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Foodservice Distribution In An Ever-Changing Market

Tracking trends, new technology, top concerns

With away-from-home meal consumption continuing to rise, foodservice is a golden opportunity for suppliers. It is an excellent venue for familiar or unfamiliar items to be prepared in new ways and introduced to the public.

Fresh kiwi, once an exotic specialty, is now found on menus across all segments and is a staple in schools. Brussels sprouts are another case in point. “Foodservice is where Brussels sprouts went from a seasonal side dish to year-round menu item,” explains Jeff Oberman, vice president for trade relations at United Fresh Produce Association.

On the other hand, getting onto menus in the foodservice sector can be challenging with a sometimes long, unwieldy approval process and lengthy contracts, especially among large chain operators. But by forging relationships with chefs, produce companies can find a wealth of new opportunities.

Salinas, CA-based Mann Packing Company, Inc.’s development team tries to come up with at least two new products each year. “The largest challenge or opportunity is identifying what is relevant and whether it makes sense for our customers,” explains Cody Ramsey, director of foodservice sales. One such example revolved around lettuce for burgers or sandwiches: Mann’s developers came up with an iceberg and leaf lettuce hybrid that stood up well to heat. This product, as well as single, washed whole lettuce leaves, provided just what their customers needed. “The trick is identifying a need and bringing it to market in enough volume to make it viable to produce,” Ramsey says.

Trends & Directions
One of the most significant trends among commercial and noncommercial establishments is the rising prominence of produce. Consumer interest in healthier eating and new, exciting flavors have contributed to a ‘vegicentric’ style of preparing and serving food.

Chefs may serve a few ounces of premium animal protein with nearly a pound of vegetables. According to United Fresh’s Fresh Insights for Foodservice newsletter, produce meat substitutes such as roasted cauliflower “steaks” and eggplant or beet “burgers” are appearing on more restaurant menus. By showcasing the many tastes, textures, and flavors of fresh fruits and vegetables in a creative manner, establishments stand out.

Alan Hilowitz, corporate communications director for Ready Pac Foods, Inc. in Irwindale, CA, observes, “Restaurant patrons are more willing to try new flavors and trendy produce ingredients as consumers look for naturally occurring benefits and functionality. In the case of the expanding grab-and-go segment, customers want something quick, but great tasting. Foodservice operators are also looking for solutions to compete with grocery chains offering fresh grab-and-go options,” he says, “which represents growing competition to restaurants.”