(Dec. 14) CHICAGO — There are thousands of restaurants in Illinois, and the economic impact from those establishments will be more than $46 billion this year, according to the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Nevertheless, some produce companies are finding foodservice business harder to come by here.

“We’ve been doing more retail than foodservice in the past year or two,” said Charles Bakker Sr., chief operating officer and president of Griffith, Ind.-based Bakker Produce Inc., which does half its business on the Illinois side of the state line. “The restaurant chains want us to work as cheaply as possible. It gets to the point that it’s not profitable, and why would you want that? It’s not good business.”

Bakker said the company is trying to diversify its client base because of changes in the industry.

“Restaurant chains are asking for locked-in prices for a year at a time or they want a fixed fee of how much over our cost we can sell it to them,” he said. “A lot of wholesalers are working for nothing or doing things differently. For the big chains, you have to make up a bid or contract to get their business.”

Mike Shamberg, vice president of Art Kramer’s Produce Buying Service Inc., said brokers are getting squeezed out by chain restaurants and large foodservice operators.

“It’s getting harder to sell,” he said. “They’re doing so much more corporate buying. Foodservice companies are limiting people to a certain number of shippers they deal with. It’s usually a direct deal. Buyers have less control of what they’re buying and from whom. They used to be able to go out and find the best deal.”

Kramer’s specializes in potatoes, onions, tomatoes and cabbage, but Shamberg said the brokerage is looking at other options.

“We have to find new ways to generate revenue,” he said. “That’s hard to do because there are less people to sell to because of consolidation. National chains are very difficult to sell to anyway. We have to find different products to sell.”

Produce companies working with chain operators are being asked to do more to keep those restaurant operators satisfied.

Gene Ruffolo, president of C. Ruffolo & Sons, said the company has expanded its distribution area at the request of two chains it supplies.

“We’re going (greater) distances to keep the chains we have happy,” he said. “Wherever they’re at, you have to go. Our gas bill has at least doubled in the past year and a half.”

Ruffolo has expanded its fleet to nine trucks, and the company is looking for other new business in the areas that the chains have led them.