Fresh produce competition intensifies in Chicago

12/12/2011 10:53:00 AM
Bruce Blythe

“I haven’t been super-impressed with business this year,” said Nick Gaglione of Dietz & Kolodenko Co., another merchant at the terminal market.

“It hasn’t been the business it used to be. ... (Retailers) keep saying their customers have no money,” he said.

The terminal, located about four miles southwest of downtown, handles much of the fresh produce shipped to Chicago in bulk before it’s trucked to hotels, restaurants and supermarkets in the area.

T.J. Fleming, a vice president and head of vegetables with Strube Celery and Vegetable Co. at the terminal market, said his customers increasingly seek produce on a hand-to-mouth basis, as the weak economy forced a shift in buying patterns over recent years.

As a result, Fleming is constantly shopping for deals and “beating up on shippers,” he said.

“Nobody has any confidence in the economy,” Fleming said. Consumers “are keeping money close to the vest.”

While Strube’s sales are slightly lower, “it’s not from a lack of effort,” Fleming said. “But we will be profitable.”

There are some bright spots, merchants at the terminal market and elsewhere said.

Independent supermarkets and specialty grocers are gaining market share in the Chicago area, and the restaurant and hotel business has improved. Organic and ethnic markets are expected to continue strong growth, merchants said.

Overall, costs keep rising and customers are becoming more and more knowledgeable, said Joe Lobraco, chief counsel with Jack Tuchten Wholesale Produce, Inc., a terminal market merchant that specializes in nuts and dried fruit.

“If you’re not educated, you’re not going to make it in this business,” Lobraco said.


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