WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — With its heavy reliance on out-of-state visitors, the economy could have a big effect on Florida’s foodservice establishments.

While retail sales have seen increased sales, produce distributors in the Sunshine State have been affected by the slowdown in the other half of the food dollar.

Bruce Fishbein, partner in The Produce Connection Inc., Miami, said important customers that may have ordered $800-1,000 in produce now buy about half that much.

A customer who used to pay his bill in 21 days now stretches payment to 30 days, while the ones that paid in a month now pay in 45 days.

Salesmen are trying to collect from the customers who used to pay in 45 days that aren’t paying until up to two months later, Fishbein said.

“It’s a brutal thing going on out there,” he said. “Everyone is paying slowly. It doesn’t matter who it is. There is much less business out there. Your regular customer is doing less business than they used to.”

Harvill’s Produce Co., an Orlando-based distributor, sells produce to the region’s many hotels and restaurants in the area’s many tourist attractions.

“Foodservice customers are being more cost-conscious and are reducing their orders,” said Ernie Harvill, president.

“Customers are being more conservative. They’re running a lot more specials. Everyone’s doing what they can to hold things up the best they can.”

Harvill calls business quiet and more tough than normal.

The casual dining segment seems to be faring well, while the fine dining and white-tablecloth establishments remain challenged, said Walter Vazquez Jr., chief executive officer of Freedom Fresh LLC, Miami.

“We are waiting for things to turn around,” he said.

“Things are looking positive. It looks like people are starting to get out and go to stores and buy more product and they’re also going out to dinner more frequently. Hopefully, this is a sign that the entire economy is starting to turn around,” he said.

James Killebrew, vice president of Baird Produce Inc., Tampa, said foodservice buying patterns have changed.

When purveyors used to buy throughout the week, now they’re focusing on buying one day a week, he said.

“This seems to be coming from the restaurants themselves,” Killebrew said.

“It might be because there’s a good possibility the restaurants are keeping a lot less product on hand, then they make the quick call and get something going.”

Though some of the established restaurants in the West Palm Beach region have opened new locations, Jack Scalisi, president of Jack T. Scalisi Wholesale Produce Distributors, said business remains off from where it was in the past.

“Slowly, as new areas develop, there are openings,” he said.

“Things are positive now. But it’s still kind of unsure as a whole as job losses are a big problem. But down here, we are more of a service-oriented market. We’re not into the manufacturing like Detroit and other areas whose markets are really suffering.”

Job losses remain paramount in other areas such as Tampa, said Chuck Bruno, vice president and general manager of DiMare Fresh-Tampa Inc., Riverview, Fla.

“It seems like the most important thing to people is getting jobs,” he said. “People are buying, but they aren’t buying as much as they did in the past.”

Meanwhile, retail sales appear to be strong, distributors say.

“We are seeing more business in the retail sector versus the foodservice sector,” said Roy Kane, vice president and managing partner of Coosemans Tampa Inc.

“A lot of people are trying to save money and are spending more in grocery stores.”

A vendor on the Tampa Wholesale Produce Market said he’s seeing more retail sales.

“I think some of the retail business is up because people aren’t going out to restaurants as much as before,” said Louis Garcia III, salesman and buyer for Crews & Garcia Inc., Tampa.

“Where the foodservice trade and restaurant business has been down, a lot of the retail business is probably benefiting from this.”

Crews & Garcia sells primarily to small- and medium-sized retail customers but does provide fill-in sales for some of the larger chains.

Larry Movsovitz, chairman and managing director of Produce Distribution Center LLC, Jacksonville, said fruit markets similar to smaller corner grocery stores have popped up in the Jacksonville region.

“A lot of the shoppers have gone from grocery stores to these fruit markets, especially in these times,” he said.

“I’m not sure if people are saving a lot of money, but they think they are saving money through economizing by stopping at fruit stands because everyone is conscious about eating fresh and keeping their food costs down.”

The fruit markets, which sell a variety of vegetables and fruit, have likely increased by 50% in their numbers within a 100-mile radius of Jacksonville, the region Movsovitz sells to, he said.

On foodservice demand, Movsovitz said more restaurant chains are running specials to keep their staff busy and to keep business going at a decent pace.