TAMPA, Fla. — For Sunshine State produce distributors, produce sales aren’t so sunny.
While a few report strong sales and success, others say sales are flat, down or inconsistent.
“The produce economy has been a pretty rough go,” said James Killebrew, vice president of Baird Produce Inc.
“It’s been a tough year. Orders are down. We’re definitely seeing a decrease in volume.”
Even around the holidays when distributors expect an uptick in sales, movement was low, Killebrew said.
In south Florida, distributors express more optimism.
“I think this (tourist) season is starting to be a little better,” said Walter Vazquez Jr., chief executive officer of Miami-based Freedom Fresh LLC.
“We’re seeing more visitors. I think we’re seeing an earlier influx due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy and some of the storms that blew in.”
In south Florida, home of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, some of the state’s most populated metropolitan statistical areas, the region’s night clubs, hot spots, eateries, hotels, resorts and country clubs keep distributors hopping.
“I think our overall produce economy here is improving,” said Bruce Fishbein, partner with the Miami-based The Produce Connection Inc.
“The economy overall in this area is looking up. Tourism is doing fine. The hotels are full and we are getting a lot of business from the beach (South Beach). When they talk about the economy being off, I say to them to go visit the Hard Rock Cafe any Friday or Saturday. They’ll find it isn’t off. Miami is definitely a tourist destination and you’re seeing it.”
The Interstate 4 corridor from Orlando to Tampa remains of prime importance to produce distributors.
Coosemans Tampa Inc. sends trucks to customers in the Orlando, Lakeland, Tampa and Sarasota regions as well as to Naples and Jacksonville.
“The Tampa-Orlando corridor is our biggest business,” said Justin Warren, general manager.
“The region seems to be doing fine and there’s not much change in the state’s produce economy from last year. The highs and lows are in different places but it just seems to be a mirror of the overall economy.”
Warren said not many produce distributors or customers have gone out of business and said news reports show produce mirroring the economy over the last couple of years.
Produce sales remain solid for Tampa-based Crews & Garcia Inc.
“Our sales have been pretty good,” said Louis Garcia Jr., president.
“But we have to be more aggressive. Everyone’s complaining about how slow it is in the restaurants and how there aren’t as many people going as there should be, but complaining is natural. People complain when business is slow and when they’re busy. We aren’t complaining and I think the economy is a little better.”
In the land of Mickey Mouse, central Florida’s numerous tourist attractions keep produce distributors busy.
Ernie Harvill, president of Orlando-based Harvill’s Produce Co., said sales to the theme parks, attractions, hotels, restaurants and other eateries connected to tourism remain consistent.
“Business is decent, considering the economy,” he said.
“We have had to take quite a bit of growth just to maintain. We have had to take on more customers to maintain the same sales. Though this area looks busy, it’s just a big area. You get out and the roads seem crowded. Business is just moderate, I’d say.”
Chuck Bruno, vice president and general manager of Riverview-based DiMare Fresh-Tampa Inc., which distributes tomatoes throughout Florida, said Orlando area business is difficult to gauge.
“It drops off certain times of the year and because of tourism, you get an influx,” he said.
“In the summer, the locals hit the beaches. Initially, tourism slowed down. You hear it from the foodservice distributors we deal with.”
In Jacksonville, north Florida’s largest metropolitan area, business remains active in the city’s many restaurants and country clubs, said Abbey Deckman, sales manager for Jacksonville-based Sunrise Produce.
“With the snowbirds, Jacksonville is very similar to south Florida but in reverse,” she said in late December.
“We’re in a slower time now but still it’s been busier than expected. We’ve been seeing an uptick in business week to week. We are very happy with the way things have gone.”