(Oct. 7) SELAH, Wash. — Foodservice continues to be a strong growth category for many Washington apple grower-shippers, despite the economic downturn that has hit restaurants harder than retail.

Explosive growth at Cashmere-based sliced-apple specialist Crunch Pak has kept the company’s foodservice growth on a leash in recent years, said Tony Freytag, marketing director.

The company, he said, just didn’t have the capacity to go after new foodservice business with the zeal it wanted to.

That’s all changed, thanks to a 50% capacity increase at its Cashmere plant, Freytag said.

“We had been worried about shortchanging retail,” Freytag said of Crunch Pak’s restrained efforts in foodservice. “Now we think we have the capacity. There are tremendous opportunities in foodservice.”

Crunch Pak has been supplying cut product for Arby’s, schools and a few other foodservice customers for years, Freytag said, but the company never emphasized it.

There also has been a change at the buyer end of the foodservice spectrum, he said. Unlike other value-added items, sliced apples first hit it off in retail, then caught on with foodservice purveyors.

“Originally, broadliners didn’t see the relevance of it (sliced apples) for foodservice,” Freytag said. “I think foodservice is ready for sliced apples now, and I believe we’ll make a major thrust in that business.”

Since attending the Produce Marketing Association foodservice show in Monterey, Calif., this summer, Freytag said he as received calls from buyers from four or five major restaurant chains he talked to there.

One increasingly popular foodservice pack for Crunch Pak is a 5-pound bag of diced apples perfect for Waldorf salads and salad-kit assembly, Freytag said.

Processed-apple giant Tree Top Inc. is making a bigger push into foodservice, said Dan Wenker, director of foodservice sales.

“We’ve had double-digit growth every year,” he said.

When the company entered the fresh side of the business in 2000, it focused on retail, Wenker said. In recent years, however, Tree Top has begun supplying fresh-cut apples for McDonald’s Apple Dippers and Fruit & Walnut Salad and for Burger King’s new Fresh Apple Fries.

Tree Top also does abundant business with casual-dining chains like Ruby Tuesday, Wenker said. And through a nationwide broker network, the company gets its sliced and other fresh-cut product into independent restaurants, too.

And half of the company’s foodservice business goes to schools and noncommercial feeders, he said.

In 2005, the company built a new dedicated fresh-cut plant to handle its increasing foodservice business, Wenker said.

Tree Top has research chefs on staff to work with foodservice clients on new recipes incorporating fresh-cut apples, he said.

Having chefs on staff helps Tree Top provide the all-important product differentiation customers are looking for, said Lisa Baldoz, foodservice marketing manager.