(Sept. 4) Improved same-store sales, plans to make capital expenditures and a more positive economic outlook resulted in a record 1.7% July increase in the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Performance Index.

Some of the fuel for that drive came in the form of fresh produce, said Hudson Riehle, Washington, D.C.-based NRA’s senior vice president of research and information.

“The palate of the American consumer is becoming more sophisticated as the years march by,” he said. “The consumer is much more cognizant of the freshness of produce and the quality of meals.”

He said consumers’ desire to purchase more nutritious items at the foodservice level is encouraging those in the industry to offer more fresh fruit desserts and side dishes.

“With the consumer so educated, it’s sort of hard to lower the bar,” he said.

He said fresh produce items might be becoming the baseline expectation. Therefore, foodservice operators must offer new fresh produce items to stay competitive.

Fresh lettuce, as indicative of the fast-food industry, has become a popular choice.

Demand for romaine lettuce has been growing since spring for Discovery Produce LLC, Salinas, Calif., said Steve Timsak, vice president of sales and marketing.

“We do a fair amount for several processors, and they’re really going hog wild on romaine right now,” he said. “A lot of shippers are confident in folks with the foodservice industry. They seem to be a steadier demand side.”

Although his company has found success in marketing lettuce to foodservice customers, he said the salad boom this year could cause problems in 2004.

“Like most farmers, they’re going to probably overplant romaine next year,” he said. “Where that acreage is going to come from — obviously they’re going to have to cut back something else. Maybe iceberg.”