CHICAGO — For fresh produce suppliers who watched their foodservice business languish as the economy staggered in recent years, Chicago restaurant owner Christopher Ala provides a source of optimism.
Ala said the past summer was the busiest in six years for his restaurant, Hemmingway’s Bistro, located about 10 miles west of downtown Chicago in the suburb of Oak Park. Revenue this year is on track to rise 15% from 2009 as the economy recovers and people dine out more, he said.
“We’re looking forward to that trend continuing into the new year,” Ala said. He said he’s scouting locations in Oak Park for a pizzeria he plans on opening next year.
Restaurants, hotels and other foodservice businesses in Chicago and the rest of the country are seeing signs of recovery after business suffered during the 2008-09 recession.
Last month, the National Restaurant Association said its performance index, a reflection of industry sales and sentiment, rose to the highest level in more than three years in October.
With its diverse restaurant scene and large convention and tourism industries, Chicago is a particularly important foodservice market for the area’s fresh produce merchants.
Statewide, Illinois restaurants should generate $18.8 billion in 2010 revenues, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Greg Mandolini, a vice president with wholesale produce distributor Mandolini Co., said foodservice accounts for up to 40% of his company’s business.
“The foodservice business is shaky,” said Mandolini, whose company operates out of the Chicago International Produce Market. “Retailers are holding their own and the stores are busy. The restaurant people, that end seems to be more competitive.”
Foodservice businesses this year aimed for consistent themes in fresh produce — something both unique and cost-effective — said Mark Pappas, president of Coosemans Chicago Inc., another produce merchant at the Chicago market.
“Everyone is certainly price-conscious now,” Pappas said. “They want to be in the most competitive price point they can be.”
Nicole Aylward, a spokeswoman for Chicago restaurant operator Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, said holiday party bookings are up 15% this year, an indication businesses are starting to spend more. Lettuce Entertain You runs 38 restaurants and plans to open at least one more in 2011.
Business is “not back to 2007-08 levels, but people are going back to the full dining experience,” Aylward said. “People are wanting more extravagant events. They’re stepping it up a level.”
At Hemmingway’s in Oak Park, the increase in business, along with dining trends toward lighter, healthier dishes, means Ala is buying more fresh produce. He recently raised the number of salads on his lunch menu from four to seven.
Hemmingway’s appetizers include zucchini blossoms with goat cheese filling and grilled asparagus with vinaigrette. He’s also using a lot of heirloom tomatoes in a baby arugula salad.
“Getting a steady supply of fresh produce is critical to our success,” Ala said. “We rely heavily on fresh produce.”