TAMPA, Fla. — The economy is affecting Florida distributors in different ways. In a state heavily dependent on tourism, some wholesalers report slow or weak foodservice sales, while others, particularly in south Florida, report strong business.
While weekday restaurant business often remains slower than normal, weekends sizzle, especially at the concerts and comedy shows at places such as the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood casino, said Bruce Fishbein, partner in The Produce Connection Inc., Miami.
“It’s insane,” he said. “Friday and Saturday nights, it’s standing room only. It’s interesting that the whole deal on South Beach, at Hard Rock and over on Las Olas Boulevard (in Fort Lauderdale), all the areas over the weekend, you wouldn’t know there is any kind of recession going on. You would think everyone is out having a good time.”
Despite a challenging economy, U.S. Foodservice Inc., Rosemont, Ill., is experiencing increased sales.
Robert Ondrus, director of category management for produce, said data from the Chicago-based NPD Group market research firm shows the restaurant sector experiencing strong movement.
“As a whole, the restaurant industry is picking up year to year, which is a good sign,” Ondrus said. “The restaurant part of the business is doing better. With the holidays, people are going out to restaurants more. They may trade down a little and may go down one step, but they will still go out.”
Trying to minimize costs, Ondrus said restaurants are also using more cost-effective foods, such as higher-yielding grades of produce.
“Produce plays a good role in that,” he said. “The less expensive product may not be better. You have to look at yield.”
Favorable weather also helps boost foodservice sales to the many restaurants, country clubs and institutions served by Jack T. Scalisi Wholesale Produce Distributors, West Palm Beach, said Jack Scalisi, president.
He said an 80-degree day in mid-December helps encourage more visitors to travel to Florida to vacation and play golf, which means more foodservice sales.
“The very best in the restaurant business, such as the country clubs — they seem to be recovering well,” Scalisi said. “People are becoming more active and are going out to dinner more. We also had a better summer this year than we’ve had for the last several years.”
Scalisi said the outlook for the tourist season, which begins in early November and runs through April, remains strong.
Chuck Bruno, vice president and general manager of tomato repacker DiMare Fresh-Tampa Inc., Riverview, called 2011 sales slow.
“It was kind of strange because it’s been flat,” he said. “We had some spurts of business during different times of the year, but overall, the take on the product is a little bit less than it has been in the past. People just don’t have the funds to buy what they need.”
Though Coosemans Tampa Inc. doesn’t deliver directly to restaurants, Justin Warren, general manager, said you can tell how well the region’s restaurants are doing.
“I think the economy is down,” he said. “You hear on the news and you definitely see that restaurants are not as hard to get into lately. Some are doing fine and some are not. You see independent places will open and be gone in two months. Another one opens and it’s gone. But that has always been the case.”
Warren said foodservice jobbers tell him sales remain slow.
The stress on foodservice purveyors challenges wholesaler, said Louis Garcia III, salesman and buyer for Crews & Garcia Inc.
“To get the jobbers we sell to, we have to be so competitive with the prices or we won’t get the orders,” he said. “They do complain about having 30 stops and not that much to take while on other days, they’re slammed.”
Seth Movsovitz, vice president and part owner of Produce Distribution Center LLC, Jacksonville, said Town Center, Jacksonville’s new shopping and entertainment venue, is affecting the restaurant business in other areas of the metropolitan area.
Movsovitz said the “destination” center, near the Atlantic beach, hasn’t severely harmed traffic at other area restaurants, but is pressing other restaurants during a slow economy.
“There are certain restaurants that will be busy no matter what,” Movsovitz said. “A few of those are going to pretty much turn it over once or twice a night, no matter what, especially on the weekends.
“Then there’s another level, the franchise groups, the multiunit places that might not pack them in like some of these other places.”
While some speculate retail sales benefit from a depressed foodservice industry, others, such as James Killebrew, vice president of Baird Produce Inc., said retailers aren’t doing much better.
“They’re feeling even more hurt,” he said. “They’re being hit even harder. I think their expenses stay the same or continue to rise. What they’re seeing in sales isn’t rising so they’re not keeping up with expenses.”