(July 3) Last October, the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C., surveyed more than 1,200 chefs with a list of food items, menu parts and issues and asked them to rate them as hot, passé or perennial favorites.

At the top of the 194-item hot list was bite-size desserts followed closely by locally grown produce. Organic produce was third. It’s no surprise that locally grown produce ranked so high. It’s the subject of conference workshop sessions and debates between the foodservice industry and the supplier community.

Produce suppliers who exhibited at NRA’s recent 2008 Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago told how they market their products in the context of the locally grown/sustainable theme.

Some said they break it down and address the reasons why locally grown produce matters so much.

“We may not be local, but we have the core values that local growers do,” said Christine Aguiar Lott, merchandising manager for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash. “We are a family-owned-and-operated company. Our orchards are family-owned, so we have that story and connection we can share with our customers.”

Mike Boggiatto, president of Boggiatto Produce Inc., Salinas, Calif., says he tries to grasp what people mean when they use the term sustainable.

“People want to get into buzz words and feel-good ideas,” he said. “I can grow 1,000 cartons an acre of baby iceberg lettuce and supply year-round and ship it to the East Coast. A grower on the East Coast can only grow it for 2½ or 3 months and get 200 cartons an acre. We’re doing more good to the environment. We get a higher yield per acre. For the other guy to get the same yield, he’d have to grow it on thousands of acres.”

Representatives from Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Salinas, take the opportunity to explain to operators that they have 24 shipping points that span 13 states.

“When it comes to buying locally, we’re probably better positioned than a lot of other California-based produce companies,” said Bill Munger, director of fresh-cut sales. “We are a national company and have products that cut down on the food miles, and when it’s $1 per mile for diesel, all buyers tell us that anything we can do to help them reduce that freight cost helps.”

With 74 member distributors around the U.S. and Canada, Pro*Act, Monterey, Calif., also could boast of its national supply, but food safety is equally as important, said Steve Grinstead, president and chief executive officer.

“It’s a delicate balance we work through with a food-safety push on one hand and a local push on the other. … “We are very much for local produce with more sustainable agriculture, but we can’t lose sight of food safety. It’s a strong initiative of ours, and we’ve already developed several growers, and we’re working with others around the country.”

Pro*Act’s food scientists work with growers to get them up to speed with proper food safety practices.

For garlic shipper Christopher Ranch, Gilroy, Calif., local means from California rather than from China.

Within the past several years, China has entered the U.S. garlic marketplace and overtaken the California market as a cheap alternative, said Jeff Stokes, vice president of sales, adding, “We’ve heard from chefs that California garlic has better properties for cooking with better flavor profiles and better consistency throughout the life of a dish.”

He has a marketing brochure that compares California and Chinese garlic.

Sid Wainer & Son, New Bedford, Mass., has a flier that lists the nine ways in which the company’s products are sustainable, including energy savings and environmental commitments, said Henry Wainer, president.