Produce plays a role in foodservice category comeback

12/09/2011 12:23:00 PM
Tom Burfield

Anyone with doubt about the effect of fresh produce on the foodservice category should look at the 2011 list of restaurant trends issued by the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association.
Of the top trends, three directly involve produce: No. 2 — locally grown produce, No. 3 — sustainability, and No. 14 — organics.
With the current push for healthful eating and fighting obesity, the timing couldn’t be better for promoting fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the foodservice industry.
The effect of the recession on foodservice produce sales varies from company to company, but most suppliers who saw a slump in business now say they’re seeing a rebound.
“For sure we saw a drop off in foodservice business during the recession,” said Doug Meyer, vice president of sales and marketing for West Pak Avocado, Temecula, Calif. 
“In some instances we saw a shift to processed pulp and guacamole mixes, but we have seen a resurgence back to fresh avocados.”
“People are eating out, just not as often or as lavishly as they had in the past,” Meyer said.
Consumers were taking “one step down,” agreed Jay Iverson, partner and vice president of sales and marketing for GreenGate Fresh LLP, Salinas, Calif.
Considering today’s hectic lifestyles, “most people don’t have time to not take advantage of dining out,” he said. 
“They’re just spending their money differently.”
Chains served by Freshway Foods, Sidney, Ohio, are adding more produce and produce-related products, said Dan Purdy, vice president of sales and marketing.
Trends
“People are starting to be health-conscious again,” he said, and that’s good for the industry as well as consumers.
Purdy also has observed a trend toward locally grown products, especially in the Midwest during the summer, and he said chefs are getting more creative with their salad offerings.
“They’re still using salad mixes in bags, but they’re starting to put some unique items in there,” he said.
Instead of just lettuce, red cabbage and carrots, chefs now are buying mixes that include endive, escarole, raddichio and romaine.
One chain, Carrollton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday’s, even features butternut squash as a side dish, he said.
“It’s nice to see something a little different,” Purdy said.
Ease, convenience and price are foodservice trends that Vince Choate, director of marketing for Hollandia Produce LLC, Carpinteria, Calif., has noticed.
“Anything that is labor saving and has stable pricing seems to be the key that brings good penetration in that segment of the market,” he said.
Demand has increased for processed product that is ready to use, and Choate includes the company’s Live Gourmet brand living lettuce in that value-added category.
Easier to add
Foodservice operators are looking for new offerings to enhance their menus, just like consumers are, said Mike O’Leary, vice president of fresh-cut for Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, Calif.
Five or 10 years ago, menus typically featured a single garden salad, he said, but today, chefs are competing to make their salads unique.
Foodservice business at The Chuck Olsen Co., Visalia, Calif., has seen some minor fluctuations during the past couple of years, but on the whole, vice president Jeff Olsen seemed satisfied.
“Overall, business is staying fairly steady,” he said. 
“If it’s up or down, it’s only by few percentage points.”
John Chamberlain, director of marketing for Limoneira Co., Santa Paula, Calif., also is pleased with the company’s foodservice business.
“We’re seeing a trend up,” he said. “We didn’t really notice a downturn.”
However, he said that upward movement is a function of the company’s switching to direct sales for its lemons, rather than marketing its product through Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers Inc.
Sunkist continues to market Limoneira’s specialty citrus.
Business is on the rebound among chains that have concepts to accommodate recession-weary consumers or that have adjusted their business models to retain and attract customers by shifting, for example, to more fresh and nutritious menu options, Meyer said.
The foodservice segment is very resilient, Iverson said, adding that he is pleased with the growth of the two-year-old company, which processes romaine, lettuce and cabbage exclusively for the foodservice industry.
“Every month is positive growth number, and we’re excited about it,” he said.


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