A trend toward using fresh peppers in salads more and moving toward lower-grade product could help peppers hold their own in a foodservice industry that’s struggling in the current economy.

“I think the difference I see in peppers in general is that they’re being used more fresh, not so much cooked,” said John Burton, sales manager for Peter Rabbit Farms, Coachella, Calif. “They’re being used sliced and diced in salads more.”

And that, industry experts said, changes the varieties and grades of peppers being used in foodservice. Instead of buying top-of-the-line peppers to cook and place as an ingredient or accessory in fine-dining menu items, restaurants are opting for lower-grade, lower quality peppers which can be chopped and diced up and included in anything from garden salads to Tex-Mex fajitas.

“There’s huge demand in foodservice for No. 2 peppers for chopping up,” said T.J. Bauer, director of sales for L&M Cos. Inc., Raleigh, N.C. “They’re trying to get more product for less money. Retailers aren’t really going to see much change (in quality of peppers), but foodservice might because of increased demand on No. 2s.”

Aaron Quon, greenhouse category director for The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, said he hadn’t seen much of a decline in foodservice for peppers, because “our base isn’t huge in that area to begin with.”

But Quon also noticed the trend toward a less-quality pepper in the foodservice industry.

“Foodservice has been buying mostly field-grade peppers,” Quon said. “A lot of foodservice saves the hothouse peppers for appetizers on menus of more fine-dining. They buy on a more price perspective.”

Still others said they think peppers in foodservice are going the same way as the foodservice industry —  not in a good direction.

“I’d say peppers are affected as much as foodservice as a whole,” said Adam Lytch, grower development manager for eastern vegetables and melons for L&M. “I know some shippers who were going through a couple truckloads a week, and now they’re using (less-than-truckloads) and just using as many as they need, not contracting long-term.”

Lytch also disagreed with the premise that off-grade peppers were faring better in the current economy.

“There’s not as much volume for off-grades,” he said. “If there becomes enough variance in price, then they might purchase another grade, but I don’t see that now.”

Lytch subscribes to the belief that, if one grade of peppers suffers, all will.

“Everything needs to be moving, at least somewhat,” he said.