Tomato grower-shippers say the category seems to be recovering from the adverse effects of the recession, partly because of an improving economy and partly the result of foodservice operators and retailers tweaking their business plans to cope with changing markets.
On the foodservice side, Americans continue to dine outside the home, said Joe Bernardi, president of Nogales, Ariz.-based Bernardi & Associates, which has a location in San Diego.
“The difference is where they decide to eat out,” he said.
In general, less-expensive foodservice outlets probably fared better during the recession, while white tablecloth restaurants suffered, he said.
However, both segments adapted by stepping out of their traditional roles to appeal to a different clientele.
Fast food places introduced more nutritious items, like fresh fruits and vegetables, to entice consumers who were looking for cheaper food but who still wanted to eat healthfully, he said.
Higher-end restaurants realized diners no longer would pay high prices for meals several times a week, so they introduced more cost-effective offerings while still presenting a nice plate, he said.
“Americans adapt to the situation,” Bernardi said. Consequently, business has been picking up.
“Foodservice as a whole has been a growth area for us,” he said.
San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce saw a slight decrease in foodservice business at the onset of the recession, but that was offset by an increase in retail business, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing.
Last fall, however, key foodservice business began to bounce back.
“Despite all the woes,” he said, “it was clear that people were still eating out and still buying a lot of menu items that had tomatoes in them.”
The past couple of years have been tough on foodservice business, said Tim Biggar, salesman for the Escondido, Calif., location of Springfield, Ill.-based Tom Lange Co. Inc.
Now, the situation seems to be improving, he said, “but very slowly.”
For Red Rooster Sales, Firebaugh, Calif., foodservice sales have remained largely stable, said sales manager Jack Corrigan. However, he has seen a slight drop because of the economic downturn.
The company continued to sell all of its product by the end of the season, he said. However, the return may have been greater if foodservice business had been a bit brisker.
On the retail side, Bernardi said more supermarkets now offer ready-to-serve meals — not just the traditional roasted chicken or Asian buffets, but fresh food items with fruits and vegetables — in deli departments, buffets, and salad bars.
Many supermarkets now offer salad bars that some restaurants have gotten away from, he said.
At the same time, Munger observed an uptick in sales of roma tomatoes at retail and a drop in sales of premium varieties as consumers “shopped down to a more value-oriented item.”
That’s good news for Andrew & Williamson, because the company has a large roma program.
Munger said he hoped shoppers who switched to romas as a cost-saving measure will stick with them when the economy recovers, once they discover the good taste and versatility of the variety.
That’s what happened after the last recession, he said.