NEW YORK — Despite the lagging economy, specialties demand remains steady.
Though customers during the past couple of years seemed to be weaning away from the category, distributors say sales are starting to rebound.
Demand varies depending on the season, said Alfie Badalamenti, vice president of Coosemans New York Inc. Badalamenti said demand increases during many ethnic or religious holidays such as the Jewish New Year.
Coosemans prides itself as being one of the last produce houses on the Hunts Point Terminal Market that focuses on specialties, he said.
“Specialty items use to be hard to source 25 years ago,” Badalamenti said.
“But as the years go along, people see a good thing and want to jump on it, as you see more conventional fruit and vegetable houses carrying specialties. They supplement their regular items with a few specialties.”
Badalamenti said retail merchandising of specialties varies, with small bodegas buying only the basic items. Some of the fancier fruit stands in midtown Manhattan, however, carry specialties, he said.
Big specialty movers include french beans, mesclun mix, arugula, baby arugula and baby spinach, baby lettuces, baby carrots, fingerling potatoes, passion fruit, starfruit, and pepino and kiwano melons, Badalamenti said.
Coosemans carries 450 specialty produce stock-keeping units.
Specialties demand remains strong for the suburban New York distributors as well.
“Specialties are starting to surge more,” said Joel Panagakos, executive vice president of J. Kings Foodservice Professionals Inc., Holtsville, N.Y.
“Though they’re a little higher priced, it’s coming back pretty good. There’s decent demand, especially with the Hiltons and the big hitters like that. They try to make a ‘wow’ for their diners.”
Maurice A. Auerbach Inc., Secaucus, N.J., distributes a variety of specialty produce items, including baby bok choy, cippolini onions, pearl onions, treviso and root items such as horseradish and celery roots.
“Demand varies, but there is demand,” said Paul Auerbach, president.
“We do a very large foodservice business. With the new variety of menus out, a lot of chefs are very creative.”
While Auerbach has long sold bok choy, its sales of baby bok choy increased by 10 times, Auerbach said.
Specialty citrus such as pink and heirloom navels and blood oranges remain big draws, said Joe Granata, director of produce for RLB Food Distributors LP, West Caldwell, N.J.
“Specialty movement has kind of slowed a little only because of the way the economy is,” he said.
“As specialties are a fringe item, people tend to go to the basic items. When money isn’t as big an issue, specialties aren’t a luxury item and can become a staple item.”
Foodservice distributor Riviera Produce Corp., Englewood, N.J., sells a couple of hundred stock-keeping units of specialties.
Benjamin Friedman, owner, said garbanzo beans and pomegranates remain in high demand as well as other seasonal products.
“Specialties are still a main staple for the high-end customers,” Friedman said.
“They still sell strong and they’re part of what they do and how they separate themselves from the one- and two-star restaurants.”