ST. LOUIS — Local produce deals may be a bit late this year, St. Louis distributors and retailers say, but better late than overexposed to the heat, as happened last summer.
Local fresh fruit and vegetable programs were off to a late start this summer for Sun Farm Foodservice, said president John Pollaci.
“It’s slow to start — too much rain,” Pollaci said July 15. “It’s either been too hot or they’ve had too much rain.”
Sun Farm’s main local supplier is Maryland Heights-based Theis Farms, Pollaci said. Baby head lettuce, tomatoes (including heirlooms), cucumbers, zucchini and squash will be among the top items Sun Farm sources this year.
A cooler summer has been good for Sun Farm’s popular local lettuce deal, Pollaci said.
“Usually lettuce ends quickly. It burns up,” he said. “But it’s been milder this year. Our customers really like it.”
The lettuce Sun Farm sources locally is similar to the Tuscan head lettuce it gets throughout the year from Salinas, Calif.-based Church Bros., Pollaci said.
The only drawback is that the local deal doesn’t complement the California deal as much as Sun Farm would like.
“Unfortunately it cannibalizes it a bit,” Pollaci said.
In addition to its Theis Farms vegetable deals, Sun Farm sources from other local growers, including blackberries from Illinois.
Despite Sun Farm’s success with its local programs, Pollaci said it can still be tricky at times.
“By the time you tell people it’s available, and by the time they order it, some small farmers are already out of it,” he said. “It’s hard to do wholesale local. We’re still working on it.”
Green leaf, spinach, spring mix, tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, green peppers, grape tomatoes, watermelons, peaches and cantaloupe are among the big local sellers for Vaccaro & Sons Produce, said owner Dale Vaccaro.
Tomatoes are among the local items Vaccaro & Sons’ customers demand when they’re in season.
“It’s what the consumer expects this time of year,” he said. “The quality’s better.”
Vaccaro & Sons has longstanding relationships with four St. Louis area growers that supply the company with local summer produce. A 200-mile radius covering southern Missouri and southern Illinois typically describes the company’s working definition of “local.”
“Every year it picks up,” he said.
Weather ups and downs
After a strong May and June, volumes start to taper off in July before picking up again in September and October, Vaccaro said.
It has to do with Mother Nature, not with demand.
“There’s too much heat. The tender stuff is not too tolerant.”
Fortunately for Vaccaro & Sons and other distributors of local fruits and vegetables in the St. Louis area, the heat has stayed away more than it did last year.
“This year the quality’s been excellent,” Vaccaro said. “Last year everything burned up.”
Independent Fruit & Produce, another wholesaler on the St. Louis Produce Market, was finally starting to ramp up its local sourcing of cucumbers, squash, peppers, cabbage, eggplant, watermelon and other fruits and vegetables by mid-July, said partner Steve Wielansky.
“Everything’s a bit late because of the weather,” he said.
Like other distributors, Wielansky looks forward to a rebound following a disappointing 2012.
“It was a little challenging with the drought last year.”
Sal Pupillo, co-owner of H.R. Bushman & Son, said consumer demand for locally grown in St. Louis continues to grow.
“We’re sourcing more local than we ever have,” he said. “You’ve got to give the customers what they’re asking for.”
Retailers and foodservice buyers alike love to source locally, Pupillo said. St. Louis area restaurants love to play up the local tomatoes, the local basil or any number of other commodities on their menus.
“We take pride in what we’re able to grow around here.”
At the height of the season, Bushman is able to source about 10% of its total volume from local growers in Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas, Pupillo said.
The company even sources greenhouse tomatoes from the Ozarks.
Educating growers in the logistics of working with a broker or distributor can be an interesting experience, Pupillo said.
“It’s a learning curve with these local guys,” he said. “They’re used to farmers markets. It’s a whole different level when you go to chain stores.”
One lesson that’s sunk is the need for area growers to pack produce in packs distributors and brokers can actually sell it in, Pupillo said.
“They can’t just bring it in bushel boxes,” he said. “They pack it in the packaging we need it in.”
There are all kinds of reasons for distributors, brokers, retailers and everyone else along the supply chain to prefer local when it’s available, Pupillo said.
“It’s better across the board,” he said. “Not only saving costs on freight, you also don’t burn as much fuel, there’s less wear on tires, and a smaller carbon footprint. That’s the future of our business.”
St. Louis-based retailer William A. Straub was sourcing locally grown peaches, tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, summer squash, blackberries, blueberries and other fruits and vegetables this summer, said Greg Lehr, produce category specialist.
By the second half of July retailer Dierbergs Markets Inc. had up to 25 locally grown items featured in lobby displays in all 25 of its stores, said Steve Duello, produce category manager.
“After a slow start, we’re up and running,” he said. “Spring was a little cool, and we had a lot of rain.”
For two months out of the year, Dierbergs leans heavily on local.
“In July and August, it’s a big deal for us,” Duello said. “It continues to be a popular thing with our customers.”
With 25 stores, Dierbergs is a good fit for locally grown, though it’s still a challenge even for Dierbergs to find growers big enough to meet demand.
“The bigger you get, the harder it gets,” he said. “We’re the right size company for it.”