Local produce strong draw in Atlanta

06/21/2013 10:11:00 AM
Doug Ohlemeier

Similar to an Atlanta Braves baseball game on a hot summer night, local produce remains a hot ticket on the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park, Ga.

Being close to produce growing operations in south Georgia and South Carolina helps Atlanta wholesalers procure product without long truck journeys.

Distributors say interest in local and regional produce continues to grow.

“We are seeing more demand for it,” said Andrew Scott, former sales and procurement manager for General Produce Inc., Atlanta.

“It’s becoming more popular. We are seeing a lot of our area retailers doing a great job cross-merchandising the local produce. They use photos of the actual farmers and tell shoppers where their peaches and squash are from.”

Scott said local works well for General Produce because the distributor ships its produce by trucks it runs throughout Georgia.

The backhauling of southern Georgia fruits and vegetables, including watermelon and Vidalia onions, helps save on freight, he said.

Nickey Gregory, president and owner of Nickey Gregory Co. LLC, Atlanta, said the supermarket chains and foodservice purveyors he sells to are always wanting local, particularly when Georgia’s season begins.

“The start of the Georgia season kicks it off pretty well,” Gregory said.

“Over the years, more and more restaurants are wanting it. We have bought a lot of product for many foodservice companies. They want to go the fresh route instead of the frozen. Local is helping.”

David Collins III, president of Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice Inc., Forest Park, Ga., characterizes the local produce interest as a fun thing.

“We are seeing more and more people wanting that,” he said. “They’re investing in it too. Look, if you can get local, they’re trying to push that.”

Collins said Phoenix defines local as anything within its realm of distribution, which includes most of Georgia and parts of Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina.

Backhauling produce from those regions helps the distributor and its customers, he said.

Chefs are expressing strong interest in local, said Robert Poole, junior partner and vice president of sales for Athena Farms in Forest Park.

“It’s like with organics, where everyone likes to talk about it,” Poole said.

“We have to be smart. Even if we don’t get more money for that product, the reality is, it may be easier to make the margins better on local product though we’re not putting a premium on it. If we can highlight it as an added value for our customers, it will be a win for everyone.”

Diana Earwood, general manager of the produce division for Sutherland’s Foodservice Inc., Atlanta, and general manager of Destiny Organics LLC, Forest Park, said demand is increasing in retail and foodservice channels.

“Buyers are requesting local produce on their everyday menus and are featuring it for special events,” she said.

“They also appreciate any marketing information that can give a quick glimpse of the grower and farmer. Buyers from every segment are interested in local. We also really enjoy helping the producers bring their products to market.”

Earwood said the Georgia Department of Agriculture in Atlanta successfully promotes the state’s produce as local so much so that consumers are requesting Georgia products.

Howard Mundt, president of Harvest Brokerage, Atlanta, said local demand is often seasonal.

“Our customers mix it in well,” Mundt said. “They always have. But everything is price motivated. They like local because they don’t have the freight and it’s cheaper. I think we all have to wait and see where this goes.”

Cliff Sherman, owner of Sunbelt Produce Distributors Inc., Forest Park, said he doesn’t see dramatic interest in it.

“There’s nothing crazy in the demand,” he said.

Sherman said Sunbelt considers Georgia local for the squash, green beans and sweet corn and other items it distributes to its retail and foodservice customers.

Coosemans Atlanta Inc. sources most of its specialty produce from overseas but also buys some local product.

The key is food safety, said Brian Young, vice president.

“Regardless of whether it’s local or from abroad, you have to deal with reputable growers,” he said.

“The biggest concern is when you start buying local, the growers are generally of a smaller size and don’t always have what would be required or needed in the event of a food illness outbreak. We try to support the local entity where we can but don’t want to buy from an entity that sets up shop overnight that doesn’t have the proper safety programs in place.”



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