Workers harvest organic celery for Lakeside Organic Gardens LLC. Organic celery, lettuce and kale are some of the most popular items requested by foodservice accounts, says Marliese Ward, creative marketing manager. ( Courtesy Lakeside Organic Gardens LLC. )

Organic fruits and vegetables typically have failed to make a significant inroad to the foodservice segment, but there are a few exceptions, and some suppliers are optimistic about future foodservice business.

The higher price of organically grown produce compared to conventional product often is cited as a reason for the dearth of organic items in restaurants. 

But Mark Munger, vice president of sales and marketing for Los Angeles-based 4Earth Farms, said the absences of organic goes beyond cost.

“Organic presents problems because, if (restaurants) are going to present organic on the menu, all of the ingredients have to be organic in that recipe,” he said.

Logistically, it’s difficult for restaurants to include all organic ingredients, he said.

Nonetheless, organic has been making some headway in foodservice.

“The last three years, we are seeing mild organic sales on the foodservice side,” Munger said.

“We’re having organic conversations with foodservice companies where we never had those conversations before.”

The juicing category has been an exception.

Munger said he has seen “a lot of progress and a ton of growth” in restaurants that do juicing and offer organic drinks.

These establishments tend to buy a lot of organic kale, apples, strawberries and bananas, he said.

“That’s probably where we see the biggest growth,” Munger said.

Watsonville, Calif.-based Lakeside Organic Gardens LLC is “right in the thick” of the growing juicing category, said Marliese Ward, creative marketing manager.

“Millennial consumption of breakfast ‘green’ shakes isn’t just a fad anymore,” she said. “Juicing has become a meal replacement and is becoming a consistent choice in their diet.”

Salad kits and meal kits also are gaining popularity, and the company is seeing an increase in sales to meal delivery services that request fresh, seasonal organic produce, she said.

Local natural food chains like New Leaf have opened up more bulk demand with the increase of organic salad bars and build-your-own sandwich options, Ward added.

Some of the most popular organic foodservice items are celery, cucumbers, lettuce, kale, red beets, carrots, parsley, cilantro, fennel, spinach and dandelions, she said. 

San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm grows and supplies a wide variety of organic fruits, vegetables and salads for foodservice, said Alan Ediger, chief commercial officer.

“The foodservice channel is a very important part of our overall business, and we have big plans to continue to grow in this area,” he said.

Earthbound Farm offers a number of foodservice packs of prewashed greens from spring mix and baby spinach to baby arugula and romaine. 

Restaurants, wherethe price has been a sticking point for organic produce, may have an opportunity to try some organic apples this season, said Kevin Stennes, organic sales manager for Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan, Wash.

That’s because Washington will have its largest organic apple crop ever, and one of its smallest conventional crops.

Foodservice operators typically stick with conventional apples because of the relatively high cost of organics, he said. But that dynamic could change a bit this season.

“There’s more price pressure with a few million extra boxes of organics in the state this year,” he said.

There could be some opportunities for organic apples, especially on some lower-grade product for foodservice, Stennes said.
Up to now, though, organic produce “hasn’t broken into foodservice too much,” he said.

Ricardo Crisantes, chief commercial officer for Wholesum Family Farms, Nogales, Ariz., sees great potential for organic produce in the foodservice segment.

“Organic in foodservice is a sleeping giant,” he said.

About 14% of supermarket produce is organic, he said, but foodservice is not even close to that volume, and Crisantes said he’s not sure why.

“That code has not been cracked,” he said.

Special handling requirements in the kitchen, such as prohibiting comingling of organic with conventional produce, may have something to do with it, he said.

Crisantes believes that eateries that make a full commitment to organics on their menus may have a better chance of succeeding than those that offer only a couple of items.

“A menu that only has pieces of organic doesn’t really give you the full effect,” he said.