(Nov. 5) For some operators the debate continues: “Is it better to buy fresh-cut from a processor or cut the product in-house?”

Others clearly have made up their mind to “order in.” Forty-five percent of vegetables used in foodservice are received as value-added product, says Ronnie De La Cruz, program director for Tanimura & Antle Inc., Salinas, Calif.

If you’re looking into fresh-cut, consider the evolution of the industry in fresh-cut availability, labor savings and food safety.

LOOK ON BOARD

McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill., for one, has turned to fresh-cut vegetables in a big way.

With 13,148 restaurants in the U.S. and 1,238 locations in Canada, the chain uses precut items like lettuce, onions and tomatoes to help simplify and streamline its restaurant operations, says company spokeswoman Julie Pottebaum.

McDonald’s works with five regional fresh-cut suppliers that ship directly to distribution centers throughout the country.

Pottebaum says quality is a major issue for McDonald’s. “We have very high standards, and before anything is served in our restaurants, each ingredient has gone through a stringent series of inspections put in place by McDonald’s, the producers and the (U.S. Department of Agriculture),” she says.

Wayne Goldman, vice president, strategic sourcing for Star Purchasing, Milwaukee, a purchasing management consulting company for the health care industry, estimates that 40% of the produce his customers buy is fresh-cut, and that figure is rising.

NOTICE THE PROS

There are numerous reasons to consider using supplier-sourced fresh-cut produce in your restaurant.

Edith Garrett, president of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, Alexandria, Va., says fresh-cut gives you better portion control and more manageable food cost information. Since you’re paying by the pound, you’ll know exactly how many salads you’re going to get out of the bag, she says.

Goldman of Star Purchasing says labor is another factor.

The health care industry in particular is finding it difficult to hire enough qualified workers and has had to rely more on ready-prepared products, he says. He cites added expenses as a downside to fresh-cut.

But IFPA’s Garrett says it’s important to consider more than just the cost of raw materials when comparing fresh-cut product with that prepared in-house.

Also take into account factors like labor costs, overhead and the cost of handling waste.

SAFETY FIRST

As you consider outsourcing fresh-cut, take into account the food safety factor.

Processors keep up with the latest local regulations, food safety standards and technology, Garrett says.

O’Leary of Boskovich Farms, for example, says the company has an expert on staff who is responsible for ensuring that fresh-cut product is clean, safe and ready to consume.

Consistent product quality every time, which is critical to restaurant operators, is another advantage of fresh-cut produce, says John Loughridge, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla.

Finally, don’t rule out fresh-cut produce just because you operate a white-tablecloth establishment.

Garrett says chefs with one to three restaurants need to look for a flexible processor that can provide many whole and fresh-cut product options. Some innovative processors, for example, could provide a bag of precut ingredients for a restaurant’s signature soup, she says.

If you’re in search of a fresh-cut provider, most major processors are members of IFPA, and the association can help find one near you that fits your needs, Garrett says.

She also recommends networking at industry conventions.

Goldman of Star Purchasing says the best way to select a fresh-cut supplier is to find out what’s available from your current distributors and what processors they deal with. Then talk to the manufacturers directly about setting up a program through your distributor.

MEET DISTRIBUTION HEAD-ON

It’s important to make sure you have solid distribution channels.

Warren Hutchins, senior vice president for American Hospitality Concepts Inc., Braintree, Mass., says that, although the company buys shredded cabbage, carrot and celery sticks and romaine lettuce from fresh-cut suppliers, it has not yet turned to processors for its special-blend salads, largely because of distribution concerns. The company operates 145 restaurants in 25 states and Canada under the names The Ground Round, Tin Alley Grill and Berkshire Grill.

“We still haven’t quite convinced ourselves that this is definitely the move to be made in terms of consistently delivering the quality to our guests that we expect and having a better total cost situation,” he says.

The company still is intrigued by the opportunities fresh-cut provides and is reviewing fresh-cut in its product development center as it seeks the right mixture for a base house salad. Salads account for most of the greens the company uses, he says.

Suppliers are making a concerted effort to get their product to you in a hurry.

Del Monte’s Loughridge says the company is meeting distribution challenges in a timely manner after building distribution centers in Denver; Atlanta; Portland, Ore.; Kansas City, Mo.; Kankakee, Ill.; Jessup, Md.; and Plant City, Fla. The company expects to have three or four more centers up and running by fall. The company’s extensive fresh-cut line includes pineapple, melons, salad kits, grapes, sliced tomatoes and several kinds of fresh-cut vegetables.

There’s been a migration toward fresh-cut for the past 10 years, says Mike O’Leary, sales manager for the fresh-cut division of Boskovich Farms, Oxnard, Calif. And that trend continues as technology becomes more available and packaging and quality improve.

O’Leary says Boskovich easily can serve the West Coast from its Oxnard location, but the company is stepping up its efforts to go East with a product line that includes more than two dozen fresh-cut vegetables.

He admits that the company isn’t sending bobtail trucks from Oxnard into Kansas City,Mo., but Boskovich is doing the next best thing — finding local distributors or processors to handle its product in metropolitan areas nationwide.

The importance of regional processors is even greater when you’re dealing with fresh-cut fruit, which has a much shorter shelf life than most precut vegetables, says Carl Svangtun, vice president and general manager at fresh-cut fruit supplier Sun Rich Fresh Foods Inc., Richmond, British Columbia.
Sun Rich has facilities in Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia, and plans to open a fourth in the Southeastern U.S. by the summer of 2003.

“You can only (serve customers) by cutting close to the customers and delivering your product within a very short window,” he says.