Tomatoes seem to have found their niche in thefoodservice sector, grower-shippers say.

San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce is constantly trying new varieties for retail, said John King, vice president of sales.

The firm takes customer requests for attributes like flavor, interior color and firmness to its genetics companies for possible incorporation into new varieties, King said.

Grower-shippers offer alternatives to mature-green tomatoesHistorically, genetics companies focused on the farmers’ desires for qualities like disease resistance and yields, he said.

“We really need to make sure we have our customers’ needs out front as well,” he said.

Overall, foodservice demand across the country is steady, said Jeff Dolan, field operations manager for The DiMare Co., Newman, Calif. However, there may be some fluctuations based on supplies and varieties, he said.

For example, if supplies of a certain type of tomato are off in a certain district, demand may increase.

Foodservice customers of Andrew & Williamson want a better-tasting tomato, so they’re moving toward varieties like the red grape tomatoes, King said.

There’s also demand for vine-ripe roma tomatoes with their ruby red interiors and exteriors. And round vine-ripes fulfill consumers’ desire for a tomato that tastes better than the mature-green, so that category is expanding, as well, he said.

For Nogales, Ariz.-based Bernardi & Associates, foodservice business is up compared to a few years ago and restaurants seem to be continuing to buy more tomatoes.

“They want the best quality, and they need shelf life,” he said.

There is across-the-board demand for all varieties, he said.

Up to 8% of the tomatoes that Delta, British Columbia-based greenhouse grower Windset Farms produces at its facility in Santa Maria, Calif., go to the foodservice sector, said Jeff Madu, director of sales.

That includes some major fast-food chains that use the tomatoes on their burgers.

The mass-market foodservice sector in the last year or two has turned its attention to greenhouse tomatoes in a big way, said David Bell, chief marketing officer for Vancouver, British Columbia-based Houweling’s Tomatoes.

“We expect this trend to rapidly increase with the only stumbling block being the higher cost of production translating into higher f.o.b. prices,” he said.

Bell said he’s seeing foodservice accounts that traditionally turned to greenhouse product for consistent supplies and for food safety reasons now buying greenhouse products because of their good taste, as well.

The demand in foodservice is biggest for the fast food segment, he said.

“The restaurant specifications call for varieties that have smaller, more consistently sized fruit than traditional retail slicing varieties,” he said. “Additionally, they require fruit to have significantly less water content to allow for ease of use with slicing machines.”

There are some differences between foodservice operations and supermarkets, Bell said.

“Retail and consumers value an on-the-vine product for presentation and freshness,” he said, while foodservice establishments prefer a stripped-down product, since customers don’t see it until it has been prepared and is ready to eat, he said.

“For the most part, we use the same varieties for both and adjust our growing and harvesting protocols to meet the delivered specifications,” he said.