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Harvest Sensations enjoying foodservice sector recovery, concerned for its future

Summer foodservice business has been better than expected, and it appears as if consumers are once again heading out to restaurants as they did before the recession hit in 2008.

But Tom Travers, general manager of Harvest Sensations in Miami, is very concerned that the newest financial problems, caused by Washington, DC, raising of the debt ceiling, might adversely affect the foodservice sector and result in a decline of Peruvian asparagus sales in that arena. “It’s funny you should ask that question,” he said Aug. 8. “Just at lunch today we were all talking about it.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average had slipped more than 600 points that day responding to the news that Standard & Poor’s had downgraded the ratings of U.S. bonds from AAA to AA+.

Mr. Travers said that business had been generally good, but everyone with whom he had lunch worried that the latest news could send the country back into an economic downturn that could be devastating.

“I don’t worry about asparagus getting on menus,” he said. “I worry about people staying home and not going out to eat.”

Mr. Travers said that the rebound at the foodservice level has been remarkable this summer and noted that he would hate to see a reversal of that trend. “I’d say ‘trepidation’ would describe how we are all looking at it.”

Typically, asparagus does really well in foodservice establishments in the fall and winter seasons when the weather gets a bit colder, Mr. Travers said. And with the good movement enjoyed this summer, he was looking forward to a very good fall and winter for the imported crop.

“The biggest issue in foodservice is consistency of sizing,” he said. “Chefs want all of the spears in a pack to be the same size.”

While the consistency of the pack is the concern of the packingshed, the Harvest Sensations executive said that weather often determines what size those spears are. Earlier this summer, the asparagus spears were on the small side, he said, “but lately we are seeing larger sizes.”

The foodservice sector mostly procures green asparagus, but Mr. Travers has seen some increases in the demand for purple asparagus. “I’d say sales in white asparagus are flat. But we have seen an uptick in purple asparagus. And recently I have heard some tri-color [foodservice] packs are being marketed. That is something to look for.”

As far as supply is concerned, Harvest Sensations is expecting that consistent supplies of Peruvian asparagus will be the order of the day as the deal wears on into the autumn season. “Mexico will be in for a couple of more weeks [until late August], and then beginning in early September, Peru should have the market to itself. Barring any unforeseen problems like bad weather or an earthquake or anything like that, we are looking forward to a good season. We expect to increase our volume a little bit.”

Because Harvest Sensations sells 95 percent of its imported grass to foodservice operators and suppliers to that trade, Mr. Travers said that virtually all its shipments come by air. “Our customers don’t like boat asparagus because you use up too much of the shelf life while it’s on the boat. We try to stick with air.”