MONTREAL — The sagging economy may have taken a bite out of Montreal’s vibrant restaurant scene, but industry experts agree that the city that loves to eat out hasn’t been affected as severely as other major Canadian or U.S. cities, and they’re hoping for a brighter holiday season.

“Over the past year there’s been more pressure to lower prices and be more competitive,” said Frank Ferrarelli, president of Essex Continental. “As a result, we have reduced the price of commercial-grade mushrooms by 20 cents a pound, or almost a dollar a box.

“But I think business is coming back up slowly,” Ferrarelli said. “We’ll probably regain 50 cents a box by the end of the year.”

Benoit Lecavalier, director of sales and development for major foodservice produce supplier Hector Larivée, admits it’s been a “good but not incredible” year, and says the Montreal market remains somewhat down.

“We’re still taking as many orders from restaurants but owners are buying less,” Lecavalier said. “We’re breaking a lot of cases and selling a lot by the unit. There’s extra labor involved but we have a really efficient broken case department and we do pass on the cost to customers.”

Last summer, big golf tournaments and mega hotel banquets were down as Quebec companies cut back on parties and events.

“When you’re used to selling $25,000 a week of produce to a big hotel and it’s down to $14,000, losing $8,000 per property adds up,” he said.

The loss of the Grand Prix in June, a Montreal institution, also hurt the city, he said, but he still sees a glimmer of hope.

“People are more optimistic this year and I think it’s going to be a good holiday season,” Lecavalier said. “The national unemployment rate has gone down, and here in Quebec there’s been a lot of job creation. The Toronto Stock Exchange is doing well and real estate is hot."

“We’ve had hints that the hotel banquet business is starting to pick up a little, and we’re hoping we can salvage a good year between mid-November and the third week of December. Whatever happens, we’ll be ready to hit 2010 with a bang.”