Economy keeps clamps on growth in Florida

01/19/2012 05:28:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

TAMPA, Fla. — Like other distributors, Florida wholesalers report slow produce sales. They say the economy is pressing retail and foodservice distribution.

“There aren’t a lot of jobs available because there isn’t a lot of business out there,” said Bruce Fishbein, partner in The Produce Connection Inc., Miami. “People are not going out to eat as much. During the week, your deliveries to restaurants are much smaller than they are on the weekends, when more people are going out.”

Despite the sales slowdown, Fishbein said the foodservice distributor’s sales increased a little from 2010 to 2011.

Though sales could always be better, some distributors, such as Louis Garcia III, salesman and buyer for Crews & Garcia Inc., which trucks produce throughout the state, said sales increased 10% over the previous year.

“The economy isn’t as bad as it was nor as bad as people think is,” Garcia said. “You have to work harder for the business and spend more time adding to it.”

While many Florida distributors report produce sales as weak or steady, some in south Florida say sales remain strong.

“Produce sales are pretty active and are definitely recovering,” said Jack Scalisi, president of Jack T. Scalisi Wholesale Produce Distributors, West Palm Beach. “Business is as good as or better than last year. We are at least 15% better than last year. There’s a lot of demand for fresh produce. You can tell by the deals hotels are offering. The vacancy rate has really shrunk.”

Scalisi said south Florida hotels offered more deals last year, when occupancy rates were lower.

Scalisi distributes to high-end restaurants, country clubs, yachts and private aircraft caterers.

The economic slowdown continues to affect tourism, said Marshall Glantz, president of exports, cruise ships and business development and executive director for American Fruit & Produce Corp., Opa Locka.

“The people that are in foodservice had a tremendous downturn in business just from their customer base,” he said. “People are watching their dollars and aren’t able to go to hotels and restaurants. The economy has definitely caused tourism to be down.”

American Fruit & Produce in 2011 entered the foodservice business by starting a foodservice division.

Foodservice sales remain slow in Tampa as well, distributors report.

Justin Warren, general manager of Coosemans Tampa Inc., said the overall depressed Tampa area economy harms sales growth.

“The state of the economy has made sales more challenging,” he said. “The smaller guys out there are feeling the pinch a lot. You have to find a way to continue to grow and get a wider customer base. You have to work smarter because the amount of business out there isn’t what it might have been in the past. To maintain an upward growth pattern, you have to get creative.”

Coosemans distributes specialty produce throughout the state.

James Killebrew, vice president of Baird Produce Inc., said the foodservice jobbers he sells to are making fewer orders and reducing the size of each order.

“They’re not seeing any big increases,” Killebrew said. “Their orders are consistent, but they are smaller than what they have been in the past. Not everything can continue to rise, I understand, but we do need to make sure we’re staying steady. When things start going down, that’s when you have to look at things to cut. After years of cuts, there’s not a lot more you can cut. We have to avoid going down even more.”

Baird distributes produce throughout Florida, sending trucks to Jacksonville, Miami and Fort Myers.

Steve Roza, owner of S. Roza & Co. Inc., said the city remains strong.

“Tampa is a growing city,” he said. “Pretty soon, three will be all housing projects from Tampa to Orlando.”

Meanwhile, the aging Tampa Wholesale Produce Market Inc., founded in 1934, continues with only minor improvements to the facility, said Peter Filippello, general manager.

“A couple of vendors on the market are redoing some of their office areas,” he said. “We did a major parking lot repaving on the south lot last year.”

In the land of Mickey Mouse and the metropolitan region that attracts millions of tourists to many of the state’s leading tourist attractions, produce sales are holding their own, said Robert Ondrus, director of category management for produce for U.S. Foodservice Inc., Rosemont, Ill.

“Things are steady,” Ondrus said. “People are still spending their money and taking their families out. They may drive more versus flying, but we’re seeing a steady economy.”

Ondrus said a mild winter caused many Northeastern and Midwestern visitors to postpone their trips to Florida until after the holidays.

Despite characterizing sales as steady, Ondrus said U.S. Foodservice, which distributes to many attractions, hotels and restaurants throughout Florida through its Boca Raton, Port Orange, Lakeland and Tampa distribution centers, is experiencing an uptick in sales.

“Things are going very well this year,” he said.

Sales remain difficult in north Florida’s largest metropolitan area, said Seth Movsovitz, vice president and part owner of Produce Distribution Center LLC, Jacksonville.

“It’s a very challenging produce economy,” he said. “Some of the volume is down with a lot of the foodservice customers overall. You have a lot of companies that are adjusting margins.”

Movsovitz said Jacksonville’s economy is struggling. He said the city endures a high unemployment rate and that produce distributors eagerly await the day when business begins to increase.



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