Specialty and exotic fruits and vegetables may be building sales in retail produce departments, but they often get their start on restaurant menus, marketing agents say.

“I think the restaurants are probably a little bit different because there’s a little more demand by restaurants for unique products like this,” said Bruce Klein, marketing director with South Hackensack, N.J.-based Maurice A. Auerbach Inc.

“I think just through their menus, we see items you don’t use on your own normally, and a lot of that starts in the restaurants,” he said.

Independent restaurants often generate the biggest momentum for specialties, said James Macek, president of Coosemans Denver Inc. and Coosemans Phoenix LLC.

“The independent restaurateurs really have a much greater flexibility,” he said. “Those who can put out daily or weekly menus and feature seasonal items have an edge. Some items come and go quickly and are available for only a short window of time. If you have a national chain, it’s difficult for them to pull it off, because there might not be enough supply to meet the needs of all their restaurants. That certainly doesn’t preclude them from having an insert in some certain areas.”

He cited Binkley’s Restaurant in Phoenix as an exemplar of how eateries can get creative with specialty items.

“They e-mail people and feature all sorts of items,” Macek said. “They had an heirloom tomato dinner featuring a local farm. Those are things restaurants have to do to reach out and say, ‘come here.’ Fifteen years ago, an heirloom tomato dinner would have people scratching their heads, but now people know about them. It’s taking advantage of the electronic media we have to communicate with one another. I think it’s just a great thing that this one restaurant does.”

Gwen Kvavli Gulliksen, vice president of marketing with Los Angeles-based Harvest Sensations — and a chef — said restaurants are always looking for new ideas and new products to feature.

“Via e-mail lists and photos mainly with sales people taking out samples to chefs,” she said. “Foodservice still tends to read about products online and in food magazines.”

There also are sub-sectors in the foodservice business that make use of specialty items more than ever, she said.

“Grocery commissary kitchens, hospitals and schools are driving a lot of exciting changes,” she said.

Restaurants with Asian and Hispanic themes also drive sales, marketers say.

“All the Hispanic demographics eat a lot of different things, and that has exposed a lot of different people and cultures with the restaurant segment,” said Mark Vertrees, marketing director at Miami-based M&M Farms Inc.

“There are a lot of Hispanic restaurants and a lot of these small restaurants are requesting these items of their buyers like Sysco and U.S. Foodservice,” he said. “They might not be familiar with these products, but they’ll go to somebody like M&M and want them to educate them on the product and help them sell more of the product.”

Specialty products are a natural fit for ethnic restaurants, said Robert Schueller, spokesman for Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce, which markets products under the Melissa’s brand.

“They’re talking about the growth of the Latin category of restaurants and more defined Asian cooking,” he said. “Seeing that the tropicals fit in with these restaurants, the chefs are really looking for something spectacular.”

The clienteles of some restaurants have come to expect new and different items, said Hazel Kelly, communications manager with San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Frieda’s Inc.

“Consumers have come to expect it from high-end restaurants — something special and unique on menus,” she said. “And, now, we’re seeing it happening at chains, as well.”

Aesthetics also enhance restaurants’ attraction to specialties, said Mary Ostlund, marketing director at Homestead, Fla.-based Brooks Tropicals LLC.

“Foodservice is interesting; they really want something year-round, and they love starfruit because it’s such an eye-catcher,” she said. “They’re showing they can deliver tropical tastes. So, it’s a big coup to be able to use starfruit like that.”