FRESNO, Calif. — With more than half of all California-grown fresh tomatoes going to foodservice customers, the state’s grower-shippers are intently checking orders for signs the public is dining out in greater numbers.

“That’s going to be one of the issues we’ll be watching, because that’s so much of our market here in California,” said Ed Beckman, president of Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers.

The fresh tomato industry felt the troubles encountered by foodservice during the sluggish months of late 2008 and 2009, Beckman said.

“But we’re starting to see some confidence,” he said.

Whether tomato sales are a tool for diagnosing foodservice’s financial health, however, seems to depend on which member of the tomato industry is performing the examination.

There have been signs at Oceanside Pole Tomato Sales Inc., Oceanside, that the foodservice industry is coming out of the recession, said Bill Wilber, president and director of marketing.

Sales up, varied menus

Tomato sales alone are not a good predictor of economic trends, he said, but some chains have begun experimenting with varied menus and more dishes that include tomatoes.

The staff at Carlsbad Produce Inc., Carlsbad, also sees indications of better times ahead for foodservice, said Tim Biggar, salesman.

“It’s discouraging, though, because it’s really too early to tell,” he said. “Sales to foodservice are just not yet consistent.”

California Tomato Farmers is looking beyond sales before it draws any conclusions, Beckman said. As part of the cooperative’s overall research into targeting heavy tomato users, it will be trying to determine just how many people are again dining out and at what types of restaurants.

“That’s going to play a very big role in terms of just how profitable this year is for growers of fresh tomatoes,” Beckman said.

Guarded optimism

Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, San Diego, echoed the guarded optimism for foodservice shared by most California and Baja California tomato producers.

“It seems as if it’s bouncing back,” he said. “Sales are still slow and steady, but tomatoes are a good read because they’re a common foodservice item.”

While there is tomato industry optimism, concern remains as to whether foodservice is bouncing back — as evidenced by the response from Jeff Dolan, field operations manager for DiMare Newman, Newman, the tomato growing and packing operation of Homestead, Fla.-based DiMare Co.

“Ask me in November,” he said.