Specialty produce items enjoy robust demand in Baltimore/D.C. area

08/01/2011 10:14:00 AM
Dan Gailbraith

Demand for specialty produce remains on the upswing for many Baltimore and Washington, D.C., distributors. They say the economy hasn’t really harmed calls for exotic produce.

Lolo Mengel, co-owner and general manager of Coosemans D.C. Inc., Jessup, Md., said calls for specialty produce have increased thanks to the region’s ethnic groups.

“We are very fortunate to be in a location where that population seems to be growing,” she said. “It spreads into the non-ethnic communities who now want to experiment and experience the flavors they’re seeing in the stores.”

Shoppers may visit the ethnic-oriented stores to save some money during tight economic times, Mengel said.

“They’re finding all these products there,” she said.

“All the food shows on TV these days also introduce these products. People see recipes made on TV and go out and search for the products.”

Since relocating from Washington, D.C., to the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market after a fire gutted its facility,

Coosemans has enjoyed one of its best years ever, Mengel said.

She said the exposure on the market has provided more foot traffic. The operation is selling to more Hispanic and Asian buyers than it did in Washington, D.C.

Coosemans occupies 11 units on the market and a large part of one of the market’s buildings.

A longtime specialty produce purveyor, Coosemans D.C. offers a variety of specialties, including Asian specialty vegetables, Chinese and Japanese eggplant, bitter melon, hot peppers and tropical fruit.

Coosemans distributes to customers in Boston, Columbus, Ohio, and Cleveland, and as far south as South Carolina.

Specialties have been a big area for Lancaster Foods Inc., Jessup.

John Gates, president and founder, said tighter economic times haven’t left the exotic category untouched.

“The demand for ethnic specialties is strong,” he said.

“Sales of some organics and specialties depend on price, though. As people are more thrifty these days, they’re willing to pay more but not that much more.”

Roy Cargiulo, sales manager of Keany Produce Co., Landover, Md., said the economy has taken a bite out of specialty demand. However, distributors say they’re seeing some of that demand rebound.

“The popularity of some of the baby squashes and the zucchini, because of the pricing, has started to rebound a little, but we did see a downturn in that as chefs became more conscious in coming up with some items that were better priced,” Cargiulo said.

“You certainly see an increase in specialty items when the economy is doing well. The bells and whistles do better when people have more money to spend.”

Cargiulo said microgreens remain popular sellers, as are fresh herbs and baby lettuces.

Along with its core items of potatoes, tomatoes and onions, Jessup-based G. Cefalu & Bro. Inc. carries a full line of produce that includes many exotic items.

“It’s a niche that you work with,” said Sal Cefalu, vice president.

“You have a customer base that is requiring some of that. So you kind of fold it into you whole business model and you try to grow it accordingly."



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