ST. LOUIS — An active, updated St. Louis Produce Market is helping to drive growth in the region’s fresh produce industry.

For Sal Pupillo, co-owner of H.R. Bushman & Son, a broker on the St. Louis Produce Market, it’s been business as usual — which is just fine with him.

“Business is good — we always do about the same,” he said. “The seasons roll in and we just start in and say, ‘Let’s do it again.’”

That same principle seems to hold true, year in and year out, not just for H.R. Bushman but for the region it serves as a whole, Pupillo said.

“The St. Louis economy is healthy,” he said. “We don’t ever experience the high highs or the low lows. We’re in the middle of the country and we stay on an even keel.”

As an example, Pupillo said, the St. Louis region wasn’t rocked by the housing bubble disaster the way other areas of the country were.

“It’s not like it was in L.A. and other places.”

The health of the area economy also is reflected in the continued success of the St. Louis Produce Market, Pupillo said.

H.R. Bushman, one of the original owners of the market, was the first broker on the terminal when it opened in 1953, Pupillo said. It has little incentive to find a home elsewhere in 2013.

“We’re proud to be here,” he said. “We’re part of a community here.”

Unlike other terminal markets, the St. Louis Produce Market has no vacancies. A couple of units are for sale, Pupillo said, but those are being rented.

The market benefits from something of a “hiding in plain sight” phenomenon.

“We’re in a unique situation here,” Pupillo said. “We’re kind of hidden in North St. Louis, allowed to do business as our own little oasis.”

In the past four to five years, the market management, led by manager Pat Kelley, has done and excellent job of revitalizing the market, Pupillo said.

“I’ve worked here since 1968, and it’s never looked so good,” he said. “Pat Kelley is the man. He’s No. 1 in our book.”

On the cosmetic side, new soffits on the unit and liberal applications of paint have given the market a nice facelift, Pupillo said. The soffits hide the concrete studs that hold the buildings together.

On the more substantive side, a new roof, new paving and more security cameras have made working on and making deliveries and pickups to and from the market a safer, easier experience, he said.

“It’s a whole different animal these days,” Pupillo said. “There are security cameras everywhere. I have people who work here late at night, and it makes it a lot safer environment.”

The market has been willing to do whatever it takes to keep tenants and customers happy, Pupillo said.

“Some of what they’re doing isn’t cheap,” he said.

“I don’t think we’ll see a new market anytime soon, so you have to take care of what you have.”

The market has similarly high standards for its tenants, Pupillo said.

“If you’re not keeping it up, they’ll remind you.”


Distributors report strong demand

Vaccaro & Sons Produce was enjoying strong sales in the summer, a season that’s critical for the company, said owner Dale Vaccaro.

“It’s been very good, but it’s summertime, so it had better be very good,” he said. “The restaurants are hanging in there, foodservice, retail are hanging in.”

Other times of the year aren’t as profitable for Vaccaro & Sons, Vaccaro said.

“Winter is flat,” he said. “The majority of our business is done now. You have to be busy right now.”

The usual seasonal adjustments aside, business has been steady for Sun Farm Foodservice, said John Pollaci, president.

“Summer is always a slower period of time for us, but business has been pretty good,” Pollaci said. “No huge developments.”

The area’s economy hasn’t exactly been a boon for business, though there are bright spots, Pollaci said.

“The economy is kind of stagnant in St. Louis right now,” he said.

“The convention business is up, though. We have the convention center and some decent hotel brands. We’ve noticed an uptick.”

Other foodservice channels also have provided some extra business for Sun Farm, Pollaci said.

“We’ve gotten a little more into nursing homes, senior living centers,” he said.

“A lot of people are upgrading. Instead of canned fruit, they’re cutting their own. It’s good to see.”

Business has been steady in 2013 for another resident of the St. Louis Produce Market, Independent Fruit & Produce, said partner Steve Wielansky.

“It’s not too bad,” he said.