(March 10) LEAMINGTON, Ontario — As North American consumers continue to leave more of the cooking to restaurant chefs and fast-food and deli workers, foodservice sales for many Ontario greenhouse vegetable growers continue to go up.

More and more cucumbers are going into foodservice channels, said Mark Slater, director of Erie James Ltd.

“There’s potential to expand into that, with sub shops using cucumbers, and I think McDonald’s is doing some in salads,” he said.

There are negatives to take into consideration when pondering a boost in foodservice programs, Slater said. However, some of those negatives may not be as big as they once were, he said.

“The hurdle is price — it’s difficult to match when you’re growing indoors, but some of that is changing,” he said.

Many foodservice buyers are focusing more on buying quality, Slater said. That’s in favor of Leamington shippers, whose high-quality product often is price higher.

“More foodservice buyers are becoming conscious of what they’re getting,” he said.

Even though some fast-food and sandwich chains are more amenable to getting their veggies from greenhouse growers, it’s the white-tablecloth restaurants that are the best customers, Slater said.

Matt Mastronardi, salesman for Pure Hot House Foods Inc., thinks cucumbers are due for a foodservice renaissance.

“In the next few years I think cukes are really going to take off at foodservice,” he said. “At some restaurants, you’re seeing the word ‘greenhouse’ on menus.”

That’s like a code word for quality, Mastronardi said.

More foodservice customers also are seeing the benefits of reliability inherent in greenhouse product.

“We have a consistent supply, which foodservice likes,” he said.

In fact, consistency is beginning to trump a quality that was for a long time a hurdle to greenhouse establishing a bigger footprint in foodservice, Mastronardi said.

“In the past, maybe the perception was greenhouse was too expensive,” he said. “Now, even fast-food is willing to pay more for quality and food safety. It’s not just dollars and cents anymore.”

The Leamington industry got a big boost when Subway restaurants began offering greenhouse-grown seedless cukes in its Canada stores, Mastronardi said.

Foodservice demand is definitely growing for Clifford Produce Sales Inc., Ruthven, said Mario Testani, salesman.

Especially at the higher end of the foodservice spectrum, he said, it’s all about quality.

“It comes down to flavor and uniformity,” Testani said. “Even if it’s just a wedge of yellow tomato. You don’t even have to eat it. Chefs want it for appearance.”

Clifford makes sure the 12-count seedless cucumber packs it ships to foodservice are as uniform as can be.

Testani said customers prefer straight over curved cukes.

Yellow and orange peppers and miniature cukes are other hot sellers with chefs, he said.

Not all Leamington-area producers of greenhouses vegetables are bullish on foodservice, however.

“Greenhouse vegetables are a little too expensive for foodservice,” said Dave Pereira, salesman for Mor Gro Inc.