Consumers can find almost as many of their favorite berries in foodservice outlets as they can in their local grocery stores.
In a survey tracking menu use of strawberries, for example, the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission found a 21% increase in the number of menu items containing strawberries in 2011 over 2010, said Chris Christian, the commission’s vice president of marketing.
Growth in the beverage category was even more impressive — an 86% increase in the number of beverage items with strawberries over the past five years.
In the salad category, there was a 21% increase in the use of strawberries in 2011 compared with 2010.
“Most of this growth is being driven by the chain restaurants,” Christian said, as they seek more healthful menu options.
Naturipe Farms LLC, Salinas, Calif., also has found good reception for its berries at foodservice.
Vince Lopes, Naturipe’s vice president of sales, characterized foodservice business as being superb.
“(Quick-service restaurants) appear to be the faster track for growth in the berry category,” he said.
“They are often looking for solutions to include popular, healthy options on the menu, and nothing embraces those needs more fully than berries.”
Keith Mixon, president of Dole Berry Co. LLC, Watsonville, Calif., and SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., said foodservice is a “very good channel of distribution for us.”
Foodservice business is strong, he said.
“People continue to eat out and seem to spoil themselves with nice berries.”
Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms finds foodservice to be a good outlet for some of its crops, said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer.
“We view it as good business, and we have cultivated foodservice business over the past couple of years,” he said.
One downside of the foodservice segment, especially in Florida, where production can fluctuate from week to week, is its static demand.
“If you’re looking to try to move additional volume at certain times of the year, it’s a little harder to do with foodservice,” he said.
“With some of the berry categories, you need to have more dynamic demand.”
California Giant Inc., Watsonville, Calif., would like to do more foodservice business.
“That definitely is an area we would like to expand,” said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing.
The company is working more with foodservice distributors now than in the past and continues to build relationships, she said.
Strawberries are the firm’s most popular foodservice item, followed by blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.
Sales in all categories are increasing, Jewell said.
“It’s probably a rarity when you don’t see a berry — fresh or in some form — in a restaurant when you walk into it,” said Mike Klackle, vice president of berry sales for Curry & Co. LLC, Brooks, Ore.
That includes fast food, white-tablecloth or a casual dining establishment, he said.
“It’s an important part of the distribution” at Curry & Co., he said.
The Folsom, Calif.-based U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council includes foodservice in its promotional campaign, said Mark Villata, executive director.
The council has been working with the Culinary Institute of America’s chef education programs and recently conducted a presentation at its Hyde Park, N.Y., campus where council representatives showed applications for blueberries.
“Foodservice is definitely an area that we are interested in,” Villata said.
The council is pushing chefs to use more fresh — not just frozen and dried — blueberries in their restaurants, since they now are available year-round, he said.
There was a drop off in terms of restaurants’ share of the food dollar in 2009 and 2010, but the industry rebounded in 2011, Christian said, and that upward tick is expected to continue.
National Restaurant Association surveys have shown increases every month during 2012, she said.
“Indicators are that the industry is recovering, and it seems to be a fairly strong and consistent recovery,” she said.
Jewell agreed, saying, “Foodservice is coming back really strong.”