ST. LOUIS — Business is either steady or up for most St. Louis area wholesalers.
Dale Vaccaro of Vaccaro & Sons Produce reports brisk movement on the St. Louis Produce Terminal, driven largely by the post-recession recovery of the area’s foodservice sector.
“Business has been very good,” Vaccaro said. “The restaurant sector is coming back a little bit, enough where people are optimistic about spending money.”
For H.R. Bushman & Son, also a tenant of the St. Louis Produce Market, 2012 business has been steady, said Sal Pupillo, a co-owner of the company.
“It’s kind of business as usual here. We don’t get the high highs or the low lows,” he said.
Mother Nature plays a big role in where Bushman is sourcing product this summer.
“The hot weather’s affecting things,” Pupillo said. “But produce is coming from all over the Midwest now. If you can’t get it from one place, you can get it somewhere else.”
That’s usually a plus, Pupillo said, though it can exert downward pressure on prices.
“When you have six or eight states shipping the same thing at the same time, it causes markets not to do a lot,” he said.
Business in the St. Louis office of Tom Lange Co. Inc. has been so good, the company is in hiring mode, said Jeff Moore, vice president of sales.
In 2011, Sun Farm Foodservice went through one of its periods of rapid growth, with sales up about 30%, thanks largely to the addition of salesman Juan Sanchez, who brought with him a substantial roster of Hispanic produce customers, said John Pollaci, Sun Farm’s president.
Those periods of rapid growth for the company tend to be followed by plateaus, Pollaci said. That doesn’t mean Sun Farm has stopped growing.
“We’re seeing growth of about 5%,” he said.
Cumulative growth over recent years has the company thinking about looking for additional space, either on the St. Louis Produce Market or off, Pollaci said.
Ironically, the sluggish economy has actually helped Sun Farm in one respect, Pollaci said. St. Louis area residents who forgo real vacations for “staycations,” in order to save money, treat themselves at area restaurants.
Sun Farm saw the reverse side of that in March, when people, feeling more confident about their finances, took their kids out of town on spring break instead of taking them out to eat at home in St. Louis.
“People actually left town, which hurt us,” he said. “A lot more restaurants were empty.”
For Independent Fruit & Produce, another wholesaler on the St. Louis Produce Market, it’s been business as usual the past year, partner Steve Wielansky said.
“It’s been fine, not much change,” he said.
Squash, tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, grapes, cantaloupes and honeydew are among Independent’s big sellers.
Retail competition fierce
With Shop ‘n Save, Schnucks, Dierbergs, Wal-Mart and a host of other retailers fighting over the same turf, the St. Louis retail market is not for the faint of heart.
“The competition in St. Louis is very stiff,” said Steve Duello, category manager of produce for Chesterfield, Mo.-based Dierbergs Markets Inc. “Every time someone opens a market, it divides the pie a little more.”
Wal-Mart, for instance, has significantly expanded its footprint in the metro area in recent years.
Another discount retailer, Aldi’s, also has a bigger presence in St. Louis.
“We’re doing OK, but sales still aren’t what they used to be,” he said. “They’re not what they were last year, and last year’s weren’t what they were the year before.”
Greg Lehr, produce category specialist for retailer William A. Straub, said the company has no immediate plans to add more stores to its four-store roster.
“We only have four stores, but business has been good,” he said. “The first half of the year has been really good for us.”