Consumers in the Pacific Northwest are produce connoisseurs, and that is evident in the retail and foodservice sectors, suppliers say.

In a sense, the region hasn’t lost touch with tradition, at least at retail, said Tom Lively, senior salesman at Eugene, Ore.-based Organically Grown Co.

“In the Pacific Northwest, we’re a little different than some parts of the country,” he said.

For example, he pointed to consumer preference for bulk items.

Lively said the prevalence of farm markets across the region, where fresh items are available singly or in open containers, has fed the trend.

“I can still sell cherry tomatoes or blueberries in a clamshell, and, yes, we carry a 3-pound apple bag, but my customers don’t want produce in packaging, overall,” he said.

Indeed, he said, customers “freak out” when they see some items in packages.

“Now, some of the biggest cherry tomato promotions we do all year are in old-style open pints, and customers feel it gives more a farmers market, fresh and local look,” Lively said.

Bulk displays also lend a more “local, fresh-picked” aura, Lively said.

“I think that’s a really big thing in the Northwest,” he said. “Open pints fly off the rack.”

The selection also is wider in retail produce departments, Lively said.

Organic produce bastion

The Pacific Northwest remains a bastion of organic produce, and retailers reflect that interest, said Ron Escene, manager of Federal Way, Wash.-based grower-shipper Botsford & Goodfellow Inc.

“We get lots of companies that say they want to be 25% (to) 30% organic by the end of the year, and at the same time retailers are working very hard to support the local growers,” Escene said.

Matt Roberts, sales manager for Sedro-Woolley, Wash.-based shipper Viva Tierra Inc., agreed.

“Looking at ads around here, a lot of the chains are focusing on organics and seem to put a focus on the category, even if it’s not a hot price on organics,” said Roberts, whose company specializes in organic fruit.

Soft foodservice sales

Produce sales at retail have been buzzing, perhaps, to some degree, at the expense of the foodservice sector, Escene said.

“People want more bang for your buck. They want to go to the store, buy it, cook it,” he said.

Andy Hallis, owner of Tacoma, Wash.-based Hallis Produce, described the foodservice business as “a little soft” as summer dawned.

Higher-end and lower-end eateries seem to be stable, Escene said.

“The guys that have money still have it and they still spend it at the white-tablecloths,” he said.

Foodservice customers have experienced economic pressures, and that can be seen in purchasing decisions, said Dale Hayton, sales manager at Valley Pride Sales, Mount Vernon, Wash.

“We’re seeing more and more requests for steady contract-type pricing and just steady consistent quality,” he said.

David Rinella, owner of Portland, Ore.-based Rinella Produce said building a consistent foodservice customer base requires keen knowledge of the product.

“Knowledge really solidifies trust, and we try to meet two three times a day with every trend that comes up,” he said.

Tacoma, Wash.-based wholesaler Evergreen Fruit & Produce’s customer base is almost exclusively foodservice, said Ray Iannielli, owner.

Iannielli said he had noticed a slight upward trend in sales of late.

“You see busy weekends and slow midweek traffic,” he said.

Ernie Spada Jr., owner of Portland, Ore.-based Duck Delivery and United Salad Co., said it’s important to maintain communication with foodservice customers.

“A lot has to do with your sales staff keeping chefs up to speed on what’s out there and available,” he said.

Spada said his sales staff maintains updated product sheets.

“Here, we do a fresh local sheet, a lot of items that are out there they can feature on menus as local and stimulate extra sales,” he said.

Restaurants appear to be recovering from the malaise of years past, said Doug Huttenstine, executive vice president at Seattle-based wholesaler Charlie’s Produce.

“As the economy had struggled over the past few years, we found that the discretionary dollar for foodservice had declined, particularly for white-tablecloth concepts. However, recently we are seeing positive trends in year-over-year sales in all foodservice,” he said.