Dixie Produce Inc., Chattanooga, Tenn., works mostly with foodservice customers, and business is looking up, said Lee Pittman, owner and president.

For one thing, he has seen more fine dining establishments open.

“We don’t have a lot of those gourmet restaurants in this rural area, but there’s been a little uptick in those. We’re getting more modern and trendy cuisine,” Pittman said.

He has seen this trend speed up during the past couple of years.

“We’ve seen quite an improvement in gourmet and upper-end dining. The market has changed enormously, and for the better,” he said, mentioning the economy as one major factor.

Foodservice rebound creates more demand“We had such a hard time since the downturn, and this is a real blue-collar market, but lately, there’s been some light at the end of the tunnel,” Pittman said.

Jonathon Mixon, farm manager of John Mixon Farms, Rutledge, Tenn., agrees.

“In cities where the economy has recovered better, we’re starting to see restaurants pop up that want to invest in local produce,” he said.

Mixon said this translates into chefs being willing to take more risks and work directly with growers.

“They are willing to go through supply fluctuations in order to appeal to the crowd that is really concerned with where their food comes from,” Mixon said.

Jim Walker, president of Louisville, Ky.-based Creation Gardens, agreed.

“There’s an increase in educated chefs who demand that local product. If they know it’s out there, we better have it. And that’s a good thing, a win-win for everybody,” he said.

Those trend also includes other items.

“The smaller niche restaurants want to push those local ingredients, and it’s not just produce. They also want local beef and other items like that,” said Billy Krause, operations and sales manager for Crossville, Tenn.-based Tennessee Vegetable Packers.