(April 11) April showers bring May flowers, as the saying goes, but a rainy California spring has brought grower-shippers a lot of frustration for Easter sales.

Even as clouds continued to threaten harvests through the second week of April, however, many marketers had a sunny disposition for Mother’s Day on May 14, the most popular day of the year to dine out, according to the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C.

California asparagus growers have struggled with rains and cool weather, shipping only 650,000 28-pound carton equivalents by April 9, a drop of almost 60% from the previous season. Mother’s Day is typically tailored for asparagus promotions, with California and Washington shipping peak volumes.

With Washington’s harvest starting with light volumes the week of April 10 and heavy volumes expected the week of April 24, the lack of asparagus from California play well for May demand, said Pat McDonald, owner of Pacific Marketing International Inc., Yakima, Wash.

“I think it’s built up an interest,” McDonald said. “When you haven’t had the asparagus available on a regular basis, as you may want or as you’re used to, you want to feature something new on the shelf.”

As chefs continue to introduce asparagus side dishes on their menus, California and Washington shippers welcome the spike in sales that comes with Mother’s Day, both in foodservice and retail sectors.

“The quality is going to improve as the weather gets better, and our volume should also go up by then,” said Vince Gomez, asparagus commodity manager for Tanimura & Antle Inc., Salinas, Calif. “We should have plenty of supplies by Mother’s Day, a couple of weeks before that.”

With Easter days away, shippers allayed retailers’ concerns about May supplies.

“We’re just having to work around (the weather),” said Cindy Jewell, marketing director for California Giant Inc., Watsonville. “They’re picking when they can and cleaning up (the fields). The opportunity wasn’t as great for Easter as we would have liked it to be because it’s really hard for retailers to plan on volumes when we can’t make any guaranteed commitments on volume.”

Jewell, however, predicted a better outlook for May.

Mother’s Day provides the kickoff for summer strawberry promotions at California Giant, Jewell said, and the company will unveil plans at the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association’s United Produce Show, May 6-9 in Chicago.

The California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, is sponsoring a Mother’s Day promotion featuring Australia’s Black Opal wines. Carolyn O’Donnell, public relations specialist at the commission, said food editors across the nation in late April will receive information on California strawberries and several recipes featuring strawberries and the wine.

SPECIAL DAY

Foodservice suppliers were still busy with Easter demands the week of April 10, but they were in contact with Western produce shippers to look ahead for the Mother’s Day supplies.

With California’s rocky start to spring shipments, restaurants have to plan their menus around availability, said Herb Joynt, category manager for produce at J. Kings Foodservice Professionals, Holtsville, N.Y.

The company distributes to restaurants, colleges, hospitals and other foodservice operators on Long Island, Manhattan, upstate New York, and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut.

Again, berries and asparagus are popular items with chefs in the spring, he said.

Dan Mol, president of Mol Produce Co. Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., said Michigan’s asparagus harvest is expected to start by May 10 — too late to catch any Mother’s Day sales. Mol Produce, however, began shipping asparagus April 10 from southwest Indiana. He ships from 140 acres, mostly to retailers in the region.

Frank Pinney, owner of Diamond Produce LLC, Salinas, sells iceberg lettuce to processors. When holidays spur demand at restaurants, he sees a bump in sales, and Mother’s Day is no exception.

In early April, Diamond Produce was shipping from Huron and Bakersfield, Calif. Bakersfield production has brought excellent quality, Pinney said, but that deal will shut down the week of April 17. Huron has been beset by the same weather patterns that will cause problems for the Salinas deal in late April, he said.

The Salinas harvest, originally slated to begin April 18-20, won’t start until April 28, Pinney said.

Lettuce shippers will probably be able to meet Mother’s Day demand, Pinney said, but there will be supply gaps and quality problems in June.