The value-added trend driving growth around the U.S. has done the same in the major Texas markets.

Brent Erenwert, president of the Houston division of Brothers Produce, said interest in the category just keeps growing.

"It's continuing to go up," Erenwert said, "and I expect it to go up even more."

Wes Holcomb, director of produce and dairy for Fort Worth, Texas-based distributor Ben E. Keith, said value-added brings more than convenience to foodservice customers.

Value-added also lets operators save on labor costs and lowers the risk of contamination during food preparation. It makes consistency in preparation more likely, too.

Two salad blends that have done well for Ben E. Keith - and which also capitalize on the "superfoods" craze - are Kale Color Crunch and Urban Blend, both from Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative, of which Ben E. Keith is part.

Kale Color Crunch has kale, shaved Brussels sprouts, napa cabbage, red cabbage, radicchio and carrots. Urban Blend, a proprietary mix created by Markon chefs, includes baby red chard, wild arugula and baby kale.

As the popularity of those items suggests, for many the drive to eat healthier hasn't abated. Erenwert commented on the demand for Brussels sprouts, and Holcomb noted that a few years ago Ben E. Keith never would have dreamed of selling as much of the vegetable as it does now.

Kale has also remained hot, Holcomb said.

Johnston Williams, son of San Antonio-based Willson Davis Co. owner Sid Williams, has observed the same.

"Black kale, a lot of kale," Johnston Williams said. "We didn't sell a whole lot of kale, and now we sell loads of kale."

Jimmy Bassetti, president and owner of Edinburg, Texas-based J&D Produce, noted that the interest in commodities varies between Houston, Dallas and San Antonio based on demographics.

"Ethnicity has always been a driving force for demand, and I do not see this changing," Bassetti said in an e-mail.

Erenwert described each market as unique for that reason.

"San Antonio market, heavier Hispanic items, driven by a lot of Mexican restaurants there; Dallas a lot of chains; Houston a lot of specialty products," Erenwert said.

Holcomb noted that what he described as more ethnic flavors, like cactus and yuca, are starting to show up in some Dallas restaurants.

Trey Touchstone, owner of San Antonio-based Touchstone and Associates, said he has observed other shifts in the produce business in Texas.

"In years past time was as big a factor as quality and price when it came to buying routines/patterns," Touchstone said in an e-mail. "Besides Mother Nature occasionally pushing markets around, the seemingly endless supply of loading options has, in our view, eaten away at some of the buying patterns.

"Depending on your customer, of course, the gap between the ol' 'preferred' label and the second option has also seemed to close some," Touchstone said.

Demand for locally grown

Bassetti said he sees the big cities essentially following the same trends as the smaller ones.

"They are looking for more fresh, locally grown and safe produce," Bassetti said in his e-mail. "Organic has been the buzz in all areas and probably will continue to be a growing segment in our industry."

Christine Morley, president at San Juan, Texas-based Rio Fresh, said her company has also seen increasing interest in local produce.

"For us, the markets have changed over the last several years in that the Texas markets are supporting Texas growers," Morley said in an e-mail. "Over the last five years, our sales in the Texas markets have almost doubled."

Morley cites the company's return to growing cauliflower as an example of the demand for local. Rio Fresh used to grow hundreds of acres of it, but since the crop is so labor-intensive and the company couldn't compete with prices of product from Mexico, it simply stopped growing cauliflower.

Upon request, Rio Fresh is now back in the deal.

"This past year, we were urged by our Texas customers to grow cauliflower again, and we did," Morley said in her e-mail. "We are very pleased with the support we are getting from grocery chains here in Texas."

Erenwert said he sees food safety regulations putting a damper on local, at least regarding smaller growers.

"It's sad but it's just the reality," Erenwert said. "The good thing is a lot of customers understand now because there's been so much food safety awareness out there. They know why we can't bring in something from some guy's local farm, that I can't take the risk for one case of mustard greens and lose $1 million in a lawsuit. So the local deal, I feel, is on hold right now."

Austin

Growing without any apparent restriction, on the other hand, is another Texas market.

"Austin, by its fast growth in size, has increased the demand for more produce," Bassetti said in his e-mail. "Austin has become a destination city in Texas ... Tourism, great music, great food and a growing population will make Austin a target city for suppliers."

Morley, too, indicated the Austin market is a growing one.

"Just this year we added another retail customer in the Austin area," Morley said in her e-mail.

Erenwert said the growth of Austin has been evident in how quickly Brothers Produce has built up its division there.

"What took us 25 years to get to truck-wise (in Houston) took them five years," Erenwert said.

 
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