Grower-shippers of Mexican greenhouse vegetables say there’s one word that remains central to success in the foodservice business: consistency.
“The presentation of the product makes a big difference,” said Jaime Garza, owner of Pharr, Texas-based Bebo Distributing Inc.
Growers say they can get that by growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and other items in protected environments.
“I think some foodservice companies are starting to see the value,” said Gregg Biada, vice president of Bonita Springs, Fla.-based Global Fresh Import & Export, a subsidiary of Springfield, Ill.-based Tom Lange Co.
Price has traditionally played a crucial role in the foodservice sector, but buyers are seeing other compelling reasons to buy greenhouse products, some shippers said.
The consistency in the quality of the product brings assurances that foodservice procurers need, said Fried DeSchouwer, president of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Greenhouse Produce Co. LLC.
“This is where protected culture starts to play a role,” he said.
“The food safety demands from foodservice are well-served by the medium- and lower-tech greenhouses. In that 100 acres, I’m not shifting my production seven times to seven different locations like in field operations. You’re literally operating at the same facility and you’ve got that under control.”
Safety measures are easier to implement and control in protected environments, which has become increasingly important, DeSchouwer said.
“It’s easier and efficient to implement the food safety measurements you need in that one facility,” he said.
“It’s easy to block those acres off and make sure there’s no wild animals that can reach your production. You keep little animals like rats and mice out. It’s quite simple to do in protected culture. Not so, in open-field operations.”
Some growers have recognized that value and have moved some of their production into protected environments, DeSchouwer said.
“It’s a gradual shift,” he said.
“Growers in the U.S. have the money. The problem for them is can they find the climate or location that will enable them to do so? There are some who are trying out 1 or 2 acres of greenhouses, very small plots.”
Having that element of control is key to success in foodservice sales, said Chuck Ciruli, partner with Rio Rico, Ariz.-based Ciruli Bros.
“It helps, because it gives us real consistency,” he said.
“Last year, for example, we had eggplant in the shade house for the first time, so when the open-field stuff was gone, we were able to still provide eggplants. A lot of the red peppers out of the shade house are a big foodservice item, and the cucumbers that come out of the shade house are better than the field cukes. I think the foodservice guys are getting used to seeing those, too.”
Pressures that a down economy can exert on the foodservice sector are considerable, but the greenhouse category continues to do well there, said Mike Aiton, marketing director for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif.
“It’s still a substantial part of how Americans get their produce, so, for us, we’re very pleased with our progress in the foodservice business,” Aiton said.
“I think we’re getting better at marketing and providing the products the foodservice customer wants. We’re very intrigued with the potential on the foodservice side of the business. It’s been a good growth area for us.”
Foodservice-related economic pressures have varied, said Jim Cathey, general manager of Del Campo Supreme Inc., Nogales, Ariz.
“I think it’s OK,” he said.
“It has gotten better than when the big crunch first hit. Certain segments are showing better numbers. I think that has to do with the economy more than anything. I think your higher-end and your white-tablecloth restaurants might be the ones that are continuing to suffer a little bit.”
Some growers and shippers are more heavily involved in the sector than others.
“Foodservice is something that we are thinking about now, but it’s not our big market,” said Marie Gosselin, director of sales and marketing with Portneuf, Quebec-based Savoura, which just opened a greenhouse operation in Mexico.