(May 5) Asparagus appears to have its ups and downs as the economy fluctuates, but business remains steady — even growing — in restaurants, marketing agents say.

“Asparagus is pretty much tailor-made for the foodservice market,” said Cherie Watte, executive director of the Stockton-based California Asparagus Commission. “We work with foodservice people in how to store and prepare asparagus. We’re also working with regional and national chains to get it featured on menus.”

Restaurant experiences with asparagus help break down barriers to retail purchases of the product, Watte said.

“If we can get the consumer to eat it when they’re out, we think they’ll buy it at home and we’ll build per-capita consumption,” she said.

Some asparagus marketers say they’re excited about the prospects of a big year in foodservice.

“This year, we’re going to have an unbelievable year,” said Charlie Eagle, the Atlanta-based vice president of business development for Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Southern Specialties Inc. “We’ve seen asparagus in chain restaurants, in white-tablecloth restaurants, in institutional settings, private dining rooms, office buildings, corporate foodservice.”

That growth is bound to continue in the long term, said Larelle Miller, saleswoman for All State Packers Inc., Lodi, Calif., and Randy Vande Guchte, president of Hudsonville, Mich.-based Superior Sales Inc.

“That business has been steadily growing,” Vande Guchte said. “You’re seeing all your retailers and foodservice operators trying to support the homegrown deals. Foodservice people will get information to local chefs, so the public will know this asparagus is locally grown and the local product will get support from people who are eating out.”

Diners are especially apt or order asparagus that’s grown nearby, Vande Guchte said.

“Locally grown is well supported,” he said. “We’re finding that out of more and more items in Michigan.”

Steady business is a double-edged proposition, however, said Leo Rolandelli, president of San Francisco-based Jacobs, Malcolm and Burtt Inc.

“It’s very steady but if the product is not available and they start going to alternatives — broccoli, carrots, beans, etc.,” he said. “Once they do that, they don’t come back.”

Availability is crucial, agreed Don Hessel, general manager of Oxnard, Calif.-based Mission Produce Inc.

“A lot of restaurants are starting to feature asparagus on their plates on their main menus,” he said. “I also think that what’s helping is that asparagus is now available year-round.”