Ohio’s restaurateurs in general are more interested than ever before in offering more healthful menu items, said Jarrod Clabaugh, director of communications for the Ohio Restaurant Association, Columbus, and fresh produce is an important part of that trend, he said.

Ohio’s restaurants represent big business in the state, with sales of $16 billion predicted for 2011, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2011 Restaurant Industry Forecast. The restaurant and foodservice industries this year employed nearly 525,000 people, the report said.

Fast-food restaurants’ addition of apple slices as an alternative to fries continues to affect the produce industry.

The availability of apple slices at McDonalds, for example, helps teach young children to make healthier food choices, and it helps promote fresh produce as a snack alternative, said Erv Pavlofsky, principal of business development at ProduceOne, Dayton, Ohio.

Clabaugh says he’s noticed more restaurants offering healthful fresh produce options on their children’s menus. As an option to macaroni and cheese, for example, some are offering steamed vegetables.

Restaurants that offer breakfast also are incorporating more fresh produce in their menus, Clabaugh said.

With an expanding variety of fresh fruits and vegetables available year-round, chefs can experiment with different items to add interest to menus.

A common way to tweak an existing menu item is to change the accompanying produce item, Clabaugh said.

Ohio’s chefs also are more frequently replacing center-of-the-plate meats or seafood with less-expensive fresh produce in an effort to reduce costs, Clabaugh said.

Vegetarian and vegan offerings are increasingly popular in Ohio’s urban areas, he said.

“More are moving to organic and vegan menus or at least having items on their menu,” Clabaugh said.

In Columbus restaurants, value is important, said Ben Roth, chief executive officer at Columbus-based Roth Produce Co.

Restaurants that properly put together a plate and offer it at a good value are those that are doing well, he said.

Tom Sirna, president of Cleveland-based Sirna & Sons Produce, says there’s a trend toward smaller portions in restaurants.

Some upscale casual dining restaurants, in an effort to keep customers coming in, are offering more economical options on their menus.

Sirna said there have been fewer new restaurant units opening and more underperforming restaurants of all types closing in the Cleveland area.

Until the past three years, one or two new concepts would open each year, but there’s been very little growth in new concepts recently, Sirna said.

Chipotle and Panera Bread are two of the more successful chains that have managed to open new units.

Chipotle’s emphasis on fresh herbs, free-range meats and local sourcing probably  has helped it grow, Sirna said.

Cleveland-based Produce Packaging Inc., a member of Norwalk, Iowa-based NationFresh tomato sales cooperative, services national restaurant accounts, including Applebee’s and The Cheesecake Factory, said Greg Fritz, president.

Foodservice buyers tend to be price-driven and likely to go elsewhere if a supplier can’t meet pricing demands, he said.

Produce Packaging sells to foodservice distributors, not directly to restaurants.

Ohio’s consumers also are increasingly interested in a variety of ethnic cuisines, including Indian, Mexican and Japanese foods, Clabaugh said.

The cities of Toledo and Dayton, in particular, have added more Mexican restaurants over the past decade or so.

That may be a good trend for the produce industry because Mexican-inspired cuisine lends itself to creative preparations for fresh produce, including fajitas and tacos, Clabaugh said.

Jim Sanfillipo, partner and sales manager, Sanfillipo Produce Co. Inc., Columbus, said the growth in Mexican restaurants in Columbus is a continuing major trend.

While it started with fast-food, Mexican-influenced restaurants such as Taco Bell and Chichi’s, there now are more authentic, independently owned Mexican restaurants in town, he said.

Sanfillipo Produce regularly handles good volumes of produce that is used in Mexican cuisine, including jalapenos, poblanos, habaneros, tomatillos and cilantro.

In addition to servicing Mexican restaurants, the company supplies other independently owned restaurants as well as country clubs and hospitals, Sanfillipo said.

In the past year, Sanfillipo Produce has added about six hospitals as customers.

Another trend Fritz has noticed is that foodservice distributors are buying more fresh produce for schools.

Produce Packaging provides a lot of items for school accounts, including fresh fruit cups, carrot and celery sticks, and seedless grapes.

Columbus, Ohio-based DNO Inc.’s niche in fresh-cut processing is in providing single-serve packages of fruits and vegetables for schools, said Alex DiNovo, vice president.

DNO packs the fruit under its own label, FreshHealth Kids.

Tony DiNovo, president, said DNO creates fresh-cut items as its buyers request them. Many of the items it sells to schools have been specifically requested.

First lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative and its emphasis on children’s nutrition encourage school foodservice directors to serve more fresh produce, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program funds daily fresh produce snacks in some elementary schools. Both have helped increase produce sales to schools in Ohio.

ProduceOne also works with school districts to provide a variety of choices for snacks, Pavlofsky said.

Education, health care and national foodservice accounts are ProduceOne’s main sources of sales.

One issue that concerns Ohio restaurant owners is the state’s 2012 minimum wage increases from $7.40 to $7.70 for non-tipped employees and from $3.70 to $3.85 for tipped employees.

The state’s minimum wage is subject to a voter-approved 2006 constitutional amendment that requires annual adjustments based on the rate of inflation.

The increases will occur on Jan. 1, and they apply to employers with gross incomes of more than $283,000, according to a news release from the Ohio department of commerce. Companies grossing $283,000 or less annually are required to pay the federal minimum wage of $7.25.