at asparagus and figure out what it costs to put a serving of asparagus on a plate vs. corn, peas or beans, they become a little less excited about doing that,” he said.
However, Michigan asparagus can be found in restaurants, he said.
Todd Greiner, CEO of Hart, Mich.-based grower-shipper, said his company is seeing an increase in foodservice sales.
“Our foodservice seems to be growing every year,” he said, noting that his company offers a shorter spear called the Michigan Tender Tip — a 7-inch spear that is “some of the nicer asparagus that comes off the lines.”
James Paul, director of sales and marketing for Stockton, Calif.-based Greg Paul Produce Sales Inc., gauged his company’s foodservice sales in the middling range.
“It’s fair; they’re steady, consistent,” he said.
It meets expectations, Paul said.
“We’ve seen some good support from foodservice purveyors and seen some no-support,” he said. “It’s specific to the programs you have and foodservice purveyors want to make sure they have some locally grown product.”
Asparagus is making its way into some restaurant formats for the first time, said Chloe Varennes, marketing manager with Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co.
“Asparagus is no longer an item that is only found at high end restaurants. It has been adopted by casual dining and fast-food restaurants within recent years,” she said.
Some restaurants see it as a way to “either up-sell their customers on a more high end vegetable or give the impression that they are more high end,” she said.
For organic asparagus, the challenge is greater because the product’s price is generally higher, said Sal Pacheco, salesman with Double D Farms, an organic asparagus grower-shipper in Coalinga, Calif.
“Actually, there’s a few but not as much as retail because of the price,” he said.
The California Asparagus Commission, based in El Centro, is placing a heavy marketing emphasis on the foodservice sector, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director.
“The commission sees the most leverage from our generic promotion dollars in this arena,” she said.
The commission manages ongoing programs with produce distributors and restaurants in conjunction with locally grown efforts, Watte Angulo said.
“California asparagus is a harbinger of spring and menu developers are anxious to feature our product on their spring menus,” she said.
A key to foodservice sales always has been ensuring a consistent supply is available, and that is getting easier to do, said Marc Marchini, a partner in Stockton, Calif.-based A.M. Farms and the president of the California Asparagus Commission.
“Foodservice is getting more and more accepting of asparagus because it’s more of a year-round situation,” he said, noting that it was common to consider asparagus a seasonal item in the past.”
Foodservice also is a ready market for larger sizes that retailers might not want, Marchini said.
“It’s much easier to take care of, easier to preserve — that is, you can keep it longer in your refrigerator before it starts to break down,” he said.
Larger spears also are easier for restaurants to monitor, Marchini said.
“When people see asparagus on the menus, and everybody is gung-ho for it, it works out good for them,” he said.