Though retail channels remain the largest buyers of tropical fruit, the category is finding a place in foodservice.
Foodservice interest is increasing, said Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for Brooks Tropicals LLC, Homestead, Fla.
“Chefs definitely see tropicals as an interest point and as something they can highlight,” she said. “Foodservice is always interested because they’re looking for things that attract the eyes. That can be on a menu or on the plate. They really do see tropicals as something that jumps out at people on the menu.”
Tropicals often enter the menus as additives to menu items, Ostlund said.
She said a friend of hers recently dined on baklava. The restaurant topped the dessert with homemade coconut sorbet.
Chefs are helping drive interest, said Dick Spezzano, president of the Monrovia, Calif.-based Spezzano Consulting Service Inc.
“It’s in the high-end places where you’re seeing interest,” he said. “Because they’re high-end, they want to show a point of differentiation. They won’t make it on the russets but want to make it on some specialty items which they use as a component of the menu,” Spezzano said.
As the economy improves, more people find the opportunity of trying tropical fruits at restaurants and other entertainment venues, said Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla.
“Foodservice markets are on the rise and are influenced by the overall economy,” he said. “Restaurants are currently doing well overall as they are growing and expanding their menus, contributing to a continuous increase in the foodservice sector.
“Chefs, restaurant operators and consumers are becoming more aware of the flexibility of tropical fruit. It’s not just bananas foster or pineapple upside-down cake anymore. Pineapples, bananas, grapes, and melons are being used in entrees as savory components as well as the traditional side dish brunch fare that we all expect,” Christou said.
Tropical use is growing in restaurants, particularly in the white tablecloth venues which want to show a differentiation, said Robert Schueller, director of public relations for the Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc., which markets under the Melissa’s brand.
That use can come in a cocktail or a salad, he said.
“Foodservice acts as such a great spokesperson for tropicals,” Schueller said. “When you put them on the menu and people enjoy the experience, they want to duplicate the experience at home.”
Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties Inc., in Pompano Beach, Fla., is an optimist regarding foodservice’s appetite for tropicals.
He said he was encouraged by a conversation he recently had on a flight with a restaurant chain’s executive chef.
Eagle said the chef told him the multi-unit operator is using fresh mangoes for mango salsa.
“I see foodservice use as increasing,” he said. “When we talk about the growth of the commodity, it’s pretty much across the board. We are really fortunate to have a broad customer base that includes foodservice distributors, wholesalers and club stores. When we have an opportunity to beat the drum for foodservice distributors, we see it as a growth opportunity.”
While Southern Specialties distributes nationally, its Florida headquarters has allowed it to supply a foodservice customer base including restaurants, hotels or cruise lines that incorporate tropicals in their menus, Eagle said.
Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif., is credited with introducing kiwifruit.
When Frieda Caplan founded Frieda’s Inc., almost 52 years ago, chefs were the ones that helped put the fruit on the map, said Karen Caplan, Frieda’s president and CEO.
Chefs including Wolfgang Puck featured it as a garnish on desserts and magazines including Bon Appétit placed a photo of kiwifruit on the cover and included recipes.
Caplan agrees seasonality discourages operators from incorporating more tropical items.
“It won’t be the mainstream foodservice that will do well with our items,” she said. “They’re too expensive. As more and more chefs use these tropicals as garnishes here and there, it will eventually help build demand in the foodservice arena.”