Foodservice accounts for a large part of the business for many produce grower-shippers and seems to be inching upward as consumers ramp up their efforts to eat healthfully.

"We are experiencing slow, modest growth with our foodservice partners and relying on product innovation and service to drive new sales and demand," said Jeff Church, vice president of sales for Church Brothers LLC, Salinas, Calif.

The foodservice channel represents more than 70% of annual business for Church Brothers, said Kori Tuggle, vice president of marketing.

Fresh-cut, value-added vegetables and salad ingredients are the company's main movers.

"The staple items, such as a shredded iceberg lettuce or chopped romaine, are still steady in demand," Tuggle said.

Foodservice operators use staple fresh-cut salad ingredients such as iceberg or romaine lettuce as a base to create custom salads and are "mixing in back-of-house with other trending salad components such as kale," she said.

Foodservice business continues to drive the value-added division of Boskovich Farms, Oxnard, Calif., said Mike O'Leary, vice president of sales and marketing for the fresh-cut division.

"We continue to realize growth on items that Boskovich Farms has long been associated with," he said, including spinach, cilantro, parsley, kale and green onions.

"Salads continue to move to center of plate (for) many consumers," he said. "We are anticipating continued growth in traditional and leafy green salad offerings."

The foodservice industry plays a significant role in the business model for Mann Packing Co. Inc., Salinas, said Gina Nucci, director of corporate marketing. The category has grown steadily over the years.

"It's important to have a diverse portfolio of products and customers," she said. "This is a unique asset of ours."

It also helps to be able to load all products at one location.

"Although our value-added business has grown with the addition of our Simply Singles Whole Leaf Lettuce products and Arcadian Harvest salad blends, our commodity program, with 24-count romaine and iceberg, play a significant role in our business," Nucci said.

"If we didn't have a complete product mix, it would be difficult to get customers to come load our products."

Foodservice business is up 10% to 15% for The Chuck Olsen Co. Inc., Visalia, Calif., as a result of adding customers, said president Jeff Olsen.

However, business typically slows down in winter, he said.

Olsen said he is seeing an increase in orders of 12-count packages of lemons or oranges or 5- or 8-pound boxes of oranges or lemons from smaller foodservice operations.

"Instead of buying 40 pounds of oranges, they may be able to get by with five or 10 pounds," he said.

"We do a lot of smaller packages or breaker-type packs," he said.

Living greens are growing rapidly in the foodservice sector, said Brian Cook, vice president of sales for Carpinteria, Calif.-based Hollandia Produce LP.

"The high quality, exceptionally fresh taste of produce with the roots still attached provides a 'farm-to-table' flavor consumers love," he said.

Butter lettuce has been increasingly found on menus as lettuce wraps, lettuce cups and as an ingredient in burger and sandwich applications, he said.

Cress also is in growth mode as an addition to salads and as a topping for proteins, he added.

The purchase of an electronic sizer for sweet potatoes drove Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C., to be a major foodservice supplier, said owner George Wooten Jr.

"We were the first ones in the U.S. to have one," he said.

As the company sought new customers, it found that Nashville, Tenn.-based Shoney's restaurants specifically wanted an 8- to 10-ounce sweet potato.

Wayne E. Bailey was able to fill the chain's order, and today, 65% of the company's business is foodservice, compared with 10% to 15% for most suppliers, Wooten said.