Business Editor Bruce Blythe attended the National Restaurant Association’s annual Restaurant, Hotel-Motel show at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center May 21-24 and compiled these business updates.

Produce highlights from National Restaurant Association showBoggiatto Produce

Unfavorable weather hurt production of some crops earlier this year, though conditions have recently returned near normal, according to Mike Boggiatto, president and general manager for the Salinas, Cal.-based grower.

“Volume is off now temporarily, just because of the weather,” Boggiatto said May 23 at his exhibit, which featured his company’s “flagship” Garden Hearts lettuce products, Hearts of Romaine and Iceberg Babies. “There’s been too much rain and colder than we would like.”

Prices for lettuce, tomatoes and other products surged early this year after freezing weather killed crops in Arizona and other key growing areas.

Boggiatto said another small price spike may be coming “because we’re hearing such volume problems, because of the strange weather.”

Calavo Growers

The company’s new avocado salsa recently gained a retail foothold in Safeway Inc. stores, and the product may be sold through foodservice channels later this year, according to Calavo regional sales manager Mark Schweihs.

Available in mild and hot, the salsa can be used as a sauce for barbequed meat or for veggie wraps, said Schweihs, who oversees Midwest sales operations for Santa Paula, Cal.-based Calavo.

The product is part of Calavo’s Salsa Lisa line. Calavo bought 65% of Salsa Lisa in 2010.

Chiquita Brands International

Cincinnati-based Chiquita offered samples of its dried fruit chips, a new product the AMC Theatres chain began selling a few months ago. Eventually, Chiquita expects to launch the product nationally through other foodservice channels.

Made from bananas, mangos and pineapples, the fruit chips received an “excellent reception” at the NRA show, Kristin Harris, a national account manager for Chiquita, said May 24 at her company’s exhibit.

Chiquita also offered samples of its Apple Grape Bites, one of several healthy snacks the company sells.

Fresh Connect

Andrew Siegel, Fresh Connect’s chief executive officer, said his Chicago marketing company is on a mission to “bring flavor back to produce.”

While restaurant chefs like colorful produce, they also want a “discernable flavor profile,” Siegel said. “Salad, if you think about it, has tasted the same for the past 20 years,” he said.

To that end, Fresh Connect showcased several products. Those included Maya Heirloom Squash, a new product from Guatemala-based New World Farms. The squash has a “sweet, nutty flavor,” said Mike La Rocco, vice president of sales and marketing for Fresh Connect.

Wasabi arugula lettuce from another Fresh Connect client, Salinas-based Church Brothers, has a horseradish, peppery flavor, La Rocco said.

Fresh Connect also displayed crushed fresh herbs from Quebec-based Marvini Farms and “high-solid” onions from Gills Onions, based in Oxnard, Calif.

The herbs have a shelf life as long as five months, La Rocco said. Fresh Connect is selling the herbs to regional and national retail chains, including Whole Foods Markets and Kroger’s Smith’s division, as well as to foodservice operator Sysco, La Rocco said.

Gills’ onion variety, La Rocco said, works well as a chopped product for foodservice because it’s drier, low in odor and high in flavor.

Mastronardi Produce

There’s been overwhelming demand for Mastronardi’s Sunset Zima Seriously Sweet tomatoes, said Mike Jones, senior sales representative for the Kingsville, Ontario-based company.

The grape-sized tomato, which has been on the market about six months, can be used as an appetizer or snack or part of a salad or dinner entrée, Jones said.

Michigan Apple Committee

Michigan’s on track for a potentially record-breaking apple crop this year, thanks in part to higher plantings and favorable pollination conditions this spring, the committee’s Scott Hoerman and Ken Meyer said.

Early varieties, such as Macintosh, will be harvested in August, followed by red delicious, golden delicious and Galas, in September and October, they said. Michigan is also growing more Honeycrisp.

Retail and foodservice demand is strong, particularly for “local” product, said Hoerman, who is a Lansing, Mich.-based northern merchandiser for the committee.

Produce highlights from National Restaurant Association showMisionero Vegetables

Misionero showcased its recently-launched Wasabi Arugula, which is guaranteed to “add a little spice” to meals, according to company material.

Produced by cross-pollinating Arugula with horseradish, it comes in ready-to-eat packages and has a 16-day shelf life.

Misionero, Gonzales, Calif., displayed Cascade Blend of romaine and green leaf hearts and several selections from its organic line of spinach, herb salads and other leafy greens.

Northern Plains Potato Growers

The wet spring set potato planting in the Red River Valley two to three weeks behind the normal pace, said Ted Kreis, marketing director for the East Grand Forks, Minn.-based Northern Plains Potato Grower Association.

Still, Kreis expects a good crop once harvest comes in October.

Potato prices were strong this past shipping season, partly because demand exceeded contracted acres in the fry market, Kreis said. That resulted in fewer russet potatoes planted without contracts available for the fresh market compared with recent years.

Potato growers in the Red River Valley region of North Dakota and northwest Minnesota typically plant about 23,000 acres for the fresh market, and this year’s plantings are expected to be about the same or up slightly from last year, he said.

Sid Wainer & Son

“Petite” vegetables, including asparagus, carrots and leeks, are increasingly popular for garnishes and other uses by restaurants and other foodservice businesses, said Victor Simas, vice president for the New Bedford, Mass.-based specialty produce distributor.

Demand is also rising for fiddlehead ferns and garbanzo beans, especially on the East Coast, he said. That’s helped Sid Wainer’s sales quadruple so far this year, compared to the same period in 2010, Simas said.

Simas also displayed spinach “straws,” slender, hollow — and edible — tubes some bars use to make Bloody Marys.