(March 7) LAKE TAHOE, Nev. — The keys to increasing watermelon consumption could be foodservice and exports to the United Kingdom.

That’s what the National Watermelon Promotion Board told attendees at the National Watermelon Association Convention in Lake Tahoe on Feb. 24.

“The more watermelon shows up in creative ways in foodservice, the more consumers will want to buy it at retail,” said Gordon Hunt, marketing director of the Orlando, Fla.-based promotion board.

Hunt said interesting recipes could spark consumer interest and lead to more retail sales. He said he recently demonstrated watermelon salsa at a restaurant near the board’s office. It was so well-received, he said, that the restaurant planned to add it to its menu.

“The more menu items we can get with watermelon, the better,” he said.

Watermelon’s place in the fresh-cut industry also makes it a good choice for foodservice, he said.

He used figures from the Newark, Del.,-based Produce Marketing Association to illustrate that potential. According to PMA, in 2004, 60% of all fresh-cut produce went to foodservice, and watermelon was the No. 1 fresh-cut fruit, making up 24% of the category.

Hunt said the board wants to expand watermelon programs at Don Pablo’s Mexican Kitchen, and Chick-fil-A Inc., both based in Atlanta; Crispers Restaurants Inc., owned by Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets Inc.; and American Dairy Queen Corp., Minneapolis.

Hunt also said he and board executive director Mark Arney planned to travel to the U.K. in the second week of March to explore opportunities for promotions.

He told attendees at the conference that U.K. consumers are eager for U.S. watermelons.

“They love your product,” he said.

The market for watermelons in the U.K. hadn’t been explored in the past because most U.K. buyers source their product from closer Mediterranean producers. Now, more are sourcing from Brazil and Costa Rica, he said.

Buying watermelons from the East Coast of the U.S. is just as easy, and the dollar’s weakness against the English pound and the Euro makes U.S. product more desirable, he said.

He said U.K. buyers are interested in buying in the summer — peak season for U.S. producers.

“It’s another opportunity for customers in the summer,” he said.