Foodservice is a rapidly growing sector of the avocado industry, and for good reason. Restaurant operators have come up with a wealth of ways to use avocados, said Bruce Dowhan, general manager of Escondido, Calif.-based Giumarra Agricom International LLC.

Not that long ago, just about the only place you’d see avocados in restaurants was in guacamole. Today, you’re just as likely to see the fruit in salads, pizzas and on sandwiches, he said.

Not even at the height of the recession, when consumers were more frequently eating at home and less often at restaurants, did Steve Taft, president and chief executive officer of Eco-Farms Corp., Temecula, Calif., see a drop in foodservice business.

Taft said his customers typically use avocados in sandwiches as well as in guacamole.

Brandon Gritters, avocado salesman for Interfresh Inc., Fullerton, Calif., said foodservice sales were consistent for Interfresh during the recession.

Rob Wedin, vice president of fresh sales and marketing for Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Paula, Calif., said Calavo had “very strong sales” in the foodservice category throughout the recession.

“Avocados had a big year at foodservice last year,” he said, with lots of promotions and myriad restaurants jumping on the avocado bandwagon with Mexican items, sandwiches and even sushi.

Even with a price spike resulting from a drop in supply last year, demand remained strong, he said.

Sandwich sales

The sandwich category especially has sparked a boost in avocado sales as restaurant chains including Beaumont, Texas-based Jason’s Deli and Milford, Conn.-based Subway advertise avocados on their sandwiches, he said.

Foodservice business accounts for “a sizable amount” but not the lion’s share of the business for Mission Produce Inc., Oxnard, Calif., said Ross Wileman, vice president of sales and marketing.

Most of the company’s foodservice business is with traditional Mexican-style restaurants, he said, where chefs put the fruit on sandwiches and in salads as well as in guacamole.

But the company also has seen a sales boost among mainstream sandwich-type restaurants, such as Subway and St. Louis-based Panera Bread.

Avocados actually may have benefited during the recession, he said, as many consumers downsized their dining-out budget and patronized restaurants such as Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. that tend to feature avocados on their menus.

Dana Thomas, president of Index Fresh Inc., Bloomington, Calif., is excited about foodservice trends he’s been seeing.

“Foodservice is a very important part of what we do,” he said.

It’s gotten even more important over the past five years, as the firm’s foodservice business has doubled, he said.

Servicing the foodservice sector gives the company access to a whole new customer base, he said. Usage has spread to restaurant categories across the board and into a variety of items — even omelets at breakfast.

More good news is that restaurant owners now tend to prefer fresh rather than processed product, he said.

Foodservice business “took a real hit” during the past three years for Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc., Fallbrook, Calif., said partner Bob Lucy. But that appears to be over.

“It seems to really be rebounding,” he said in February.

Last year, foodservice business was significantly improved, he said, and it seems to be doing well in 2012.

Florida, Las Vegas, the Bay Area and resort areas seem to have been hit hardest, but all the foodservice providers “seem to be back in full swing,” he said.

Over the past 10 years, however, Lucy said demand for size 48s at foodservice has been replaced by requests for 60s and 70s as restaurants seek more pieces of fruit for their money.