Although the Twin Cities-area foodservice industry suffered significantly during the recession, a recovery seems to be on its way.

Of the 9,400 licensed restaurants in Minnesota, nearly half are in the Twin Cities area, said Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association in St. Paul.

Just about all of the association’s members reported their worst-ever years in 2008 and 2009, he said.

Customer counts are starting to rebuild, he said, but the guest check totals have a way to go before they’ll be back up to pre-recession levels.

Mixed opinions

The restaurants Marylou Owen, chief operating officer and owner of G.O. Fresh Inc., Minneapolis, patronizes seem to be very busy, she said.

Even during the recession, business at G.O. Fresh was steady because the company has a mix of customers.

Business may have fallen off a bit at some fine-dining establishments and some mid-priced restaurants, she said. But fast-food restaurants offset the drop because diners sought them out for low-priced meals.

“That enabled us to weather the storm,” Owen said.

Foodservice is a fairly new business segment at J&J Distributing Co., St. Paul, so the company, which conducts restaurant business in partnership with U.S. Foodservice, can’t make a good comparison between pre- and post-recession sales, said Kevin Hannigan, executive vice president.

Hannigan heard stories from others about a drop in foodservice business during the economic downturn, but he’s not sure how much credence to put in those reports.

“It seems like all the restaurants are packed all the time,” he said.

A mild winter helps

The relatively mild winter this year was good for foodservice business, said Clark Jacobsen, produce manager for Restaurant Depot, St. Paul.

“Business here has been pretty brisk,” he said.

Prices remained steady this year, unlike other winters, when they would ebb and flow.

While markets were down somewhat, volume was up, he said. And prices could take an upward turn on a moment’s notice.

“We’re only one or two storm systems away from high prices at all times,” Jacobsen said.

Restaurants are vying for customers by adding healthful menu offerings and focusing on customer service, suppliers say.

“All the restaurants are bringing in more great produce items than ever,” Hannigan said.

Targeting the health-conscious

The bad press fast-food restaurants endured over the past few years has created an opportunity for family-owned eateries and small businesses to differentiate themselves by offering more nutritious items, including berries and avocados, he said.

There’s still a lot of junk food available, he said, but even pizzerias “keep upgrading their salads like crazy.”

G.O. Fresh customers are buying high-end products and are more health-focused than price-focused, said Brent Beckman, sales and marketing director.

When Beckman visits chefs, he said they’re now seeking more healthful options, such as salad blends.

McElroy sees the beginning of a movement toward more healthful dining, but he’s not sure it’s set in stone yet.

“I think (healthy offerings) are being added to menus more rapidly than they’re being added to guest orders,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a trend, but it will take some time.”

Good customers, lower prices than its competition and a team of outside salesmen to pull in business has helped Restaurant Depot succeed, Jacobsen said.

Customers have to come into the store to buy their product, but they get to choose the produce they buy, Jacobsen said.

Maintaining strong personal relationships is important for foodservice operators and for foodservice suppliers alike, Owen said.

“People want to be serviced,” Beckman said. “We strive to serve customers as restaurants do.”

G.O. Fresh, which focuses on fresh-cut products, tries to help customers control their costs by entering into contracts with suppliers to keep prices from fluctuating throughout the season, he said.