Economy tests Chicago produce market

12/11/2009 09:54:00 AM
Bob Luder

CHICAGO — 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 it’s brought to his attention, but beneath the veneer is a man who strongly believes every word.

“Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”

Bob Luder

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.

It’s Mandolini’s 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.

“It’s been difficult,” said Mandolini, president of the company. “Volume has been down, you can’t deny it. We’re forced to be more proactive with our accounts receivable. You don’t want to chase away customers, but you also have to take care of your business.

“I want to be your produce supplier, not your banker.”

Mandolini said there have been days over the last year where he’s been left “scratching my head and saying, ‘Give me a break.’ I just think people are being a lot more cautious now with what they’re doing with their money.”

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.

“I think it’s maybe easier to be a distributor in vegetables,” he said, “because when you open a cookbook, it’s not telling you to throw a package of grapes into a recipe.”

True enough. But the last year and a half haven’t been easy for distributors of fresh produce of any kind.

Profits down

“We always thought we were recession-proof,” said Rich Domagala, vice president of Evergreen International Inc., also located on the Chicago International Produce Market. “We 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. Everyone’s looking to save money.”

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 — no worse, no better.

“It’s been tough on everybody,” he said. “In economic conditions like this, you just have to tighten up and pay attention to the smaller details. Everybody’s in the same boat.”


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