WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Strawberries continue to grow in popularity on foodservice menus because of their desirable flavor and nutritional contribution.

To encourage chefs and menu developers to add the berries to even more dishes, the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission has expanded its foodservice program plans this year, said Chris Christian, vice president of marketing.

A large portion will involve increased visibility and sponsorships at foodservice and restaurant trade shows and events.

In June, for example, the commission plans to host a San Diego field tour for selected members of the Winter Park, Fla.-based International Corporate Chefs Association.

Participants will hear about how strawberry grower-shippers have adopted sustainable practices as well as learn how strawberries are produced. A local chef also will show off dishes featuring the fruit.

National chain program

In addition, the commission is partnering with six to eight national restaurant chains to promote strawberries on their menus from April through August.

Not all of the participants have been confirmed yet, but Christian said the programs will include multiple menu items that contain California strawberries.

“Use of strawberries is really expanding on foodservice menus, especially in salads,” she said. “Every fast-casual and even some of the fast-food chains are incorporating strawberries into salads. It comes from consumer interest in healthful items.

“And chefs and operators are very interested in creating or expanding healthful offerings on their menus.”

Even pizza chains are incorporating limited-time offerings of salads with strawberries, she said.

“I think it’s great,” Christian said. “It helps expand consumer demand and use when they see how easy it is to add strawberries to salads.”

Salads are just one of the menu dishes where strawberries can be used, she said.

Salsa, fish tacos

Many chefs have expanded the fruit’s use to include savory dishes, such as strawberry salsa, strawberry fish tacos and chicken and strawberry panini sandwiches.

And it’s these types of innovative recipe concepts that Naturipe Farms LLC, Estero, Fla., promotes to its foodservice customers, said Vince Lopes, vice president of sales for the west.

He said keeping berries on the menu and using them not just for desserts but for drinks, garnishes and center-plate items, including salads and savory dishes, can have wide-ranging benefits for foodservice providers.

“We encourage our chefs to think outside of the box,” Lopes said. “Particularly in the quick-serve restaurant sector, we’re seeing even more focus on berry utilization. Not only is it a way to have healthier offerings but also create significant impression with brightness, freshness, appeal, color and flavor.

“Berries are the key centerpiece to bringing all of this to fruition. Nothing else can do it like berries, and additionally it creates a big draw with a halo effect on other menu items.”

Healthful menu addition

Louis Ivanovich, a partner in West Lake Fresh, said he also sees continued interest from foodservice in strawberries and the berry category in general. He credited the fruit’s healthful image for much of the attention.

“In foodservice, and especially the fast-food area, they’re trying to improve their menus and become more healthful and add some excitement to their menu mix,” he said.

Within foodservice, customer requirements may differ, Ivanovich said. That’s why West Lake Fresh, Watsonville, has a quality control team that travels the strawberry production regions to match berry characteristics with customers.

A firm that prepares airline meals, for example, may want a small, uniform strawberry that clears the slots in the meal cart without getting squished, he said.

However, a white table cloth restaurant may be looking for size and the overall showiness of the fruit.

Educating clients

Cindy Jewell, marketing director for California Giant Berry Farms LLC, said the Watsonville-based grower-shipper continues to work with foodservice customers and send them samples as they try out new offerings.

“They definitely reach out to shippers and spend a lot of time on R&D to understand the production system and the shelf life,” she said.

But integrating strawberries into menus, particularly fast-food restaurants, can be a challenge, she said.

Some fast-food chains have moved away from food preparation at individual restaurants, instead using food items that are ready to cook or serve.

Strawberries are typically sliced in a food item, and once you cut them, the freshness clock starts ticking rapidly, Jewell said.

But Christian said that by understanding and implementing proper cold-chain management and inventory rotation, strawberries can be successfully incorporated into most foodservice menu items.