(Aug. 5) As consumers become more enamored with table grapes, both for their refreshing taste and the nutrition benefits they offer, a number of grower-shippers are capitalizing on that popularity by aggressively pursuing foodservice business.

Mario Macias, owner and president of Bakersfield, Calif.-based Mario Macias & Co., said he goes after as much foodservice business as he can.

Retail accounts for a large part of the company’s business, but Macias believes in the importance of diversifying.

With restaurants, hotels and schools developing a variety of lunch and dinner programs, opportunities abound for table grape suppliers, he said.

Nearly all industry conventions and expositions devote time and space to the foodservice category, and it’s become a common topic of conversation throughout the industry, he said.

Foodservice business has been growing at a rate of 5% a year at Macias & Co., he said. The segment now accounts for about 30% of the firm’s business.

The Fresno-based California Table Grape Commission also recognizes the importance of the foodservice category.

Table grapes are a naturally appealing addition at eating establishments that range from white tablecloth restaurants to fast food outlets, said Jim Howard, vice president.

The commission will devote a section of its new Web site — www.grapesfromcalifornia.com — to the category and is changing the way in which it approaches foodservice chefs and operators.

In the past, the commission has focused on creating recipes and developing ways to incorporate grapes as ingredient in various foodservice operations, he said.

“Today, we don’t create foodservice recipes,” Howard said. “Instead, we go into the various foodservice operations and share their recipes with the wider industry.”

Instead of creating specific recipes, the commission now tries to offer “inspiration and ideas about why grapes make sense in various applications,” Howard said.

The new Web section will reflect that philosophy, he added.

Some foodservice operators order the same packs and varieties as retail operations, grower-shippers say, but others make special requests.

Fazio Marketing Inc., Fresno, has seen a shift toward specialty varieties, like 1-pound clamshell containers of the tiny, gourmet champagne grapes, said Tony Fazio, president.

“They’re very popular with the restaurant trade and high-end hotel trade,” he said. “It’s a perfectly formed small, miniature bunch.”

Champagne grapes have a higher sugar content than most grapes, and chefs often use them as distinctive garnishes in salads, he said.

Foodservice business also is on the rise at Crown Jewels Marketing & Distribution LLC in Fresno.

“We’re doing more all the time,” said partner Atomic Torosian.

One of the company’s most popular foodservice items are the small bunches packed 120 to 140 per box primarily for school lunches.

“We like to call them the ‘snack attack,’” Torosian said.

Small bunches of red seedless grapes packed loose in 21-pound cartons also are a popular item at Fruit Royale Inc., Delano, Calif., said Louie Galvan, managing partner.

HMC Group Marketing Inc., Kingsburg, Calif., will continue to offer its Grape Escape item — 2-ounce breathable-film bags of washed, off-the-stem grapes — that the company introduced last year, said Mark Givens, director of sales. HMC also offers a 1-pound version of washed, ready-to-eat grapes that are ideal for salad bars and for use in fruit salads, he said.

And the firm will continue to offer its Lunch Bunch, 2- to 4-ounce packs of grapes that are especially appealing to school children.

Foodservice operators demand the same high-quality product as retail customers, Macias said, with red seedless grapes typically their favorite varieties.

Aside from the single-serving packs that some restaurants and schools ask for, foodservice operators typically order the same pack styles as retailers, he said.

Chefs often use grapes in their salad and breakfast offerings, he said, but sometimes he sees “big, beautiful berries” in decorative baskets.

Fazio said he has seen a shift to specialty varieties among foodservice buyers in recent years.

So far, despite the economic downturn, “the demand for specialty items is still fairly strong,” he said.

But the deal hasn’t started yet for this year, and he admitted he’s not sure what effect the ailing economy will have on specialty grapes for foodservice.