The fresh produce landscape in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metropolitan area remains vibrant.
“The competition level here is through the roof,” said T.J. Rahll, operations manager of Edward G. Rahll & Sons Inc., in Jessup, Md. “There’s so much competition that it makes it more difficult to tell if business is back or if business is down or if business is tougher. There are so many new guys moving in here all the time, the chains and the independents.”
On the restaurant end, there are as many restaurants as there are people and one can’t go out dining on a weekend night without encountering long lines, Rahll said.
The supermarket and foodservice segments remain busy, said Sal Cefalu, owner and director of Jessup-based CGC Holdings, the parent company of G. Cefalu & Bro. Inc. and Capital Seaboard.
“This is a very competitive area for retailers and there are expansions,” Cefalu said. “It’s always changing. The restaurants seem to be doing well and tend to be busy. It’s a big business. We are fortunate in many ways because this area of the country has done consistently better than some other areas.”
In the nation’s capital area, independent retailers, the ones with one to eight stores, are doing well, said Gus Pappas, president of Pete Pappas & Sons Inc., Washington, D.C.
“The small independents we deal with have expanded their stores and are increasing their business,” he said. “Subtract the fleet of trucks the big chains have and the warehousing, the overhead is a lot less for these smaller ones. They’re looking to compete with the big chains by wanting deals in bulk so they can pass the savings on to their customers in the local neighborhood-type establishments.”
Like the stores they serve, distributors are more flexible and can often change orders faster and in a more timely manner than the large stores, Pappas said.
Though the difficult winter hurt restaurant traffic, movement has returned and the eating establishments remain busy, he said.
Tony Vitrano, president of the Jessup-based Tony Vitrano Co., said he sees many restaurants opening.
The foodservice jobbers the distributor supplies have recovered from the past economic downturn, Vitrano said.
He also said he’s noticing a change in the retail scene.
“While some of the big chains have left the area, what we’ve seen over the years is that some of the smaller independents have moved in,” Vitrano said. “In most cases, they seem to be doing well. A D.C.-area suburb may have three to four small grocery stores all competing for the same customers but they may not all succeed. As the larger ones abandon some sites in or near the cities, it’s good for wholesalers.”
Ross Foca, president of Savage, Md.-based East Coast Fresh, said the region enjoys a thriving food industry.
“This is a constantly changing environment all over retail,” he said. “Some stores are expanding rapidly and others are being acquired. The pace of expansion is slowing but overall, we are seeing more expansion than contraction. The foodservice business is also a very competitive business.”
Foca characterized foodservice sales as steady.
He said the segment is increasingly emphasizing local produce.
Area chefs also use produce to give their dishes a lot of flair, Rahll said.
“There’s a lot of creativity and I’m always impressed when I go out and see the different things chefs are doing with produce,” he said. “It’s an exciting time as there are some cool things and new trends out there.”