Although foodservice sales dropped off during the recent recession, produce marketers in the Southwest say business is back on track.

Sales of fresh produce to the foodservice industry represent an expanding segment, said Nick Delgado, owner of Quality Fruit & Vegetable Co., El Paso, Texas. His company, already strong in sales to retailers, is now focusing more attention on building its foodservice sales in the El Paso area and in New Mexico. In early 2010, Quality Fruit joined the Nashville, Tenn.-based Produce Alliance’s network of distributors. The network helps attract national restaurant chains as buyers, Delgado said.

About 80% of Phoenix-based Itule Produce Inc.’s business is with restaurants or foodservice buyers, said Willie Itule, owner. All of its business is with buyers in Arizona. The recession created more competition among foodservice purveyors, Itule said.

Foodservice operations had to become leaner and work harder to keep their customers, but now business is on the upswing, with fresh produce sales to restaurants picking up in the last six months, Itule said. Itule’s sales are especially good to restaurants in the Phoenix area.

In 2009, Amerifresh Inc.’s foodservice category slowed, but started to pick up at the end of the year, Reinauer said.

“In 2010, we’ve seen some nice growth returning to the foodservice sector,” he said. “There is a nice, steady improvement in the foodservice business.”

Rick Crispo, partner in Legend Distributing LLC, Glendale, Ariz., also said he thinks the Phoenix metropolitan area’s foodservice industry is doing better.

“They got beat up during the recession in the past couple of years, but numbers are returning to normal,” he said.

Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Concepts Inc.’s full-service restaurants Olive Garden and Red Lobster and its newer grill and wine bar, Seasons 52, are some of the more successful restaurants in the Arizona market, Itule said.

Seasons 52, described on the Darden website as a “fresh grill and wine bar,” with a seasonal menu, opened late this year in Phoenix. The concept offers seasonal inspiration and “the fresh appeal of the farmer’s market,” according to the Seasons 52 website, Its winter menu includes roasted bosc pears, and the recipe appears on its website.

“I think fresh fruits and vegetables in the past 15 years have become extremely important to everybody,” Itule said. “Not just restaurants, but the consumer. The trend is fresh.”

Reinauer said fresh produce is very important on restaurant menus, and he expects it to become even more important as consumers focus more on maintaining good eating habits.

“Health trends will keep produce on the frontline for restaurant menus,” Reinauer said.

He looks for a shift to more menus featuring produce-based entrees. Fresh, local and “ingredients with a story” are important at high-end dining establishments, Reinauer said.

The locally grown trend is visible in foodservice in the Phoenix area, said Barry Zwillinger, partner in Legend Distributing. Some buyers are aggressively seeking locally grown produce for their menus, he said.

If the food is not local, it’s likely to be fresh and seasonal, Reinauer said. Local and fresh are tied together in many consumers’ minds because they expect local produce to be fresher.

Itule said Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Seasons 52 offer good value and service, which has enabled their success in a recessionary market. Reinauer also said he thinks the restaurants that offer high-quality products and good service were able to stay open and busy. Midscale restaurants that provide good value seem to be doing especially well in Phoenix.

Reinauer said specialty burger places that offer fresh items, including fresh-cut fries and fresh toppings such as avocados, lettuce and chili peppers, are doing well.

In August, The Arizona Republic interviewed one restaurateur, David Doty, who had plans to build 30 Smashburger restaurants in the Phoenix area.

Other upscale burger joints in Phoenix are Burger Studio and The Grind. The Grind’s website,, says it serves the freshest ingredients, including organic meat and vegetables, when they are available.