(June 3) From the quickservice segment to white-tablecloth establishments, the foodservice business is booming for berries.
Growers and shippers are only too happy to fill any needs those restaurants have, marketing agents said.
Perhaps the most remarkable growth area for berries in the restaurant sector is fast food, said Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Oregon Blueberry Commission, Salem.
“It’s probably true with most everything, not just fast food, but it is noticeable,” he said. “It’s so much recognition of blueberry as a very unique fruit item. What replaced the old USDA Pyramid, there aren’t a lot of blue things to be consumed. All the antioxidant components coming together. Blueberries have caught everybody’s interest.”
Berries are finding their way into all manner of offerings on restaurant menus, both quick-serve and other types, Ostlund said.
“Now, you’ll find blueberries in fruit juices, formulations, candy bars, even alcoholic beverages,” he said. “It’s in everything. You’ve got blueberry muffins, granola bars, everything. Really, as the manufacturers tried new formulations, we couldn’t ramp up fast enough. It’s an interesting moment in time for the blueberry industry.”
Chefs are always looking for new ways to use berries in their own formulations, marketing agents note.
As an example, New Jersey chefs met with berry growers in early April, said Bob Von Rohr, marketing and customer relations manager for Glassboro, N.J.-based Sunny Valley International Inc.
“It’s a way to connect chefs with sustainable producers,” Von Rohr said. “They basically have a meeting every year, sponsored by the New Jersey Organic Farming Association, and they have panel discussions, a complimentary meal, and each business has the opportunity to introduce themselves.
“It’s a nice thing to help educate area chefs as to what’s happening in New Jersey. It’s certainly an opportunity for producers and buyers to meet one-on-one.”
The Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission also works closely with chefs, said Mary DeGroat, commission spokeswoman.
“Last year, our significant event was to invite chefs from the top 200 chains to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Calif., for a two-day exclusive strawberry symposium, where they learned all about the industry,” DeGroat said. “They met with our growers and processors and brainstormed new ideas, recipes. Thirty-three different recipes for strawberries came out of that.”
The commission plans to have the event again this year, June 1-3.
“We’ll accommodate 18 chefs, again from the top 200 chains,” DeGroat said. “(We’ll be) teaching them about strawberries, getting them to think about strawberries in new ways and expand their thinking beyond the typical desserts and smoothies.”
The commission is also working on overcoming logistical hurdles in the fast-food business, DeGroat added.
“We’re looking at ways to move fresh strawberries through the complexities of those channels,” she said. “Those chains need a few extra days to move fresh strawberries through their systems, so we’re working on solutions for that.”
Berry marketers find foodservice to be a ready partner, said Keith Mixon, president of Sunnyridge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla.
“Blueberries have enjoyed a lot of success recently in foodservice channel,” Mixon said. “We did go after some foodservice groups.”
Crispers LLC, a restaurant chain owned by retailer Publix Super Markets, ran a blueberry promotion last summer, Mixon said.
“It was quite successful,” he said. “They feature a lot of salads and lunch-type items on their menu, and we’re looking forward to doing it again.”
Other restaurants are doing blueberry promotions, as well, Mixon said.
“But Crispers was unique because it featured fresh berries,” he said.
MBG Marketing, a Grand Junction, Mich.-based berry organization, has noticed gains in the foodservice sector, said Frank Bragg, chief executive officer.
The group is promoting both fresh and frozen berries in foodservice, Bragg said.
“We’ve also formed a new partnership on frozen side, so we expect to continue to push our foodservice business and grow that business over time, particularly in fresh,” he said. “That’s what the consumer is looking for — more fresh options.”
The menu options for fresh are many and varied, Bragg noted.
“I think salad is where we see the great opportunity is today,” he said. “It’s an interesting concept. Obviously, blueberries will provide color and taste and excitement to a salad dish. But as chefs work on new ideas, you’re going to see more blueberries on main-plate offerings as well. You’ll also find sauces and salsas (featuring berries).”
Mark Villata, executive director with the Folsom, Calif.-based North American Blueberry Council, said the foodservice business has picked up on the fresh side.
“It’s always been a good market for frozen, but we’re also seeing a lot of new applications with fresh,” he said. “Country Kitchen ran some promotions last year. We had a blueberry lemonade and blueberries with pancakes. We did some work with Crispers … We had blueberry salad, blueberry pomegranate iced tea that went very well.”
Efforts in foodservice are intensifying this year, Villata said.
“We’re putting a little more emphasis into our foodservice promotion activities,” he said. “This year, we have a couple in the works with chains. We might do the Crispers program again. We also have some big cafeteria feeders we’re talking with.
“Last year, we ran some promotions with Compass Group and (France-based) Sodexo cafeteria system. There, we had a contest where we were encouraging to add blueberries to menu items during the promotional period.”
On the cranberry side, foodservice business has long been strong, said David Farrimond, executive director of the Cranberry Marketing Committee, Wareham, Mass.
“That was an area we had earlier on,” he sad. “A few years back, we really put a push on, and that has paid off.”