Boston's produce industry chugs along through economic ups, downs - The Packer

Boston's produce industry chugs along through economic ups, downs

05/17/2013 02:47:00 PM
Jim Offner

Although statistical trends point to a stabilized economic outlook for the economy in and around Boston, produce vendors in the area say their numbers don’t necessarily support those findings.

“It’s flat, I guess — about the same,” said Mark Ruma, general manager of Ruma’s Fruit & Gift Basket World on the Boston Terminal Market, Everett, Mass.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Massachusetts was 6.5% in March 2013, down from 6.7% a month earlier and virtually identical to the 6.6% figure in March 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The region’s largest business organization, the New England Council, reported in the fall of 2012 that the Massachusetts economy was in the fourth year of a growth period that began in mid-2009. Real gross state product was 4.5% above its prerecession peak, and 87% of the 143,000 jobs lost in the recession had been regained.

The council noted trends toward improvement in the area’s economy, particularly in the labor market, which it said had “improved markedly since the recovery began.”

Unemployment in Massachusetts peaked at 8.7% in December 2009 before beginning a steady descent to its current 6.5%, the council reported.

“My sense is that there’s still a lot of people not fully employed, even if they have some work,” said Peter John Condakes, president of Chelsea, Mass.-based Peter Condakes Co. Inc.

Consumers remain in cost-cutting mode, which affects produce sales, Condakes said.

“It’s tough for a regular family to eat the recommended nine servings a day and be cost-effective in their minds,” Condakes said. “That’s the challenge we face.”

Condakes cited, as an example, a comparatively low price on a box of macaroni and cheese, which looks compelling when compared to up-front cost of fruits and vegetables.

“Even though produce is priced the way it is, in terms of what you get for it, in terms of your health, it’s a bargain, but that’s a hard thing to sell because everybody is price- and box-first, and they have to try and make their paycheck go as far as they can,” he said.

It’s important to differentiate the economies of Boston and Massachusetts, said Sam Rocco, president of Chelsea-based wholesaler BC Produce Inc.

“The economy here in the Boston area never went down. We have a very stable economy here,” he said, pointing to education and biotechnology as lynchpins of the local economy. “Once you get out of Boston, it’s different.”

The council, in its report, forecast moderate economic growth across Massachusetts in 2013 after a slowdown late in 2012.

More robust growth is anticipated in 2014 and 2015, according to the report.

Expect produce buyers to be particularly value-conscious this year, said Steven Piazza, salesman and president Community-Suffolk Inc., Everett.

“The whole thing is providing value to the people who actually consume the products,” he said.
Piazza said consumers will find ways to cut back and that the trick, for produce vendors, is to continue to move as much volume.

“If there’s anything we can do to get the value to our wholesaler and smaller restaurant trade, get the plate cost down,” he said.

Some produce vendors say they have done that.

“I think we continue to find new customers and grow, so we really haven’t seen a negative effect,” said
Victor Simas, vice president of sales at New Bedford, Mass.-based Sid Wainer & Son.

Ring Bros. Wholesale, South Dennis, Mass., operates a wholesale business and a retail store, which has been a hedge against downturns, said Ed Ring, owner.

“The economy, when it got bad, our retail store did really well. Restaurants’ business dipped maybe 10% and retail was up 10%,” he said.

Competition remains as keen as ever, said Maurice Crafts, salesman for Coosemans Boston Inc., in Chelsea.

“Everyone is going after the same business. You need to stay sharp and flexible,” he said.



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