For years, Arena Produce focused on foodservice because retail business was too hard to come by. Then Giant Eagle came to town and needed local product for its new Ohio stores.
“We’re selling retail again,” said Anthony Arena, owner of Arena Produce, Columbus. “We were 100% foodservice. We had an opportunity to do a summer program with Giant Eagle, and now we’re also doing shorts with them.”
Giant Eagle opened one of its Market District stores 15 minutes from Arena, which is a sales agent for Burma Farms Inc., Willard, Ohio, which grows a wide assortment of product, including leaf lettuce, romaine, radishes, green onion and squash.
DNO Inc., Columbus, focuses much of its efforts on fresh-cut produce, but it also works with retailers on local produce, said vice president Alex DiNovo. DNO works with a dozen Ohio growers to provide a local program for one of the state’s largest retailers.
DiNovo said a planned program allows growers to buy seed knowing there will be a market for their crop.
“You have to have a working relationship with a retailer,” he said. “They’ve done a great job of promoting it.”
Demand for local is strong in foodservice as well. Maureen O’Rourke, director of marketing and strategic partnerships for the Ohio Restaurant Association, said buying local helps buyers save on freight, but the demand for local goes beyond economics.
“Restaurants want to be involved in the community,” she said. “The theme is, help your local farmer and contribute back to the local economy. Restaurants see themselves as part of the community.”
Tom Sirna said Ravenna-based Sirna and Sons Produce sells more than $1.5 million worth of local produce per year.
“The local deal is huge and getting bigger every year,” he said. “Everyone wants local. Every year chefs are asking for more and more items. We even held our first ever Local Food Show this year before the season started to get the chefs thinking early.”
Sirna said the season typically starts in early May with plentiful supplies late June before tapering off by end of September.
“There are a few items until the first frost, and then items like apples, hard squash and other storage products until they run out,” he said.
The Toledo, Ohio-based distributor Sam Okun Produce Co. was founded in 1914 by Sam Okun, who operated a one-horse cart. The company has partnered with hydroponic grower Sustainable Local Foods LLC to be the Columbus company’s exclusive distributor.
“With the renewed interest in locally grown and sourced food, it is breathing new life into the success of the family farm,” Okun said. “Where we once had one farmers market, we now have roughly six and growing. As a community we become more sustainable and successful by supporting our own, which is definitely catching on.”
Erv Pavlofsky, partner at Columbus-based Premier ProduceOne, said serving local product remains a high priority for many colleges and universities.