Economic downturn hits foodservice sector harder

06/29/2009 10:09:19 AM
Andy Nelson

CHELSEA, Mass. —  The recession has taken its toll on the Boston produce wholesale market, with restaurants either asking for less of their typical items or for less-expensive alternatives, wholesalers said.

From 75% to 80% of produce sold by Lisitano Produce Inc. winds up at foodservice, said Frank Lisitano, president.
The recession, he said, has affected foodservice and retail differently.

“Retailers fluctuate more depending on price,” he said. “Retailers buy different items, foodservice buys less of the same items.”

“You keep hearing how bad it is, then you go to a good restaurant and wait an hour and a half for table. People may skip a drink or a dessert or an appetizer, but they still want to get out."

— Henry Wainer

Specialty produce foodservice giant Sid Wainer & Son, New Bedford, continues to grow despite the recession, said Henry Wainer, president.

One reason might be the company’s close relationships with chefs who work at some of the 25,000 restaurants the company supplies up and down the East Coast.

Wainer & Son owns an experimental farm just outside New Bedford, where chefs are invited not only to visit but to stay in the guest house there, Wainer said. Each week, several groups of chefs take tours of the Wainer & Son facility, Wainer said.

If chefs have an idea for a locally grown fruit or vegetable, Wainer & Son will give it a whirl on one of its experimental farms.

“Chefs want the best product, and they want it when they want it,” Wainer said. “They’re trying to outdo each other, come up with something new.”

Sam Rocco, president of foodservice specialist BC Produce Inc., has heard reports of foot traffic for some retailers climbing 7% in recent months as a result of the recession. (The same reports do, however, also report smaller per-person rings at the cash register, Rocco added.)

If retail is up, given the economy, that can mean only one thing for foodservice.

“If you’re worried about losing your job, you’re not eating out,” he said. “I think restaurants in general are slower. People involved in retail have got to be fine.”

Still, there are exceptions, Rocco said. One of his restaurant customers in nearby Cambridge’s Harvard Square, for instance, is doing great business.


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