Research released by Chicago-based Technomic Inc. for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council shows mentions of fresh blueberry on a large sampling of U.S. foodservice menus have increased 176% since 2007.

At the same time, importers of blueberries from Argentina say they’ve seen an increase in sales to foodservice customers who use the berries in cheesecake, tarts and other menu offerings.

Naturipe Farms LLC, Salinas, Calif., has been making a concerted effort to appeal to the foodservice sector, said Jim Roberts, vice president of sales.

Five years ago, only 1% of foodservice operators used blueberries, even though consumers spent half of their food dollars at restaurants, he said.

“We have actively been approaching foodservice providers for the last four or five years,” he said. “We’ve really been at the forefront trying to increase usage.”

The company has spent a lot of time working with chains and at individual restaurants, including white-tablecloth establishments, to encourage chefs to use blueberries in their menu options, he said.

“There’s been a lot of work that we’ve done on menu development and product development to get them to use more blueberries, and we are seeing great results from that,” Roberts said.

In the past, blueberries were used primarily in desserts, sauces or garnishes, he said.

Now, restaurants are expanding their use into items like oatmeal and salads.

Naturipe lists hundreds of items that make sense for foodservice operators, Roberts said, and works with them on year-round programs as well as seasonal promotions that take advantage of peak production.

Nader Musleh, executive director of the blueberry division for California Giant Inc., Watsonville, said he has seen a significant increase in the volume of blueberries going to foodservice over the past five years.

Major fast food chains feature blueberries in salads and other menu items, and other restaurants are actively promoting blueberries as they have other kinds of berries, he said.

That’s good news for importers of Argentina berries, because restaurateurs want to offer blueberries year-round and not have to change their menus when the domestic deal winds down.

Argentina has its own window, Musleh said.

“We continue to see blueberry consumption growing across all sectors of the food industry,” said Tom Richardson, vice president of global development for Giumarra International Berry, Los Angeles.

Richardson said he has seen fresh blueberries in restaurants and dried blueberries in cereals and cake and muffin mixes.

The Technomic research indicated that blueberries, which have become known for their nutrition benefits, are gaining major traction among the top 500 chain restaurants.

Overall blueberry mentions on American menus have increased 97% since 2007, which is a higher rate than that of strawberries, raspberries or blackberries, Technomic said.

Chain restaurants surveyed use blueberries in more different types of dishes than ever before, with increased use apparent across all restaurant segments and meal parts, the Technomic research indicated. Key growth areas:

  • Nonalcoholic beverages, including smoothies — incidence of blueberry mentions up 93% since 2007;
  • Entrees, including salads — incidence of blueberry mentions up 66% since 2007; and
  • Dessert dishes — incidence of blueberry mentions  up 45% since 2007.

Changing consumer preferences and an evolution in the way foodservice professionals view blueberries are among the factors that have contributed to the growth, the research said.

“Today’s consumers see blueberries as one of the little choices they can make in pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, and savvy restaurants are picking up on that,” Mark Villata, executive director for the blueberry council, said in a news release.

“Our research shows that the health halo affiliated with blueberries extends all the way to dining establishments that feature them — so, restaurants looking to capture consumers’ interests should consider adding more blueberry options to their menus,” he said.