SAN FRANCISCO — Spurred by growth of the technology sector and an economic uptick, much of the Northern California restaurant industry has rebounded from the recession.
“It hasn’t all come back,” said Steve Del Masso, vice president of San Leandro-based Bay Cities Produce Inc.
“There are places that have come back to the levels they were at before, and some have fared better than others.”
He said he’s noticed that fast-food and upper-end restaurants seem to be doing well, but the middle-tier sector appears to still be struggling in places.
Paulo Ho, warehouse manager for San Francisco-based VegiWorks Inc., said the bay area’s higher-end eateries came through the economic downturn relatively unscathed.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people in the industry, and they’ve noticed the foodservice segment as a whole has taken off,” Ho said.
“There’s a lot of tech money out there, and they can afford to go to a restaurant and pay $100 and not really be affected by it.”
One trend among his restaurant customers that he’s noticed is the demand for locally grown items.
“Right now, the key word is ‘local.’” Ho said. “It’s not so much organic. In talking to the chefs, local is much more important.”
But the items can’t just be locally grown — they also have to have flavor, he said.
Ric Tombardi, president of Cooks Co., agreed, saying flavor is paramount with his customers.
He has seen his business grow annually along with the demand for the myriad specialty items he carries.
Tombardi regularly e-mails newsletters to about 1,500 chefs and sous chefs about seasonal items, new items and items of note.
In late August, for example, he had flats of dry-farmed (grown without irrigation other than rainwater) early girl tomatoes that he was extremely proud of. Although the fruit were cosmetically challenged and wouldn’t have made retail grade, Tombardi said their intense flavor and dense texture more than made up for the looks.
In addition to flavor, he said nutrition is the “elephant in the room” and is a growing trend among customers.
“Baby mixed kale is replacing baby spinach on menus,” he said.
Tombardi said many of the Bay Area chefs visit farmers markets and buy some produce from the vendors. But the markets can’t supply nearly the volume, so the chefs source most of their items from wholesalers, such as Cooks.
Bob Loyst, executive vice president of Los Gatos-based Bay Area Produce, said he’s also noticed a trend of more people eating out. Whether it continues will depend on factors outside the produce industry, such as energy prices.
“The good thing is if gas continues to go down per gallon, it gives a little more disposable income for people to go out to eat,” he said.