TAMPA, Fla. — Produce sales in the Sunshine State have been anything but rosy.
Though the state attracts visitors from throughout the world, produce distributors said the economy has affected travel, yielding sub-par sales much like those of the state’s real estate market.
The international city of Miami, and the other cities that constitute south Florida’s largest metropolitan region — Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach — haven’t been sheltered from the national economic malaise.

“As a businessman in south Florida, the economy is bad,” said Bruce Fishbein, a partner with The Produce Connection Inc., Miami.

“The restaurant industry is suffering and there are way less people going out to eat. However, I would say it is better than the year before, but only because there are not as many companies going out of business.”

Talk of any economic slowdown hasn’t affected the many clubs on Miami’s South Beach, however. Fishbein said businesses there — which purchase many cases of lemons and limes — remain vibrant.

“I don’t know where all these poor people are, but they aren’t on South Beach on Friday or Saturday nights,” Fishbein said.

“The top ones are jam-packed and have one- to two-hour waiting lines to get into them.”

Supermarkets also appear to be surviving.

Marshall Glantz, director of business development, exports and executive director for American Fruit & Produce Corp., Opa Locka, said he hasn’t seen any big letdown in business.

“It has slowed a bit as far as them growing, but I don’t see them hurting,” he said. “I don’t see people as aggressive in their growth plans but I guess they’re waiting to see what happens with the government and coming out of this recession.”

Glantz characterizes south Florida’s economic conditions as stagnant.
Fewer tourists, some of whom were scared away from the state’s beaches after news of the Gulf oil spill, have visited the state, said distributors in Tampa, the leading market on Florida’s west coast.

“The produce economy and the Tampa economy overall are very slow,” said James Killebrew, vice president of Tampa-based Baird Produce Inc.

“Everyone, even the people still here, the regulars, it’s not moving at near the volume it normally would. The volume is considerably down.”

Killebrew said he knows many people are unemployed and said the longer they stay out of work, the worse off the economy remains.

Wholesalers in the Tampa region characterize the economy as weak.

“The economy overall is not very strong,” said Louis Garcia III, salesman and buyer for Crews & Garcia Inc.

“Everyone I talk with tells me that business is still slow. People have to eat but everyone’s definitely cutting back on everything.”

Roy Kane, vice president and managing partner of Coosemans Tampa Inc., said the region is showing signs of strength.

“Obviously, unemployment is high and people are struggling, but we’re starting to see an uptick,” he said.

“Things are starting to get a little better. In talking with local restaurant and hotel people, they are seeing a decent market as far as their increases in day to day business.”
Orlando, known for Mickey Mouse, numerous other attractions like SeaWorld and Universal Studios and its booming convention business hasn’t been immune from the economic slowdown.

U.S. Foodservice Inc., Rosemont, Ill., serves the magical city’s many attractions, hotels and restaurants through operations in nearby Port Orange, Fla., and Lakeland.

Robert Ondrus, U.S. Foodservice’s director of category management, said the theme parks do a lot of business and it’s business earned because families save for years to make the trip to Orlando and research other activities available in the region.

“We are seeing some positive trends (in Orlando),” he said.

“It has been a fairly decent market for us this year. We are looking at some upward trends in the area and see no problems.”

Ondrus said 2010 foodservice sales were higher than they were in 2009.
Jacksonville, northern Florida’s largest metropolitan area, is poised for an economic comeback, said Larry Movsovitz, chairman and managing director of Produce Distribution Center LLC, Jacksonville.

“The general wholesale business is slow,” he said.

“But it seems like people are out shopping and are going to restaurants. We are getting many business people into Jacksonville. That is helping fill 75% of the restaurants’ business. If and when the economy could turn around, this town is going to be a boom town.”

Though unemployment remains high, Movsovitz said moderately priced restaurants are doing satisfactory sales compared to the 50% to 60% of sales they did in 2009.

“The restaurants are holding pretty well while the beach resorts are hurting pretty bad,” Movsovitz said.

Jacksonville residents aren’t spending as much money as they could, he said.

Movsovitz said smaller and independent retail chains are selling about half as much produce as they could be selling compared to the larger national and regional chains.