DOVER, Fla. — While an overwhelming majority of Florida’s strawberries ship to retailers, that doesn’t mean grower-shippers ignore the important foodservice category.

Foodservice not a big focus for Florida strawberry deal

Doug Ohlemeier

Cammy Hinton, office manager for Hinton Farms Produce Inc., Plant City, Fla., views some early Florida strawberries.
Hinton says she wishes foodservice buyers bought more Florida-grown berries.

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association works closely with foodservice buyers and chefs to encourage them to use more strawberries, especially during the California’s winter off-season.

California has done well in persuading restaurants to promote strawberries June through August. After the bigger production region’s volume lessens, restaurants tend to remove berries from their winter menus, said Ted Campbell, the association’s executive director.

“Strawberries are underserved in the winter,” Campbell said.

“But we find half of the produce business is probably going into foodservice. We are looking at ways we can drive foodservice sales and ways they can use strawberries in more versatile ways.”

Cammy Hinton, office manager for Hinton Farms Produce Inc., Plant City, questions why foodservice buyers aren’t more involved in Florida’s strawberry deal.

“I wish that we could get more foodservice use from that level but it seems the only way to move the volume we have is through retailers,” she said.

“In general, when you go to restaurants, you don’t normally see fresh strawberry offerings. A few places have done strawberry salads that are good. The high-end restaurant niche, that is small and they’re not big-volume users.”

One good thing about foodservice people using Florida strawberries, however, is that it gets people interested in eating strawberries, Hinton said.

Hinton Farms focuses its sales efforts on smaller businesses. About 70% of the berries it sells to wholesalers such as distributors on the Atlanta State Farmers Market, Forest Park, Ga., eventually end up on supermarket shelves, Hinton said.

Hinton Farms also sells some berries to foodservice distributors.

Douglas Ronan, vice president of marketing for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., which has an operation in Dover, said the grower-shipper actively works to increase foodservice sales.

“We have a focus where we are trying to build representation in all those key channels and customer contacts,” he said.

“We don’t want to be viewed exclusively as a retail brand. In general, there is an interest in berries in multiple channels.”

Gulf Coast Produce Inc. is talking with a major broadline foodservice distributor about increasing their Florida strawberry purchases.

Steve Machell, sales manager, said the broadliner’s goal is to secure locally grown berries.

“They are interested in being local,” Machell said.

“The foodservice distributors are entertaining more of a local flavor, which makes us more of a potential source.”

Gulf Coast, which ships about 80% of its berries to supermarket buyers, sells berries to customers in the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada, as well as Texas.

Like many other grower-shippers, SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, sells most of its berries — about 90% — to retailers.

Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer, said the grower-shipper also works with wholesalers and broadliner purchasers.

“Foodservice is a very large term with a lot of small details in it,” he said.

“I think the best distribution model for my local country club here is not through SunnyRidge but through a proprietor that has a truck that can consolidate fruit and vegetables with paper plates, napkins and other items.”

Carole McKenzie, vice president of public affairs for Clear Springs Packing LLC, Bartow, said the foodservice segment hasn’t shown that much interest in Florida strawberries.

“We haven’t really expanded into that area yet, but are looking into it,” she said.

“We are a growing company and want to continue to grow and get our product out to as many buyers as possible.”

While most of Florida’s strawberries ship fresh, Wishnatzki Farms, Plant City, sends about a fourth of its berries to processed buyers.

The grower-shipper is the only Florida operation that markets to processed channels, said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer.

“We have later varieties that we need to find a home for,” he said.

“We have a philosophy of harvesting an entire crop. It’s a way to get extra for the crop at the end of the deal.”

Because of weather and varieties, Florida’s processing season is a six- to eight-week window toward the end of the deal that is considerably shorter than California’s, which sends berries to processors through the summer and fall, Wishnatzki said.