Organics still a niche market for foodservice


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Organic produce, which ranked No. 14 among the National Restaurant Association’s top 20 restaurant trends of 2011, may not be as popular as the locally grown kind, which ranked No. 2, but there certainly is some demand for organic fruits and vegetables among chefs and foodservice operators.

Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, Calif., wasn’t exactly cutting edge when the organic category started creating a stir several years ago, admitted Mike O’Leary, vice president of fresh-cut.

“We took a wait-and-see approach to see if it would take off,” he said.

The category has taken off, and the company now offers organic green onions, radishes, green cabbage, carrots and cilantro, though O’Leary is not sure how much of that goes to restaurants.

Buyers have asked about it, he said, but providing organic vegetables year-round, like most chains would want, could be an issue.

CBS Farms, Watsonville, Calif., grows more of its organic strawberries for retail than it does for foodservice, said Charlie Staka, sales director.

“Foodservice looks at it as a plate cost,” he said, and few foodservice operators believe organic produce gives them the “bang for the buck” that they need.

You’re not likely to find a lot of organic produce in a fast-food or casual-dining restaurant, said Annika Stensson, director of media relations for the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C.

“You’ll probably find more at fining dining establishments that are chef-driven,” she said.

It’s a matter of dollars and cents.

“Restaurants operate on very slim profit margins, so any little (cost increase) could potentially be a challenge,” she said.

Securing and maintaining supplies also could become an issue, she said, especially for large restaurant chains.

Paul Cocking opened his single Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1992, and has seen interest in organic fruits and vegetables grow since that time.

He’s also seen organic product become more available at the local farmers market, where he buys most of his produce, including broccolini, green beans and lettuces, although he sources oranges and lemons from brokers when they’re not in season locally.

He chose to go organic because he — and his customers — believes that organic fruits and vegetables taste better than conventional produce, are more healthful and are “better for the planet.”

Like most restaurants, Gabriella Café took a hit during the recession. Three years ago, sales plummeted 30%, but business now is rebounding, Cocking said.

“Organic tends to be more expensive,” he said, nonetheless, interest continues to increase.

“More people are asking about it,” he said.

Most of the café’s clientele are “a little older and more affluent” than the typical consumer, Cocking said, but he also serves a fair amount of college-age students.

“This is a college town,” he said.

Crispy brussels sprouts are one of his most popular menu items, but Cocking’s customers also look for local organic fruits in his desserts and salads.


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