(May 25) CHICAGO — Produce has bright days ahead on restaurant menus, a boon for the industry on the national and local level.

That was the message at several sessions when more than 73,000 restaurant industry professionals packed McCormick Place for the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show May 19-22.

Fruits and vegetables are in a good place, according to dining trends in the nation’s top 200 restaurant chains, said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta. She spoke on May 21, noting that menu options are leaning toward flavorful foods, ethnic influences, healthy perceptions and contemporary comfort.

Kruse highlighted McDonald’s Fruit ’n Yogurt Parfait and TGI Friday’s fried green beans with wasabi-cucumber dipping sauce. Fruit as a salad ingredient also is gaining momentum; Panera Bread and McCormick & Schmick’s bring apples and blueberries to the table.

“Arby’s started it with its Martha’s Vineyard salad that contains grapes and apples,” she said.

GREEN IS GROWING

There’s a groundswell of independent chefs favoring seasonal, locally grown produce, but panelists at a workshop session admitted that sourcing locally isn’t always possible.

“The green movement is a complex issue,” said Rich Vellante, executive vice president of the Legal Sea Foods chain in Boston.

The chain of more than 30 restaurants chooses local product above organic, he said.

Panelists discussed Wolfgang Puck’s sustainability initiative, covering 14 fine-dining restaurants, more than 80 fast-casual restaurants and 43 catering venues.

With national retailers Wal-Mart and Safeway making such a big push into organics, one of the workshop audience members asked the panelists whether large-scale, industrial organic production isn’t an oxymoron.

“Look at sustaining small farms,” Vellante said. “Consciously grown and local means more to me. But Wal-Mart brings attention to it.”