(Feb. 10, 12:15 p.m.) MIAMI — Sales to foodservice customers remain a big reflection on today’s depressed economic times.

Florida distributors report slower sales to the once-booming buying segment.

The Produce Connection Inc., a major Miami wholesaler, has experienced a sharp decline in sales to foodservice customers.

Buyer Bob Saglime said same-store package sales to restaurants for The Produce Connection have fallen 25% from last year.

“The season, which usually begins right after Thanksgiving, just really hasn’t kicked in,” he said. “There are a lot of restaurants that were in business last year that aren’t in business now. Big accounts like Emeril’s are just not there anymore. Even the casinos, which run buffets — they’re not buying the quantities they did before.”

Saglime said The Produce Connection has noticed some accounts have been purchasing a little more dairy with their produce orders.

Tourism downturn

Restaurant visits in the state’s tourist capitol, Orlando, have also been affected by the economy.

“It’s definitely down,” said Ernie Harvill, president of Harvill’s Produce Co., Orlando. “It’s pretty quiet.”

Though there are a few scattered bright spots in the foodservice sector, Harvill said sales to restaurants in central Florida have fallen anywhere from 7% to 25%.

Business is off by 6% to 7% for establishments that are doing well, Harvill said, while the ones hurt the worst have seen the larger declines. The majority of restaurants doing a good job have seen sales decline by a smaller percentage, he said.

Not all foodservice segments have suffered, said Ronald Zamora, general manager of Coosemans Miami Inc.

During the winter, many wealthy northerners that visit Florida spend a lot of time at the state’s numerous golf courses and resorts. Those visitors, Zamora said, aren’t focusing as much on how much money they spend.

“That niche is pretty steady in its usage or product,” he said. “The normal tourists, the ones that go to the Olive Gardens, that usage has definitely dropped. Some of the fancier places you still have to call three to four days in advance to get a Friday reservation. But that’s generally not the case elsewhere.”

Steady Jacksonville sales

Despite the downturn in foodservice orders, business in that segment has remained steady for the Jacksonville-based Produce Distribution Center LLC, said Larry Movsovitz, chairman and managing director.

Jacksonville’s restaurant business has declined 30%, Movsovitz said. Because some chains have opened new locations in the northern Florida area, Movsovitz said his company, whose roots go back to the 19th century, has picked up some additional accounts to cover its foodservice sales losses.

“Our volume is increasing,” Movsovitz said. “Our volume is up over last year.”

Though restaurants have been buying significantly fewer items, restaurant operators have been moving their per-plate costs lower, said Roy Kane, vice president and managing partner of Coosemans Tampa Inc.

“They will still entice people to come in,” he said. “It will be a different business. It shouldn’t negatively affect the business, but should change the items a little. People may not be buying a golden raspberry as they’re buying a strawberry, but they will eat the same percentage of produce on the plate.”

Kane said demand for specialties has been strong this year. He said Coosemans’ sales have made for a good year.