CHICAGO â Greg Mandolini has a sign sitting prominently on his desk in his office at Mandolini Co. at the Chicago International Produce Market.
He smiles and gives a half-hearted chuckle when itâs brought to his attention, but beneath the veneer is a man who strongly believes every word.
âTough times donât last, tough people do.â
Mike Ruffolo, salesman for Michael J. Navilio & Son Inc., Chicago, displays a package of Earthbound Farm organic spring mix. Ruffolo says profits are down despite normal sales.
Itâs Mandoliniâs mantra for dealing in the produce industry during these difficult economic times, and it might as well be for all of his peers in Chicago and beyond.
âItâs been difficult,â said Mandolini, president of the company. âVolume has been down, you canât deny it. Weâre forced to be more proactive with our accounts receivable. You donât want to chase away customers, but you also have to take care of your business.
âI want to be your produce supplier, not your banker.â
Mandolini said there have been days over the last year where heâs been left âscratching my head and saying, âGive me a break.â I just think people are being a lot more cautious now with what theyâre doing with their money.â
He said his situation has been made more difficult by the fact Mandolini Co. Inc. deals mostly with fresh fruits, especially tree fruits and citrus.
âI think itâs maybe easier to be a distributor in vegetables,â he said, âbecause when you open a cookbook, itâs not telling you to throw a package of grapes into a recipe.â
True enough. But the last year and a half havenât been easy for distributors of fresh produce of any kind.
âWe always thought we were recession-proof,â said Rich Domagala, vice president of Evergreen International Inc., also located on the Chicago International Produce Market. âWe got a rude awakening. We have a good mix of foodservice and independent retail customers, and I know all of their profit margins are hurting. Everyoneâs looking to save money.â
Breck Grigas, president of World Wide Produce Inc. on the terminal market, said the produce industry is in the same condition as business on the whole â no worse, no better.
âItâs been tough on everybody,â he said. âIn economic conditions like this, you just have to tighten up and pay attention to the smaller details. Everybodyâs in the same boat.â
Grigas said some of the finer details heâs addressed to take care of business at World Wide have been to maintain a diverse customer base, especially when it comes to servicing the companyâs many independent retailers, which serve a wide array of culturally diverse groups among the Chicago metro areaâs 9 million inhabitants. That means keeping on hand a wide variety of commodities.
âThis market (which opened in November of 2002) has changed a lot since the old South Water Market,â Grigas said. âPeople have a lot more room to deal in a lot more commodities.â
Mike Ruffolo, salesman at Michael J. Navilio & Son Inc. on the terminal, said his company, which deals primarily in specialty produce items, is selling the same amount of produce during the economic downturn, just not for as big a profit.
âPeople have to eat,â Ruffolo said. âIâm not saying weâre recession-proof. Weâre selling the same, but weâre not making as much money. Weâre holding our own, but I think thatâs due to adding salesmen, adding commodities, working on customer service, getting our orders out properly.
âItâs how you manage your Xs and Os. Profit isnât as high. Weâre working on smaller margins. But people are still going to buy it.â
Dave Watson, president and chief operating officer of Strube Celery & Vegetable Co., also on the terminal, said as much as the economy has hurt the produce marketplace, a couple of developments in the Chicago area produce industry have affected it even more.
Certified Grocers Midwest Inc., for instance, merged its business with Central Grocers Cooperative early this year.
Central Grocers, a large wholesale supplier of independent retailers and foodservice businesses in the Chicago market, then built a new facility in Joliet, Ill., and decided to source from outside the market.
âThat took two large customers out of the terminal market,â Watson said.
Just another challenge for the âtough peopleâ of the Chicago produce market to endure, he said.
âWe just have to continually find ways to stay relevant to our core customer base,â he said.