Convenience and labor costs fuel demand for fresh-cut produce. Baltimore and Washington, D.C., distributors say the drive to lower labor costs at foodservice and retail and retailers’ desire to increase their offerings of convenience foods has kept the fresh-cut category healthy.

East Coast Fresh Cuts, the Savage, Md.-based processing division of Coastal Sunbelt Produce Co., supplied fresh-cut produce to one of its catering customers serving the Congressional Country Club in Montgomery County in Bethesda, Md., when it hosted the U.S. Open golf championship in June.

Ross Foca, East Coast’s president, said he has seen increasing calls for fresh-cut product.

“There has been a steady increase in demand for fresh-cut at retail and foodservice,” Foca said.

“People want more convenient items at retail and foodservice is all about controlling costs. We get 100% yield and we help reduce their labor and increase their food safety.”

While Coastal Sunbelt distributes to foodservice purveyors, East Coast ships half of its fresh-cut products to retailers and the other half to foodservice purveyors east of Mississippi from Connecticut to South Carolina.

Offering 2,000 stock-keeping fresh-cut units, East Coast produces a variety of cuts including salsas, fresh-cut fruit, vegetable platters and custom cuts.

The fresh-cut division of Lancaster Foods Inc., Jessup, Md., provides sliced apples, cleaned and triple-washed spinach, and tray wrapped items such as husked corn for its retail and foodservice customers, said John Gates, president and founder.

“We are seeing steady growth in fresh-cut,” he said.

“We’re as much a manufacturer as we are a distributor. We manufacture so we’re adding value to our customers.”

Gates said retail customers are its biggest fresh-cut purchasers.

Lancaster has provided fresh-cut products since 2007.

Landover, Md.-based Keany Produce Co. has cut produce for its customers since the mid-1990s.

Roy Cargiulo, sales manager, said Keany offers more than 1,500 precut stock-keeping units.

“A lot of those SKUs have been driven by the chefs we deal with,” Cargiulo said.

“We don’t per se have to deal with anything as they’re always thinking of new things for us to cut.”

Some of Keany’s items include specialty cuts such as french-cut vegetables, mandolin cuts and stir-fry or vegetable blends.

“The chefs are driving it,” Cargiulo said.

“They’re facing the same challenges with not wanting to add labor, but they’re wanting to maintain a profile of certain quality product.

“Their expectations are that we will replicate something they would do themselves, where a machine cut doesn’t come out the same way as a true hand-cut.”

For the past five years, G. Cefalu & Bro. Inc., Jessup, has run a small fresh-cut processing operation.

While not Cefalu’s focus, the products are provided as a convenience for its customers, said Sal Cefalu, vice president.

“To some extent, the customers find having us prepare product for them helps them keep the costs in the product and they know where the costs are,” Cefalu said.

“It seems to work better for them. This shows up industrywide and is definitely a valid direction for the industry.”

Cefalu processes celery, carrots, fruit and fruit trays as well as customer requests, he said.