(April 23) Whether they are offered as side dishes, in salads or as a salad-bar selection, melons are turning up regularly in restaurants, marketing agents say.

“We’re promoting a lot in foodservice,” said Raul Perez, president of Sandia Distributors, Nogales, Ariz. “The (National Watermelon Promotion) board is putting a lot of things into this area. Foodservice is a very important part of our industry, and these guys are putting more product into salad bars and also into the servings. The usage is going to go up per-capita as a result of what we’re doing as an industry.”

Melon size matters to restaurants, said Mike Gerardo, salesman with Big Chuy Distributing Co., Nogales.

“They’re doing a lot of specialty one-packs, two-packs, more of a bigger melon, the size 4 and 5,” Gerardo said. “And, of course, they are the primary users of seeded watermelons, even though there are parts of the country where you won’t find it much.”

Foodservice customers also have their own packing requirements, said Bobby Creel, business development director for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc.

“More and more Food Service operators are looking for the eastern cantaloupe varieties that are packed into cartons as opposed to the more typical bin programs for the retail trade,” Creel said. “They can now get the Eastern high-brix cantaloupe in cartons with firmer flesh, higher brix and longer shelf life than what has been previously available to them, due to improved seed varieties.”

Gordon Hunt, marketing director for the Orlando, Fla.-based promotion board, said the industry is seeing an increase in foodservice business.

“It has really picked up a lot,” he said. “It’s not only a question of the health aspect; it’s the fact that watermelon is really cost-effective. You have to figure out what’s the lowest cost per serving, and watermelon is there.”

The board recently gave an award to Chevys, a casual-dining chain that offers Mexican food, for innovative use of watermelon.

“They had watermelon lemonade and margaritas,” Hunt said. “They’re looking at serving it as a straight dessert item. It had tremendous eye appeal. The nutritional message helps drive sales further, because it is dessert and kids know that.”

What restaurants haven’t picked up on is the retail trend toward miniature melons, said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Southern Specialties Inc.

“A portion of our melon program is foodservice, and we don’t, at this point, see the demand for the mini watermelons on the foodservice side,” Eagle said. “We see it right now as more of a retail item.”