Foodservice brings an array of challenges to the pepper business, but it can surpass profits made on the retail side, marketers say.

Needs vary from customer to customer, and suppliers have to be nimble, said Damon Barkdull, salesman with Uesugi Farms Inc., Gilroy, Calif.

Foodservice customers are more aware than ever of safety issues, and they demand up-to-date safety programs from all of their suppliers, Barkdull said.

“Guys that never used to ask me for food safety are this year,” Barkdull said.

Specifications often vary among customers, which is another challenge, Barkdull said.

“Whether it be playing with the specs, changing their specification a little bit or changing a pack style or even going from a carton to a bin, which is cheaper for us, we can pass that savings on to them, but everybody is looking to save money and be more efficient, especially on the foodservice side,” he said.

Focus on long-term deals

Customers also are looking for consistency, he said.

“They want year-round, longterm commitments, and that’s the big thing,” Barkdull said.

It’s tough because there invariably are supply gaps to fill, he said.

“For a guy who wants a six- or eight-month commitment, we need to have redundancies in our growing program, have several different areas to cover them if one area goes down and have another area to back it up,” he said.

More foodservice customers than ever are lining up for orders, said Mike Aiton, marketing director with Coachella, Calif.-based pepper grower-shipper Prime Time International.

“You see peppers in more and more dishes because they’re extremely versatile,” Aiton said.

The product holds up well through the cooking process, which is an advantage, Aiton said.

“We also see them more and more in salads,” he said.

One persistent hurdle is unpredictability surrounding restaurant traffic, said Jerry Wagner, sales and marketing director, Nogales, Ariz.-based Farmers Best International LLC.

“Of course, we always are very concerned about January, February, with people not getting out and about when we were in the throes of those big blizzards,” he said.

That didn’t seem to be as much of a problem this winter as in the past, said Wagner, whose Mexico-grown pepper deal peaks during the winter.

“There were a couple of short blips but no major interruptions in distribution,” he said.

Meeting size specifications

Some foodservice customers shop for size, said Nick Kastis, sales manager in the Nogales office of Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos.

“If you have the right quality and volume, choice bell peppers of a bigger size in mid-60s and mid-70s seem to work best for foodservice,” he said.

Peter Quiring, president of Nature Fresh Farms, a Leamington, Ontario-based greenhouse pepper grower-shipper, said foodservice sales are increasing.

“They’re very discriminating and they’re tough customers like anybody else, so it’s not that we can ship low-quality stuff to foodservice,” he said.

Foodservice once was dominated by “choppers” that went into salads, as well as grilled and roasted dishes and soups, said Bob Fitzsimmons, chief executive officer of Food Authority, a New York-based distributor.

That time has passed, he said.

“Restaurants are now serving better-quality foods overall, and people are paying for better foods versus those family-portioned plate restaurants,” he said.