Through good economic times or bad, the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., corridor remains a stronghold for the foodservice business, produce vendors in the area say.

It’s just a matter of finding the right niche, they add.

Jessup, Md.-based Lancaster Foods Inc. has grabbed ahold of fresh-cut business as its ticket into the foodservice sector.

A move to a new building two years ago prompted the strategic shift, said Jerry Chadwick, vice president of marketing and business development for the company, which built its business on the retail side.

“We moved into the old Giant Foods frozen foods distribution center and renovated it and as part of the plan built a fresh-cut processing facility,” he said. “We believe fresh-cut is the real driver in foodservice. It’s the majority of what we’re selling there.”

In earlier years, Lancaster’s foodservice sales were limited to “some fill-in supply on commodity produce,” Chadwick said. “But now, we’re supplying bagged products, and that’s where it appears the real volume is.”

It’s a good fit, because foodservice operators are looking for ways to cut their labor costs, Chadwick noted.

“They’re becoming amenable to buying 5-pound trays of sliced tomatoes and onions,” he said. “We’re benefiting from being able to provide those kinds of products. We’re trying to make sure they run their operation efficiently with less labor and do that by purchasing more value-added items.”

Lancaster launched a salad line in January.

“In less than a year, we’ve become a major player with providing bagged salads and spinach,” Chadwick said. “We’re doing a lot of that now. And, we’ve moved more heavily into foodservice with shredded lettuce, romaine hearts, that kind of thing.”

Retail still dominates Lancaster’s business landscape, but the company has found a growth area in foodservice, Chadwick said.

“Our foodservice is relatively small because we’ve been focusing on retail, but we’re growing our foodservice portfolio, primarily through fresh-cut processing,” he said.

Other produce suppliers in the area see strong opportunities in the foodservice sector.

“As with anything you see, disposable income is a major driver of spending, when it comes to foodservice and, certainly, the economic slowdown has affected foodservice and has affected various segments of the market in different ways,” said John Corso, president of Savage, Md.-based Coastal Sunbelt Produce. “We are optimistic that the market has bottomed out, and we’re starting to see, hopefully, some steady growth in the foodservice area.”

Jessup-based Edward G. Rahll & Sons Inc.’s niche in foodservice is independent restaurants, said Joe Rahll, vice president.

“The independents are doing fine in the area we’re serving,” he said.

Proximity to the nation’s capital is a plus, said Rob Mumma, senior vice president of business development for Belair Produce Co., Hanover, Md.

“We do a fair amount of convention business in town, and that has always helped,” Mumma said. “We’re not as chain-driven. We’re more white-tablecloth, mid-range to high-range gourmet specialties.”

Business has picked up this year, Mumma said.

“We’re busier than they were last year, but last year was a lousy year,” he said. “So we continue to be profitable. We continue to be here, but we’re not taking anything for granted.”

Tony Vitrano, president of wholesaler Tony Vitrano Co., Jessup, said the area’s diversified foodservice base has provided a cushion against the harshest blows from the recession.

“There’s still a lot of chain restaurants here, and there’s a lot of mom and pops,” Vitrano said. “There’s a lot of schools and hospitals in the area. And the government is a big player. Commissaries are big. They’re huge, and that’s probably one of the reasons this area hasn’t suffered as much as other areas in this economy.”

Paul Pappas, chief operating officer of Keany Produce Co., Landover, Md., said the white-tablecloth restaurants took the toughest hits from the downturn.

“The fast-casual, I think, is the strongest,” he said. “The independents also have been doing well, for the most part. “They’re well managed businesses, and they can adapt to the times to survive.”