Asparagus is ideal for restaurant menus, and foodservice customers are recognizing that, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission.

“We love foodservice,” she said. “That’s been a very nice program for us, and not just restaurants. We’re also looking at universities and hospitals and institutional foodservice and, again, introducing asparagus at all levels of the food chain, so people are more familiar with it.”

Restaurants introduce the product to consumers who subsequently become regular buyers for home preparation, Watte Angulo said.

“We want the next generation to grow up eating it and being familiar with preparing it with different methods and having it in different ways, and foodservice does help to a great extent in introducing asparagus to a wider variety of people and making them into lifelong consumers,” she said.

Good looks help sales

The vegetable’s aesthetics enhance its value, said Marc Marchini, a partner with Stockton, Calif.-based A.M. Farms and president of the asparagus commission.

“I think more advanced restaurants are getting a big chunk of asparagus because it’s an attractive crop, an attractive part of the plate,” he said. “People perk up, they get a better feeling for that particular menu whenever you include it. There’s a big thing going for asparagus in the foodservice industry.”

The foodservice sector has reported slumping sales at times since the recession started in 2008, but asparagus shippers say they haven’t had any shortages of orders from the sector.

“I don’t see them shying away from it,” said Leo Rolandelli, president of Jacobs, Malcolm & Burtt Inc., San Francisco. “The restaurants put three spears on the dish. As far as food costs, it’s not very much.”

Some restaurants will make concessions to economic realities, but they continue to order asparagus, said Gwen Gulliksen, sales and marketing director for Los Angeles-based Harvest Sensations, which is affiliated with foodservice distributor Pro*Act.

Asparagus adds class

Julia Inestroza, marketing and merchandising manager with Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co., said some diners willingly pay more to get asparagus on their plates.

“Surprisingly, there’s actually been an increase in asparagus taken by foodservice,” she said. “A lot of the restaurants are trying to capture more diners. A lot of them have tried to use asparagus in a way to get more customers in the door and to class up the menu a bit.

“They’ve switched out from the traditional green beans, mixed vegetables, broccoli and then they offer asparagus, sometimes even in an up-charge. Sometimes, they charge a dollar to $2.50 to $3.50 for ‘do you want to sub out your broccoli for asparagus?’ and they’ve been pretty successful doing that.”

Foodservice orders fit nicely in terms of the sizes they require, said Cruz Carrera, asparagus operations director with Oxnard, Calif.-based grower-shipper Mission Produce Inc.

“The foodservice is always good for the off-sizes, the extra large or the jumbos,” he said.

The economy can be a concern in the foodservice business, but even the worst slumps don’t last forever, said James Paul, salesman for Greg Paul Produce Sales Inc., Stockton, Calif., and Altar Produce LLC, Calexico, Calif.

“Europe’s economy is not going to stay down forever. Eventually, we’re going to climb back up, and when that takes place, that’s when you want the philosophy of the foodservice industry to support the health, not necessarily the profit margin, of the country,” he said.