The foodservice sector may not be feeling it yet, but the U.S. economy’s struggles presented some opportunities for wholesalers and retailers of Central American and Caribbean produce.

“There’s a slow improvement in the economy,” said Michael Warren, president of Central American Produce, Pompano Beach, Fla. “There’s a little more emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, but people’s spending habits have changed quite a bit. They’re still watching their dollars.”

Known for its Mayan Pride label, Central American Produce remains in an expansion mode, Warren said.

“Now we’re adding snow peas, sugar snaps, mini-vegetables and squashes,” he said, building on a lineup that included green onions, leeks, radishes and radicchio. “We’re starting to diversify more because we have the clients coming to us for that. We can serve as more of a one-stop shop for them.”

Among other commodities, mangoes remain on a growth curve.

“(Mango) volume is up 10% over last year,” said Larry Nienkerk, general manager of Splendid Products, Burlingame, Calif. “Though volume has increased, price has to some extent too. We’re keeping pace even in this economy, which indicates the public is buying fruit and we have an expanding market.”

But in November the rise in demand was coming from Europe, not the U.S., he said. Still, Americans have developed a taste for the kent mango out of Peru, now on shelves. Central American mangoes hit the market in late March and Mexican mangoes around mid-February.

Like Central American Produce, Splendid Products plans new offerings. “We’re just now developing a division for mixed chilies grown in southern Sinaloa (Mexico),” Nienkerk said.

For papayas, volume is down this year in Central America and such neighbors as Mexico. But that’s due to weather, not economics.

“Overall about 70% of the papaya business from Mexico was lost,” said Alvaro Perpuly, general manager of Homestead, Fla.-based Fresh King, referring to hurricanes that hit two growing regions there.

“Volume will be less, but consumption is up,” said Homero Levy de Barros, president of Pompano Beach, Fla.-based HLB Tropical Food, which specializes in the commodity.

“When we started this meltdown in the economy two years ago, we worried because papaya is an expensive fruit,” he said. “To our surprise we saw an increase.”

“Suppliers of supermarkets see an increase of wholesale and retail sales, but the foodservice business doesn’t because people are eating out less,” Perpuly said.

An improving economy, he said, would benefit foodservice most.

Short-term, Fresh King is benefiting from a steady supply of green-skin avocados in the Dominican Republic. The company ships seven container loads — about 1,300 boxes — weekly.

“I think we’re going to have this supply all the way to February,” Perpuly said. “The price is steady at $15-16 per double, or half-bushel box. We haven’t dropped it because we don’t want to affect the Florida avocado market.”

But Christmas and New Year promotions could temporarily knock 12% to 20% off what consumers pay, he said.

“The trees are healthy and full of fruit,” Perpuly said. “By March, most varieties are done and we’ll go down to about 4,000 boxes.”

“The market demographic needs to be analyzed,” Nienkerk said. “Whether it’s traditional customers buying more or new customers starting to buy, we hope it’s some of both.”