CHICAGO — The Chicago International Produce Market, already one of the largest fresh fruit and vegetable distribution centers in the U.S., wants to do even more.
Market managers have set their sights on new business in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and other Midwestern states beyond Illinois, said Rich Domagala, the market’s treasurer and one of its directors.
“We’re trying to win customers from those places. We have to go after more of the out-of-town business.”
Domagala didn’t offer specifics on how the Chicago market is going about its effort to win more customers, but said “we’re seeing decent progress,” citing increasing traffic on the market’s website — currently more than 1 million hits a year, he said.
Domagala is also a vice president with Evergreen International Inc., one of about 18 merchants that operate out of the Chicago market.
Gaining new customers is crucial for anyone in fresh produce because intensifying competition and the sluggish economy make it difficult to raise prices.
There’s no shortage of competitors in the Chicago market, including Central Grocers Inc., a Joliet-based wholesaler, as well as many other smaller distributors.
Completed in November 2002 at a cost of $60 million, the Chicago terminal market handles much of the fresh produce shipped in bulk to Chicago before it’s trucked away to supermarkets, restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
The 436,000-square-foot complex, located about four miles southwest of downtown, was designed to move product one-way through each of the building’s 36 storage units, taking deliveries in one side and moving them out the other.
On an unusually warm morning a few days before Thanksgiving, the market was abuzz with activity, as workers on battery-powered forklifts zipped back and forth along the concrete loading platform carting pallets packed with oranges, onions and other products.
While all 36 of the market’s units are occupied by merchants, the market still has capacity to handle more product, Domagala said.
Above all, “we’re looking at maintaining our stature as America’s best produce market,” Domagala said.