( Photo courtesy Brittney Butler on Unsplash

Produce sales to foodservice operators have dipped significantly in the St. Louis market as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, as they have throughout the country. And while business seems to be picking up, distributors know that any resurgence won’t happen overnight.

“When foodservice does come back, it’s going to come back slowly,” said produce consultant Mike O’Brien, president of St. Louis-based O’Brien Innovations LLC.

Newspapers, magazines and internet publications seem to indicate that restaurants are struggling, he said.

Even if restaurants are allowed to open for outdoor or limited indoor dining, they can’t open their bars, O’Brien said.

“That’s not enough to pay the bills.”

The political parties’ inability to agree on a renewed government stimulus for foodservice “is not a good situation,” he added.

“If they don’t open up the restaurants and they don’t have any kind of a stimulus from the government, they’re just going to go out of business.”

The foodservice category isn’t limited to restaurants, he pointed out.

There also are hotels, hospitals, sporting venues, conventions and schools, among others.

Jeff Moore, vice president of sales for Springfield, Ill.-based Tom Lange Co., said he is proud that the company’s foodservice customers “hung in there and maintained a positive attitude” during the pandemic.

“They’ve been resilient,” said Moore, who works out of the company’s St. Louis office.

“I’m very proud of how they’ve been able to adapt and really respond and maintain in some really difficult times.”

Tom Lange Co. has seen its foodservice customers’ troubles first hand “and stayed in touch with them when things were tough,” he said.

Some foodservice business is starting to return, Moore said.

“Schools are back in, they’ve adapted,” he said.

St. Louis has a thriving restaurant scene with a variety of ethnic, white-tablecloth, fast food and other establishments, he added.

SunFarm Food Service in St. Louis also has seen a significant drop in foodservice sales, said president John Pollaci.

“All our customers are still there, they’re just ordering less,” he said.

He’s seen sales to caterers and schools decline, and he said rules regarding restaurant dining can vary from city to city and county to county.

Many restaurants have set up tables outside, but while outdoor dining can be an enjoyable experience during the summer and early fall, there’s been some concern about what happens when the weather gets crisp.

Pollaci theorized that restaurateurs may set up tents and install outdoor heaters during the colder months.

Curbside pickup is another alternative that seems to be working for some restaurants.

“It’s been a shot in the arm for foodservice when people were really quarantined,” Moore said.

“It enabled the restaurants to keep some folks employed and get some bills paid.”

Some restaurants managed to remain quite profitable using curbside pickup because their overhead was so low, he said.

The Missouri Athletic Club in St. Louis, where Moore sits on the board of governors, has two clubhouses that offer curbside pickup for food.

“Our curbside-to-go for both clubhouses has been really positive,” he said.

The practice remains popular even though some restaurant dining areas are opening up again.

“Curbside-to-go has been a really interesting phenomenon,” he said.

O’Brien said foodservice business may not rebound for a while even if restaurants open again.

“How confident is a senior citizen or anybody who is high risk to go back to the restaurant?” he asked.

“I think cooking at home is going to stick with retail for a while, until foodservice gets back on its feet, and that could be years from now.” 

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