Ohio produce suppliers say buyers want local produce because it’s fresh and they like supporting local economies. Consumers also like knowing exactly where their produce comes from.

Tom Sirna, president of Sirna & Sons Produce, Cleveland, said the biggest trend for his company this year has been the continued growth of local produce sales.

In 2008, Sirna & Sons’ sales of local produce reached about $200,000. This year, Sirna said he expects sales of local produce to climb to more than $1 million.

Local produce has been important in fine dining restaurants for a while, but it also is trickling down to casual dining, Sirna said.

Sirna & Sons distributes fresh produce within a 350-mile radius of Cleveland and services a wide range of foodservice buyers, including fine dining establishments, hotels and sports venues. The company’s largest-volume local items are peppers, squashes and tomatoes.

The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2011” survey of American Culinary Federation members found that sourcing local produce  — even growing it in a restaurant garden — is among the top 20 trends.

“Customers want local,” said Erv Pavlofsky, principal of business development for ProduceOne, Dayton, Ohio.

“It’s a hot trend, and it’s not going away.”

Sourcing from nearby growers provides a way for restaurateurs to work with local growers and help support local economies, said Jarrod Clabaugh, director of communications for Columbus-based Ohio Restaurant Association.

Chefs and their customers also like being able to enjoy produce that was harvested on the same day, he said.

“More guests want to know where their food is coming from,” Clabaugh said. “A lot of them will ask chefs where they source the meat, vegetables and fruit from.”

One example of an Ohio restaurant that focuses on fresh local items is the Northstar Café, Columbus.

The restaurant opened in 2004, operates three locations in Columbus, and sources locally produced organic and artisan foods, according to its website.

ProduceOne promotes local produce through its Buy Local, Buy Fresh website, www.buylocalbuyfresh.net, launched last year.

In partnership with Cleveland-based Premier Produce Co. Ltd., ProduceOne continues to develop its local program, Pavlofsky said.

Pro*Act’s food safety initiative for locally grown produce helps ensure that ProduceOne’s products are produced safely, he said.

Columbus-based Sanfillipo Produce Co. Inc.’s customers request local items, said Jim Sanfillipo, partner and sales manager.

The company publishes a customer newsletter each week with updates on local items. Customer demand for the items is strong, with one exception: hospital foodservice buyers have not yet become interested in local product, Sanfillipo said.

He expects that will change, though.

Sanfillipo Produce carries zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, watermelons and other produce from local growers. It sources some local produce directly from Amish and Mennonite produce auctions, as well as from about 15 small, independent farms, Sanfillipo said.

Sanfillipo and others have worked with local growers on instituting good agricultural practices, he said.

Ben Roth, chief executive officer at Roth Produce Co., Columbus, is enthusiastic about his company’s local deal.

Roth Produce sources produce from Wiers Farm Inc., Willard, Ohio, and has increased its volume of local produce from Wiers due to high demand.

“When it’s in season, restaurants want to use local,” Roth said. “We like to support local, but you have to go with growers that have good, sustainable practices. We can trace back to the seed … and that’s very important.”

Roth Produce sells to white tablecloth restaurants, country clubs, hotels, caterers and other fine-dining establishments, as well as schools, pizza restaurants and local organizations, Roth said.

Clabaugh said he thinks the majority of Ohio restaurateurs who emphasize local and organic menus are sourcing produce from farmers markets.

Just knowing where a product comes from, however, is not the same as knowing it’s being produced and handled safely.

“A lot of chefs get caught up in buying from a farmer who comes to their back door,” Roth said. “There’s a time and a place for it, as long as I’m not liable for it.”

Roth Produce can trace the source of every product it handles, he said.

The National Restaurant Association reported that 18% of its survey participants said that they expected the hottest operational trend this year to be restaurants having their own gardens.

Locavore and organic movements are strong in Cleveland, in particular, Clabaugh said. Some restaurants there maintain on-site vegetable gardens, he said.

The Columbus Dispatch reported in September that the Columbus Food League restaurant group was growing some of its own herbs and vegetables at its headquarters. It also reported on a pizza restaurant, a steakhouse and an organic restaurant that were growing heirloom varieties of produce.

Tony DiNovo, president of wholesaler and fresh-cut processor DNO Inc., Columbus, Ohio, says buying local produce also is a major trend in Ohio’s retail segment.

Throughout its history, DNO has worked with local growers, cooperatives and marketing organizations, he said.

“We always work with local growers where we can,” he said. “We push that (local produce) into the retailers’ (stores).”

DiNovo said buying local helps the state’s economy by supporting area employment. Buying local also can help retailers to stock fresher produce because it might get into stores more quickly.

DiNovo said supplying local produce is one way DNO can differentiate itself from some larger competitors who do not have local deals.

Greg Fritz, president of Produce Packaging Inc., Cleveland, said local produce has been a trend for the past two or three years. His company has always handled local produce because it can be less expensive and fresher.

Fritz said he thought buyers were more interested in local items last year than they are this year, and it might be that the trend has peaked.

Buyers realize that local produce isn’t always better or cheaper, and they are interested in getting back to buying the best quality products at the best prices, Fritz said.

Caruso Inc., Cincinnati, sources from regional and national growers, said Jeffrey Busch, chief operating officer.

The company handles corn, onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Its buyers don’t request that Caruso supply locally grown produce; rather, they are interested in finding good values for those commodities, Busch said.