(Aug. 4, 12:51 p.m.) MONTEREY, Calif. — A panel of those on the front lines of the foodservice industry met during the Produce Marketing Association’s 2008 Foodservice Conference & Exposition to discuss tactics for operating during the economic downturn.

Ronald Vasquez, director of culinary food and beverage for Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande Cafe, Fairfax, Va., said the company has reviewed its staffing and purchasing decisions.

“We’re reducing labor cost by using more value-added products,” he said during the July 26 session.

Michael Ross, general manager of several Golden Corral restaurants in Virginia and other Southern states, said because of Golden Corral’s reputation for generous portions and its customers’ preference for beef, the staff takes some artful measures to get customers to eat more produce and less of the costly meat.

“We position other products before the steak so their plates are full by the time they get to the meat,” he said. “That way, they take less meat.”

He tossed a large potato in the air, and said it weighed almost a pound.

“Your stomach can only hold about 2 pounds, so our servers go to the tables to offer baked or sweet potatoes, so they’ll eat less steak,” he said.

In light of the recent salmonella outbreak, panel moderator Harold Lloyd, a business consultant, asked how the panel members informed diners about their handling of tomatoes and peppers.

Vince Rosetti, Bensalem, Pa., a franchisee of Conshohocken, Pa.-based Saladworks Inc., said he simply used a sign stating what was not on the menu, be it tomatoes, cilantro or jalapeños, avoiding too many details and only offering information if a customer asked.

Chef Jacques Wilson from Monterey’s Sardine Factory said servers were instructed how to respond to patrons’ questions about the outbreak and what the restaurant’s policies were regarding affected products.

“A lot of our recipes had to be changed, and we went to canned product,” Vasquez said.

When the topic changed to food distribution, Ross said he expected produce to be purchased and distributed from a safe source.

“I expect fruit to be the right color and ready to eat. I’d also like to know that someone is proofreading the invoices to make sure our orders are correct,” he said.

Wilson said one of his main concerns was that produce is delivered during normal working hours and not left at the restaurant’s back door. When that has happened, he called the distributor and told them to come back and pick up the produce. Rosetti said he hoped distributors would at least look into the crates and boxes to make sure the produce was not damaged.

The best example of service above and beyond the call of duty came from Vasquez, who said when he realized the restaurant would run out of tomatoes one weekend, his Sysco Corp. salesman showed up on a Sunday with a load of tomatoes in his own car with his two children in the back seat.

“He spent his weekend getting those tomatoes for us,” Vasquez said.

When asked what looks good or bad for the future, none of the panel was hopeful. Ross said it is becoming almost impossible for someone to break into foodservice. He said because of competition from other industries, it is becoming more difficult to attract people who are willing to work their way up in foodservice.

“Cost of building materials and land is up 18% to 22%, so coming in you’re behind the eight ball,” he said.

Wilson reiterated the Sardine Factory’s 40 years of serving Monterey residents.

“Our local market is our focus in order to survive the economic downturn,” he said.