(Aug. 4, 1:02 p.m.) MONTEREY, Calif. — Attendees of the 2008 Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference learned July 26 that many foodservice trends are moving in favor of fresh produce.

Presenters at a session titled “Produce-Powered Trends & Strategies” provided encouragement that produce companies can increase profitability despite harsh economic times by leveraging foodservice trends already heading in their favor.

Produce on the menu

Cathy Holley and Kathy Hayden, editors of Flavor & The Menu magazine, said consumers’ and chefs’ desires for the freshest, most healthful and eye-appealing food could help pull many produce companies out of economic doldrums, if they can play to the trends.

“Really, the biggest trends in foodservice are being driven by produce,” Holley said.

“Farmers are the new rock stars,” Hayden said, noting more and more restaurants are putting detailed information about growers right on their menus. “At farmers markets, it’s like some farmers have groupies.”

While closer and more direct connections between chefs and small-time growers could hurt some larger produce companies, the local-grown trend is increasing consumer interest in fresh produce at restaurants, Hayden and Holley said.

“It’s about food with a face or a place,” Holley said. “It’s no longer about ‘Where’s the beef?’ It’s ‘where’s the beef from?’”

She said the same local principles also apply to produce.

As restaurant-goers and chefs crave local food to maximize freshness, they also are increasingly focusing on the healthfulness of restaurant food, which plays right into the hands of produce, the presenters said.

In defending produce, the presenters noted a trend toward accentuating positives of food commodities, momentum created by “superfood” buzz and other factors make fresh produce more enticing to both consumers and chefs.

Fresh produce is becoming more prevalent on menus and is performing well, overall, but does better when the health attributes aren’t played up on menus, Hayden said.

“Our advice is just don’t talk about it (the health benefits of produce),” she said. Produce dishes that once struggled saleswise when they had “Heart Healthy” classifications specified on menus have sold much better after the “Heart Healthy” label had been removed, she said.

Going global

To maximize profitability, fresh produce companies should consider creating or expanding ethnic minority-oriented produce because Asian, Mediterranean and Latin dishes involving fresh produce are particularly hot right now, the presenters said.

“It’s not just the traditional two sides and a protein anymore,” Hayden said. “It’s new ideas, new flavors and new applications.”

Foodservice also is trending toward more snacking, Hayden said, with fresh produce selling well when paired with ingredients such as cheese or bacon.

Another trend helping produce: more chefs are implementing tasting menus with up to 12 courses themed around one ingredient — often a fresh produce commodity such as peaches (specifically, in Atlanta), potatoes or heirloom tomatoes.

The color, variety and texture of produce also creates opportunities at foodservice. The presenters noted Applebee’s research uncovered the hottest texture trend now is “crisp” food, which produce can definitely deliver through leafy green salads, uncooked carrots and broccoli, apples and many other items.

Other hot texture trends the presenters mentioned: frizzled, shaved, muddled, frothed, dried, powdered and candied.