PHILADELPHIA — In a depressed economy, specialties sales remain challenging.

While distributors say sales in the segment are steady, it remains difficult to merchandise the specialty line.

At Coosemans Philadelphia Inc., sales are difficult, said Martin Roth, secretary-treasurer.

“They’re struggling,” Roth said. “We have to work a little closer, just like everyone else. They’re holding their own, though.”

Specialty sales haven’t experienced a dramatic change in demand, said John Vena Jr., president of John Vena Inc.

Vena said tropicals are experiencing high demand.

“The biggest growth now is in tropical fruits that were really unknown five, 10 years ago,” Vena said. “We’re seeing a lot more movement in things like guava, rambutans, longans, kinepas, auenepas and all the seasonal items.

“We’re seeing good movement this year as compared to the previous.“

Vena carries 400-500 stock-keeping units, including heirloom tomatoes, bitter melons and Indian vegetables grown domestically.

Necessary but not easy

Procacci Bros Sales Corp. dedicates two buyers to specialty produce and tropicals.

“Specialties demand is like any other thing,” said Mike Maxwell, president. “You have to promote the product.

“It’s not an easy category to manage, but one that’s necessary to give the retailers that look they want in their produce aisle. You can’t just have it and not have it. Because a lot of retailers have cut back on help, you need someone to pay attention to it.”

Newer items

Mark Levin, co-owner of M. Levin & Co Inc., said new specialty items appear all the time.

He cited scuppernongs, a grape grown in Georgia that tastes like a wine grape.

Levin said the specialty item isn’t known much outside of Georgia.

Levin also is expanding fresh olive sales.

The company sells a variety of specialties, including garbanzo beans, cactus leaves, mamey sapote and corn husks.

“We’re weeding out the less popular ones,” Levin said. “We are selling more of the ones that are coming into their own.

“We’re doing more items I’ve never heard of before, whether it’s black garlic or muscadine grapes.”

While distributors say specialty sales remain steady, organic produce sales aren’t as popular on the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market.

Roth said Coosemans recently featured organic romaine hearts. Few, however, wanted them, even when sold at prices less than conventional, he said.

Off the Philadelphia terminal market, organic sales remain steady, said Procacci’s Maxwell.

“We have good demand for it,” he said. “With this economy, people are still very much looking for value.”

One of the East Coast organic pioneers, Procacci has sold organic produce since the 1960s.