Much like retailers, an increasing number of foodservice customers have gotten onboard the fresh California avocado bandwagon and have helped move the fruit from a gourmet item to a mainstream meal ingredient.

In fact, about 30% of the California crop goes to foodservice, according to California Avocado Commission figures.

Dave Fausset, sales and category manager with Mission Produce Inc., Oxnard, Calif., said he believed the sector hasn’t nearly peaked yet.

“I think the opportunities to grow in foodservice are still very big,” he said. “We’re finding guys that didn’t carry items with avocados, but now with the price being where it is, it’s definitely something they can add to food.”

To help drive that continued growth, the avocado commission has an entire outreach program that targets foodservice users.

From basic avocado information to recipe development and industry events, the program works to increase fresh California avocado usage, said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the Irvine, Calif.-based avocado commission.

Last year, more than 19 different restaurant chains worked with the commission to promote branded fresh California avocado items on their menus, at least regionally. Many were first-timers to the California fruit, too.

“The branded foodservice promotions are invaluable to not only the foodservice business but the opportunities they represent,” DeLyser said. “It introduces consumers to new usage ideas.”

Visitors to Subway shops in the Southwest, for example, may be used to seeing sliced avocados as a sandwich ad-on.

“But in other parts of the country that are fairly new to avocados, the sandwich use is like an ‘ah-ha’ moment,” she said.

The foodservice program also works with educational institutions and contract feeders, such as Sodexo Corporate Services, Gaithersburg, Md.

The integrated facilities management company, which provides onsite foodservice, last summer added five new fresh California avocado menu items at 850 of the foodservice operations it managed.

Each item was offered on a two-week rotation and promoted with branded point-of-purchase materials at ordering stations.

This year, the commission still has several branded promotional programs in development. But Ruby’s Diner, a Southern California chain of 26 restaurants, kicked off the season with its chipotle avocado turkey burger.

Posters and electronic blasts promoting the dish also featured the avocado commission’s logo. The limited-time program began in mid-February and will run through the end of April.

Several grower-packers pointed to ripening programs as one of the key factors behind foodservice growth. Users know when they receive an avocado order that the fruit is ready to use that day or the next.

“We’ve found in foodservice we’ve developed a lot of loyalty with some of the biggest and best chains and also at the distribution level,” said Rob Wedin, vice president of sales and marketing. “They’ve recognized that we’ve taken that (ripening) duty out of their hands, and they don’t have to worry. It’s a pretty big deal, and one of the sales points.

“When you look at the menu today compared to five years ago or 10 years ago, so many restaurants are carrying avocados now that weren’t back then because they can rely on ripe fruit.”

Fausset said foodservice also is an important outlet for #2 fruit that is fine internally but cosmetically flawed.

“They do take their share of #1 fruit. But what are you going to do with all of that #2 fruit that’s ugly on the outside?” he said. “Foodservice does a good job of moving that #2 fruit.”

Fausset of Mission Produce singled out Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. as a large foodservice user of fresh avocados that’s doing a “great job.”

By its own account, Chipotle takes about 4% of the California crop annually.

He also praised Denny’s for changing to fresh avocados from pulp.