When it comes to getting their fruits and vegetables onto foodservice menus, produce suppliers tend to work through foodservice distributors, but many companies also develop direct relationships with certain customers.

It’s a touchy topic that many suppliers refrain from discussing publicly for fear of offending distributors, who play an important role in helping grower-shippers move their product.

Church Brothers LLC, Salinas, Calif., deals with major distributors and broadliners but maintains some direct relationships, said Vince Ballesteros, director of sales.

“We believe there’s a need for the distributors in today’s world,” he said. “We have healthy relationships with a lot of distributors across the country.”

While the company deals directly with some foodservice operations, Church Bros., also supports distributors’ efforts to grow their business with end users, he said.

Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, Calif., deals directly with some restaurant chains and also has broadline distributors as customers, said Mike O’Leary, vice president of fresh-cut.

Recently, O’Leary has noticed an increasing number of foodservice operators approaching the company directly, often at the Boskovich Farms booth at trade shows.

“Restaurants want to know who they are dealing with,” he said.

They’re sending representatives out to conduct risk assessments and evaluations of plants and fields more often than they have in the past, he said.

Restaurants have their own reasons for seeking direct relationships with grower-shippers, O’Leary said, such as food safety, ensured supply, consistent quality and cost.

But distributors still play important roles as sourcing specialists and getting a grower-shipper’s product into the foodservice pipeline, he said.

Some of the major foodservice chains have the logistics in place and the leverage to efficiently establish relationships with grower-shippers, said Rich Dachman, vice president of produce for Sysco Corp., the mammoth Houston-based foodservice distributor.

But he believes distributors still play an important role.

“We’re the largest foodservice company purchaser of produce in the industry,” Dachman said. “I’d like to believe that our leverage in negotiations with our suppliers could benefit our customers at a higher level than they could do for the most part on their own.”

Choosing to deal directly rather than go through a distributor is a tough call, O’Leary said, and requires a company to determine the best approach to pursue that business.

“Ultimately, everyone is going after same customers,” he said.