Produce sales to retailer buyers are strong because consumers continue to save money by eating at home more often, Ohio suppliers say.

The market for fresh produce in Ohio remains steady for sales to retailer buyers, said Jeffrey Busch, chief operating officer at Caruso Inc., a Cincinnati-based logistics and produce company.

Most of its produce sales are to retailer buyers, and that business has been good despite the rough economy, Busch said.

Consumers who are trying to save money tend to eat at home more frequently.

“They have to go to the supermarket and that benefits us,” he said. “We’ve been a bit insulated from the economy.”

Caruso has seen a 43% growth in sales in the past two years. In addition to produce, the company ships a broad range of products, with a focus on fresh food, Busch said.

Busch said he thinks that because the economy remains poor, consumers continue looking for the best values when they shop for fresh produce.

Retailers in Ohio are interested in providing their customers with good values in the produce section, so Caruso works to offer buyers the best produce values it can, Busch said.

Greg Fritz, president of Cleveland-based Produce Packaging Inc., said price probably remains the largest determining factor in whether he can develop new business, but service and dependability are important factors in maintaining his current customer base.

“When times are tough, you want to know you can count on the customer, just like they can count on you,” he said.

Warrensville, Ohio-based Heinen’s Inc. is one local chain that Produce Packaging works with. It is an upscale chain with discriminating customers who demand high-quality items.

Produce Packaging also sells to a discount grocery chain, where value is most important.

Tony DiNovo, president of Columbus, Ohio-based DNO Inc. said his family has been a longtime supplier of independent retailers, but there are not as many around now.

DNO, a produce wholesaler that repacks and processes fresh-cut produce, continues to work with and supply independents in its area.

Ben Roth, president of Roth Produce Co., Columbus, said major retailers in the area include Giant Eagle Inc., Pittsburgh; The Kroger Co., Cincinnati; Aldi USA Inc., Batavia, Ill.; Meijer Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.; Whole Foods Inc., Austin, Texas; and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark.

Giant Eagle Inc. in October 2010 opened an upscale Market District store in Columbus.

Roth said the new store offers a “mindboggling” array of products, including exotic meats as well as organic and local produce.

“They set the bar pretty high,” he said.

Giant Eagle also operates Giant Eagle supermarkets and Giant Eagle GetGo convenience stores throughout Ohio.

Produce Packaging processes fresh-cut produce for retailers, Fritz said.

Some of its more popular items are vegetable trays and 8-ounce fruit cups. Produce Packaging also repacks tomatoes, pears, peppers and other fresh produce in retail packs.

About half of the company’s business is with retailer buyers and the other half is with foodservice buyers, Fritz said.

This summer, Produce Packaging installed a new onion peeler that will allow it to handle a larger volume of peeled and fresh-cut onions.

The peeler also enables the company to produce onions at lower cost, and it can now offer contract pricing on peeled and fresh-cut onions, Fritz said.

DNO, which has offered fresh-cut items for about 20 years, is working to expand its fresh-cut business to retailer buyers..

It currently sells its FreshHealth Kids-brand fresh-cut fruit in single-serve packs to schools. It also supplies fresh-cut produce to independent grocers, convenience stores and commissaries, said Alex DiNovo, vice president.

Slowly, but surely, Ohio retailers are buying more fresh-cut produce from DNO, Tony DiNovo said.

“It’s a slow progression,” he said.

A March report commissioned by the Columbus-based Ohio Grocers Association said there are 7,951 retail grocery locations in Ohio. That includes neighborhood markets and national supermarket chains, as well as fruit and vegetable markets, beverage stores and bakeries, but not drugstores or convenience marts.