The last couple of years may have been tough on foodservice operators, but Chilean avocado shippers say their product has been spared the worst fallout from the downturn that has cut into restaurant traffic.

“Fast-casual, like El Torito (Grill) and Applebee’s, has been able to maintain clientele throughout this economy and they’re offering more menu items that feature avocados,” said Maggie Bezart, marketing director of the Washington, D.C.-based Chilean Avocado Importers Association.

“These restaurants offer fresh ingredients and look to attract people through their fresh ingredients. You’re seeing people request them if they’re not in salads or on hamburgers.”

Avocados have fared relatively well because they find their way to restaurant formats that often are more price-friendly to consumers, said Jim Donovan, vice president of global sourcing for Oxnard, Calif.-based Mission Produce Inc. and chairman of the Irvine, Calif.-based Hass Avocado Board.

Of course, he said, that’s not to say the industry didn’t feel the pinch at all.

“We definitely saw that (foodservice) was probably the one category that we saw a decrease in during the economic downturn,” he said. “Foodservice was down and it affected everything on the menus, including avocados.”

The situation seems to be less gloomy this year, though, he said.

“It seems to be getting a little life again,” Donovan said. “We’ve got a long ways to go, but it seems, at least for avocados, the equation of value, price, quality and what have you seems to be pretty good for even some of those foodservice outlets. It seems there are an awful lot of people in restaurants and so forth, and I think certain levels of restaurants were hurt much greater than others.”

Donovan noted that avocados’ diverse appeal in multiple formats has served as a kind of insulation from the worst effects of the downturn.

“It’s helped us tremendously with that cross-section from the ultimate fast food like Taco Bell to the casual restaurants are using avocados,” he said. “The product is getting out to some of these segments, and some weren’t affected as much as others.”

The growing popularity of avocados should provide a little added buffer against any persisting economic malaise, said Dana Thomas, president of Index Fresh Inc., Bloomington, Calif.

“I think there’s a lot of potential to put avocados on menus, and to a certain degree, we’ve been fortunate through the recession,” he said. “I think everybody has been hit, but avocados have been a little more resilient in foodservice than maybe some commodities that are a little more dependent on white tablecloths.”

The appeal of the product is one of its biggest advantages, Thomas noted.

“Of course, avocados have an advantage, whether in foodservice or retail, of giving consumers a valuable way to make a meal a little more exciting,” he said.

Phil Henry, owner of Escondido, Calif.-based Henry Avocado Corp., agreed that avocados had been more fortunate than other items through the foodservice slump.

“I think it’s had a negative impact, but I don’t think it’s been as dramatic as it has with other commodities because all the press about avocados and the nutritional benefits has been positive,” Henry said. “Of course, they’re a staple in Mexican restaurant sales, and sales there have held up pretty well. Avocados have held up better than other commodities.”

The worst times have passed, Henry said.

“Last year was the worst time for our sales to restaurants,” he said. “But the last eight months or so, we’ve seen an improvement with our sales to restaurants.”