Despite a rough late 2013 and start to the New Year, wholesalers in The Big Apple characterize business as consistent if not strong.

Distributors fared through the series of winter storms that brought bitter cold, ice and snow to the region.

The extreme temperatures discouraged shoppers from visiting retail stores and restaurants, but the storms didn’t harm most of the distributors that coordinated deliveries to customers ahead of the storms.

Even-keel demand

Joe Palumbo, chief executive officer of New York-based Top Banana LLC and co-chairman of the Hunts Point Terminal Market in the New York City borough of the Bronx, said the many storms didn’t halt produce terminal operations.

“I am pleased to say that throughout all the storms this year, we didn’t close the market once,” he said. “We did not miss a beat. Was there business? No, but it’s good we didn’t have to close things down.”

Through the economic changes, Palumbo said produce demand remains consistent.

“Demand remains steady and is on an even keel,” he said. “Everyone tells you the economy isn’t great, but you go into Manhattan, you can’t get into a restaurant or park your car.”

Those storms severely disrupted movement and demand, said Alfie Badalamenti, vice president of Coosemans New York Inc.

Last year, January and February were milder and business was busier, he said.  

This year, however, the storms wrecked business, Badalamenti said.

“Demand is picking up now,” he said in mid-May. “Business is better and things are much busier. We are getting back to normal.”

Though the spring is bringing better movement, distributors are beset by some weather-caused product shortages and higher trucking costs, Badalamenti said.

Distributors point to an improving economy.

Improved economy

“The economy in general is better so people have more money,” said Bruce Klein, director of marketing for Maurice A. Auerbach Inc., Secaucus, N.J.
“They will hopefully spend it on produce. I don’t think we’re out of the woods. Though the economy’s improved, it’s still not back to where it was five years or so ago. It’s better than it was, but it’s not there yet.”

Other distributors report less vibrant sales.

“Overall, the produce economy has been flat,” said importer Nick Pacia, co-owner and vice president of New York-based A.J. Trucco Inc., which distributes throughout the East Coast. “Pricing has been high due to many issues related to weather, which have affected supply and demand. We are happy that our sales and movement have been up this year, however.”

New York’s overall economy remains strong, said Mike Muzyk, president of Baldor Specialty Foods Inc., New York.

“When I see Wall Street having a stellar year in 2013 and see all these apartments, condos and cooperatives going in for more than we’ve ever seen, I think someone has to have money,” he said. “New York will always have a hiccup and a fall, but because of its economic diversification and strong work ethic, it will always be able to bounce back.”

Tourists are the driver of New York’s economic engine and Muzyk said the city’s many attractions, including Times Square, continues to draw crowds, including many Europeans.

Matthew D’Arrigo, vice president of D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of New York Inc., agrees that tourist movement is healthy.

“The tourist business in New York is great and it always is,” he said. “If the domestic people don’t come to New York, the foreigners still do. Overall,
New York’s economy is OK. It isn’t anything great but New York isn’t going to go belly-up.

“We are a very steady player here doing the job that we do moving oversupplied crops and getting deals for our green grocers, bodega owners and restaurant supplier customers.”

Resilient but slower

Though the city’s overall economy remains resilient, Jeff Young, a fruit buyer for A&J Produce Corp., in New York, said he can still detect some slowing.

“Things have been a little more on the slow side versus the busier side,” said. “We do have our seasonal spurts but I think the volume is down. We are doing business but I can feel the lesser volume. We’re resilient and doing business, but it’s been a little bit of a struggle.”

In the suburbs, the economy remains favorable, said Joe Granata, director of produce for RLB Food Distributors LP, West Caldwell, N.J.

“The produce economy has been good,” he said. “People are buying more produce and are focused on produce and healthy eating. Every place you look here you see juices playing a big part in produce expansion. For the holidays, I saw all these juicers and juicing machines in stores, and many tell you they got a juicer for Christmas, so they have to buy produce for them. That’s helped spur consumption as well.”

Mike Cochran, sales manager and vice president of Robert T. Cochran & Co. Inc., New York, described sales as disappointing.

“Produce sales have been OK, but it’s been a little slow,” he said. “It’s probably due to the economy being a little slow in the region.”

Produce sales to restaurants remains strong, said Joel Panagakos, a salesman for J. Kings Foodservice Professionals Inc., Holtsville, N.Y.

“A lot of the chains are competing very heavily against each other but many of the independent guys have taken advice that companies like ours have been giving them through the years on new menu ideas that we offer in our food shows, like the up-and-coming food trends,” he said.
“The independents are really getting on board and are doing well.”