Los Angeles-area produce distributors with foodservice accounts often must take on additional responsibilities as consultants these days as chefs look to their suppliers to help them squeeze the most value out of their food dollars.

Verne Lusby, president of Industry, Calif.-based FreshPoint Southern California, said he sits down with foodservice customers to discuss their businesses and see if he can come up with ways to help them control costs.

They might cut out one delivery day a week, for example, or leave a key under the mat so a driver can drop off a load at night, when traffic is lighter. FreshPoint shares the savings with customers.

“Our mission is to help our customers succeed,” he said. “We view them as partners.”

A similar scenario exists at Harvest Sensations (before June 1 Pro*Act Specialties Division), Los Angeles, which sells to distributors that serve foodservice operators, said Dean Simon, president.

“Foodservice as a whole has been soft, the market is down,” he said. “A lot of restaurants are trying to cook as cost-effectively as they can.”

Simon helps chefs make sensible substitutions that maintain taste and quality on upscale menus while holding down costs.

For example, chefs who used to feature baby potatoes can use standard fingerling potatoes and get the same flavor. Instead of using fancy French filet beans, they can substitute hand-cut, blue lake beans and hand-cut yellow wax beans.

“They’re still getting a great-tasting bean, but it may not be that French filet bean they did before,” he said. “You’re talking about a 30% difference in cost.”

Chefs have the challenge of keeping diners happy who want to spend less but still want an upscale dining experience, Simon said.

He might recommend that they use one high-priced ingredient in a meal instead of three or substitute multicolored cauliflower for baby vegetables to add color to a plate.

“The cost difference is dramatic,” Simon said.

At first, people didn’t think upscale restaurants would be affected by the economic downturn, but that turned out not to be the case, said Sean Villa, vice president at Great West Produce Inc., Commerce

“It seems that (upscale diners) have kind of downgraded the type of restaurants that they’re going out to,” he said.

Now it appears that business is down at white-tablecloth eateries and up at fast-food establishments, he said.

Perhaps the biggest decline is in the popular, mid-level chains with large overhead that need to serve a lot of customers on a given day.

“They’re the ones that are really feeling crunch,” Villa said.

Sales are down double digits for white-tablecloth restaurants, therefore they are down a corresponding amount at FreshPoint, Lusby said. That means the company has to make an all-out effort to find additional customers.

Another challenge for foodservice suppliers is that chefs who a year ago were willing to pay more for the highest-quality product now want that same high quality but at a bargain price, Villa said.

“It’s not necessarily a business model that will work,” he said.