Dining out has become a luxury for some consumers dealing with national unemployment rates of more than 8% and other economic challenges, but Texas onion growers and shippers say they continue to vigorously pursue business in the foodservice sector.
"The recession has affected that category a bit, but it’s still a big outlet for onions," said Chad Szutz, general manager of A-W Produce Co. in Weslaco, Texas.
Shippers say their foodservice sales have taken a dramatic hit over the last couple of years.
"Some of my retail business is better than my foodservice business and has been over the last couple years, because this recession has people eating at home more," said J Allen Carnes, president of Uvalde, Texas-based Winter Garden Produce.
However, there are signs that foodservice sales numbers may improve this year, Carnes said.
"The opportunities are still out there and we think it will improve, but the last couple of years, some of our retail business has been better than foodservice," he said.
The opportunities are compelling enough to attract the interest of Glennville, Ga.-based Bland Farms LLC, which grows and ships Texas sweets out of its Raymondville, Texas, operation and has focused almost exclusively on retail, said Rich Pazderski, sales director.
"That is a channel of distribution we will be pursuing going forward," Pazderski said, adding that Bland Farms traditionally has sold 95% of its onions to retail customers in the past.
"We are looking to diversify," he said.
Curtis DeBerry, president of Boerne-based Progreso Produce LLC, said opportunities in foodservice may be tied to shippers’ ability to help their customers cut costs and save time.
"The question is one of convenience," he said. "Everybody is pressed for time. How can we make it easier to use for the foodservice industry or whoever the user is? It’s the way it’s going in everything."
Crescent Fruit & Vegetable LLC, a company in Edinburg, Texas, that Frontera Produce Ltd. recently spun off, relies on foodservice customers, said Chris Eddy, sales and operations agent with the new company.
"We’ve really aligned ourselves with some of the largest foodservice customers in the foodservice industry, and we look to continue to grow the business, as well as develop some of the up-and-coming foodservice customers," he said.
Business has been good in the foodservice sector, Eddy said.
"We’ve seen our foodservice business hold steady and actually grow," he said, referring to Frontera, which created Crescent as a stand-alone onion and watermelon grower-shipper in January.
Foodservice also is a big part of the business at Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., which grows onions on 200 acres in the Hidalgo, Texas area, said Ken Stewart, sales/operations manager.
"Texas has a really good onion that’s really good for foodservice, so we take advantage of the opportunities we offer foodservice," he said.
Items such as blooming onions, found in various restaurants, continue to drive purchases of Texas sweet onions among restaurants, said Don Ed Holmes, president of Weslaco, Texas-based The Onion House.
"We’re very fortunate to be able to grow an onion that suits that — it has been a big help," he said.