CHICAGO — Already a staple among Asian customers, demand for persimmons is growing enough that produce merchandiser Steve Chmelovsky soon expects to import them from Spain, along with the product he already buys from California, Israel and South Africa.

Persimmons are among items increasingly sought by local grocers as Asian, Hispanic and Indian populations grow, Chmelovsky and other Chicago produce merchants said.

Such products, along with organic fruits and vegetables, are among the few bright spots as the sluggish economy makes for an otherwise difficult environment for the Chicago produce industry.

Nearly 29% of Chicago’s 2.7 million people were of Hispanic or Latino origin as of 2010, up from 26% in 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Ethnic market growth recently prompted Chicago-based Panama Banana Co. to add a representative from an outside supplier to provide a full line of fresh Hispanic products, including serrano and jalapeno peppers and cilantro, a herb often used in Mexican recipes.

“Chicago has a very large Hispanic community, as do most major cities,” said Tom Durante, who’s in sales for Panama Banana, which operates out of the Chicago International Produce Market.

With a shippers’ representative, “we avoid some of the middle stages … (and) can bring product in directly, bring it in faster and fresher and always have a full line of product on hand.”

More than 1 million foreign-born people become legal permanent residents in the U.S. each year, with Mexico accounting for the largest number, according to market researcher Mintel International Group, which cited Department of Homeland Security data.

In 2010, ethnic food sales in the U.S. reached a record $2.4 billion, up 9% from 2009, Mintel said in a report released earlier this year.

Sales were expected to grow another 10% by 2015, adjusted for inflation, Mintel said.

The expanding ethnic population is piquing mainstream Americans’ interest in new cuisines, Mintel said.

“Americans are being exposed to international foods when they dine at restaurants, and many are re-creating ethnic dishes at home,” the firm said.

Chmelovsky said his company, EveryDay Fresh Produce Inc., is one of the top wholesale distributors of fruits and vegetables for ethnic markets in the Chicago region. The company also operates out of the Chicago International Produce Market.

EveryDay supplies okra, Opo squash and nearly 100 other items, and sales this year are up more than 5% from 2010 levels, Chmelovsky estimated.

He said his company is on a consistent program supplying to grocery chains including Jewel-Osco, a unit of Supervalu Inc.

“We’re finding new customers,” Chmelovsky said “As the ethnic population grows, our sales are going to grow.”

Organic produce also maintained robust growth this year, according to Chicago produce merchants.

Goodness Greeness, a Chicago-based organic produce wholesaler, had “a pretty good year,” with sales up by double-digits, in percentage terms, from 2010, according to company president Bob Scaman.

Prices for many of Scaman’s products declined substantially, helping lift sales, he said.

Among specific products, Scaman said his packaged herbs have sold particularly well, reflecting people cooking at home and experimenting more with food.

Nationwide, organic food and beverage sales rose 7.7% in 2010, to $26.7 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Organic fruit and vegetable sales rose nearly 12%, the trade group said.