( Courtesy Omni Hotels & Resorts )

The foodservice category is becoming an increasingly important part of avocado suppliers' business.

The California Avocado Commission estimates that about 30% of fresh California avocados go to foodservice.

Avocado and guacamole penetration was measured at 46.2% of total U.S. restaurants in 2015, an increase of 32% from 2005, according to the 2015 Menu Trends Report from Datassential.

The greatest penetration of avocado and guacamole was in fast-casual restaurants at 58.1%.

"That business continues to grow," said Bob Lucy, partner in Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc., Fallbrook, Calif.

The availability of preconditioned avocados and year-round supplies from California, Mexico and Chile have helped build demand at foodservice, he said.

Increasing consumer awareness of the fruit's health benefits also has prompted diners to look for avocados on restaurant menus.

"That's been a real turn for the industry," Lucy said.

Avocados are on menus everywhere, from fast-food eateries to white-tablecloth establishments, he said, and they're used for more than just guacamole.

"You go into any kind of breakfast place now, and you can get avocado on toast," he said.

Gary Caloroso, director of marketing for avocados and asparagus for Giumarra Agricom International LLC, Escondido, Calif., agreed.

"We're seeing increased usage across a lot of different menu items - salads, sandwiches and breakfast," he said.

Foodservice business is on the rise "for sure" at Giumarra, he said, as more restaurant chains offer avocados on their menus.

Foodservice demand also continues strong for Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Paula, Calif., said Peter Shore, director of business development and marketing.

"Multi-unit accounts continue to feature avocados on signature items and limited-time offers, leveraging the fruit's appeal to consumers' palates and health benefits," he said.

Some of Calavo's foodservice customers' have up to three top-selling items that contain avocados.

For restaurants that use 20 or more cases per week per store, avocados are the No. 1 or No. 2 produce spend, Shore said.

Avocados mainly are used in guacamole and sliced for sandwiches and salads, he said. But more chefs are incorporating the fruit into sauces and dressings.

"Consumers are looking for more ways to enjoy them at restaurants," he said.

This year's short California crop - about half the size of last year's - could be challenging for foodservice operators who prefer California avocados, Lucy said.

Lucy said he will ask his foodservice customers to "be flexible with us on price."

"It's going to be difficult to lock in prices for months at a time," he said. "Go with us week-by-week, and we will get you the product."

Growers are going to be very demanding this season, he said.

"They know they're really in charge right now. They have the control."

Smaller avocados have become a better bargain than large ones for foodservice operators, so many have changed their size preference over the years, Lucy said.

"In the old days, they wanted No. 1- and No. 2-grade size 48s," he said.

Then they became more flexible and took size 60s. Today, even major chains take smaller size 70s.

About the only size they don't take is 84s.

"That's just too difficult to manage," he said.

Chefs used to prefer the larger sizes because it was easier to make guacamole from 40 pieces of fruit than 70, he said.

Now, with size 70 avocados often priced significantly lower than size 40s, operators figure the cost of extra labor to handle more pieces of fruit will be offset by the lower price of the fruit, he said.

Foodservice increasingly asks for preconditioned avocados, since most operators don't have large warehouses they source from or space in their restaurants to ripen fruit.

Lucy said about 75% of the avocados he sells to foodservice operators are preconditioned.