ST. LOUIS — After a tough winter, St. Louis produce distributors and retailers are glad to see summer.
Sales of melons and other commodities have been steady this year for Midwest Best Produce Inc., said Dan Pupillo Jr., the company’s president.
“It’s been a good year,” Pupillo said of watermelon sales. “We flew through the winter, then February to spring was a tight market for North Florida and Georgia.”
Summer markets, however, threw Midwest Best a bit of a curve ball, Pupillo said.
“We thought it would be tight for the Fourth, but we ended up having a surplus. And with a lot coming in after the holiday, it’s a slow time. We need to keep the crop turning over until we’re caught up.”
Watermelons are Midwest Best’s top commodity, Pupillo said. The company also ships cantaloupes, honeydews, mangoes, limes and other fruits and tomatoes, onions and other staple vegetables.
“In St. Louis and the Midwest, we do quite a bit of pineapples, cantaloupes, honeydews, limes and mangoes,” he said.
Midwest Best remains focused on keeping one step ahead of its customers’ food safety demands.
“We’re concentrating on streamlining, running a clean, efficient building,” he said. “With the new food safety guidelines, you have to stay on top of it. We’re trying to be proactive.”
Keeping up with the constantly evolving demands of picky consumers keep St. Louis retailers on their toes, said Greg Lehr, produce manager for local retail chain William A. Straub.
“The produce industry is ever-changing. It’s always tough,” Lehr said. “The last 10 years, it seems like there’s always an issue somewhere. People want what they want when they want it.”
Continued recovery from the Great Recession has been a boon for the St. Louis produce industry, said Dale Vaccaro, owner of Vaccaro & Sons Produce.
“Business has been good,” Vaccaro said. “I think the economy is turning around slowly.”
The year got off to a rough start for many St. Louis wholesalers, thanks to the abnormally cold winter, said Steve Wielansky, partner in Independent Fruit & Produce.
“It was a big challenge,” Wielansky said. “The weather was brutal here.”
Sal Pupillo, co-owner of H.R. Bushman & Son, agreed.
“It was a very tough winter,” he said. “Then the weather improved, and (St. Louis) starts with the homegrown. Usually it’s slow until late August.”
That’s because Bushman isn’t big into local deals, instead focusing on potatoes, onions, tomatoes and other staples from other growing areas around the country.
After the bad winter, things turned around in the spring and have stayed on track, said Jim Heimos, president of wholesaler George A. Heimos Produce Co. Inc.
“Winter was a little tough because of the weather, but summer’s been very good. And even with the cold early on, markets across the board have been good from March on.”
About half of Heimos Produce’s business should go to retail, and the other half to foodservice via purveyors, Heimos said.
The St. Louis Produce Market may not have as many players as it used to, Heimos said, but it’s still thriving.
“Years ago there were quite a few of us here. Now we’re down to half a dozen, but it’s very strong for the ones that remained.”
The market draws customers from within a 300-mile radius, Heimos said. Having several distributors in the same place continues to be an attractive draw for buyers, he said.
“There are still people who like to physically come to the market, especially in summertime,” Heimos said.
There are even people who will drive from as far as 200 miles away, pick up an order between 7-10 p.m., drive home and sell it to their customers the next day, Heimos said.