(March 17) Many restaurants across the country are incorporating in their menus Asian and Hispanic specialty items, and sources said that trend will be on the rise in 2009 and beyond as marketers are doing more with brand names and new products in foodservice today.

“The industry is alive and well. For example, the market for Latino foods in 2005 was worth $18 billion and it is projected to rise to $25 billion by 2015,” said Jim Perkins, president of ULATAM Retail Solutions, Chicago.

Mike Marino, sales manager for Cimino Brothers Produce, Salinas, Calif., said there are many highly specialized Asian food companies that are targeting Asian restaurants and Asian food retailers, especially in cities that have a Chinatown, such as Chicago; New York; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“Since 1993, the Asian trade has definitely increased,” Marino said.

Specialty items are launching with much success not only in international cuisine restaurants but also in many mainstream restaurants across the country.

“There is an increased use of avocados, limes and cilantro,” said Robert Schueller, public relations director for Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc. “They have really made their way in mainstream restaurants, but the awareness of these items came from the Latin cuisine.”

Whether it is fruits, vegetables or hot peppers, restaurants are including them in their menus as side dishes and drinks.

“There are four hot Latin ingredients making their way in the foodservice industry: hass avocado, tomatillos, cilantro and limes, which can be used as a substitute for lemons,” Schueller said.

One reason why produce consumption has become very popular in both the foodservice industry and retail is because people in general are making healthier choices.

“Hispanics are making wiser food decisions,” Perkins said. “They want fresh quality produce and vegetarian options — they want less animal protein.”

Many restaurants are placing these specialty items next to other vegetables in salads bars in order to entice mainstream consumers.

Schueller said many restaurants are placing jicama next to carrots and celery.

“Jicama can be eaten as a stick, dipped in ranch,” Schueller said. “This is how it appeals to the mainstream.”

Chayote ranks as another popular specialty item getting hot in restaurant side dishes.

“Chayote has a very mild flavor and is presented next to other vegetables, such as squash,” Schueller said.

Other items are being used as condiments or introduced as tropical drinks.

“Many times, a side of jalapeños works wonders, even at hamburger places,” said Santiago Ogradón, a Hispanic advertising and marketing consultant in Los Angeles. “Also, a fruit shake, such as guanábana, has a very refreshing taste, like peaches mixed with strawberries.”

With so many varieties of specialty items available today, the foodservice industry has seen various types of international restaurants flourish, while the mainstream consumer has more options to choose from.

“The American palate is expanding a lot more,” said Nancy Tucker, vice president of global business development for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

“It’s not just Asian-American food anymore. It’s Chinese, Thai, Korean,” Tucker said. “They (restaurants) carry more specificly the flavors of each country.”

Tucker said for 30 years PMA has focused much of its efforts on building foodservice-related business for the fresh produce industry. Recently, PMA officials have met with many developers and cooking schools to show how produce can be incorporated in restaurants, Tucker said.

“Restaurants began offering very basic food basically paying homage to Hispanic cuisine,” said Julia Stewart, PMA public relations director.

“We got our toes wet with the basics and now we are starting to experiment with more sophisticated and complex flavors,” Stewart said.

The general concept and availability of specialty items in foodservice has made people more interested in the various flavors that exist in today’s market.

“People are more fascinated than ever before and more aware of new ingredients,” said Karen Caplan, president of Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda’s Inc.