A consumer’s first exposure to tropical fruit often is in a restaurant, and chef-concoted dishes can help push diners to buy these items from retail, marketers say.

Foodservice always will be a key clientele for the category, says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development with Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Southern Specialties.

“A great driver for creating a customer base for any product is when a consumer or family can enjoy them in a restaurant, so specialties have a customer base that includes many of the largest foodservice distributors in the nation, and our goal is to get these products in restaurants so people can see how they’re prepared and see what they taste like and enjoy them in restaurants,” he said.

Southern Specialties’ base of operations in South Florida drives home that point, Eagle said.

“We’re fortunate to have a nucleus of restaurants that really want to use those products, because they help define the region,” he said. “You go to a high-end hotel or a restaurant, and they have a Sunday or holiday buffet or brunch, and there are few things that create the kind of excitement on that buffet that the tropical category does.”

Restaurants are natural launching pads for tropical fruits, which often appeal to a diner’s sense of adventure, said Karen Caplan, chief executive officer of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif.

“Food trends usually start in white-tablecloth restaurants, and that’s just where the most exotic fruits are used in foodservice,” she said.

Standard quick-serve or fast-casual restaurants likely won’t put star fruit on their menus, but they might include dried mangoes and dried papayas as part of a trail mix or similar item, Caplan said.

Higher-end restaurants will use exotic items, she said.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen more and more white-tablecloth chefs utilize our tropical and exotic fruits as part of their menus,” she said.

Don’t count the category out of the fast-food sector completely, though, said Gary Clevenger, managing member and co-founder of Freska Produce International LLC in Oxnard, Calif.

“More and more items showing up on the menus of the restaurants, smoothies are at McDonald’s and Burger King, and the other smoothie houses are introducing the public to the flavor of mangoes,” he said.

Tropical fruit’s menu applications are almost countless, said Mary Ostlund, marketing director at Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla.

“Tropicals in foodservice are growing from supporting roles in dishes like papaya salsa over chicken to starring roles for the course like mango ice cream,” Ostlund said. “Having a tropical item on the menu builds a leading edge vision in the eyes of the customer for the restaurant.”

Scott DiMartini, regional sales manager with Coral Gables, Fla.-based Turbana Corp., said “fusion cuisine” is fueling sales of tropical items.

“There is still a tremendous opportunity to cater towards foodservice needs for tropical items through the use of innovative packaging … much like the industry has demonstrated bananas,” he said.

There are logistical and cost hurdles to overcome in the foodservice sector, however, said Jessie Capote, vice president and owner of J&C Tropicals, Miami.

“If you’re working with Sysco, FreshPoint or some of the big 900-pound gorillas, the volume is there. But you find yourself filling a 10-box order on a daily basis, it’s difficult unless you’re a wholesaler selling out the door,” he said. “That’s not our business model.”

For Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac Foods Inc., the best way to determine growth in the tropical fruit category in foodservice is by examining “key fruits,” such as pineapple and mango components in menu offerings, said Tristan Simpson, marketing and corporate communications director.

“Through Technomic Menu Monitor, we can see that mango, as an ingredient in items on national menus, has increased 642% since 2004 — with strongest growth in adult beverage and entrée dishes,” she said. “Pineapple has also shown growth in similar meal parts, up 175% during the same timeframe.”