Whether it’s the region’s booming population trajectory, it’s ethnic mix or its apparent economic recovery, the Southwest presents plenty of sales opportunities in both retail and foodservice segments, according to produce suppliers there.

“Whether it’s foodservice or retail, it’s a value-driven market,” said Rick Crispo, a partner in Glendale, Ariz.-based wholesaler Legend Distributing LLC.

That means product that is off-grade or off-size will sell well, he said.

“That doesn’t mean a compromise in quality. It’s something that maybe doesn’t fit a corporate spec,” he said.

Price is the object, agreed John French, owner of Phoenix-based broker, repacker and distributor Produce Brokers of Arizona Inc.

“The economy is coming back. Housing is starting back, but it’s all in a very small way, and everybody is still very cautious as to what they want to do,” he said.

The region’s ethnic balance is a plus, and it is flourishing again after some lean times, Crispo said.

“We went through a period when some immigration laws were passed where, quite honestly, some of the Hispanic customers we had left this market. But now we’re starting to see that Hispanic segment pick back up.”

Another market that has rebounded is the population of part-time residents, Crispo said.

“One thing we’re most excited about now is we’re getting our snowbird population back, which we didn’t have as strong during tougher economic times,” he said.

Hotels and restaurants appear to be doing more business than in previous years, which is good for the produce business, Crispo said.

“It certainly looks like we’ve been through the worst that we had in the foodservice industry,” he said.


Foodservice rebound

That’s good, because foodservice is probably the chief driver of the area’s produce economy, said Willie Itule, owner of Willie Itule Produce Inc., Phoenix.

“Foodservice is a big thing,” he said.

Itule said he had noticed an economic rebound taking shape in the region over the last 18 months.

“It seems real estate in Phoenix is picking up, which makes things happen. We’ve noticed a big uptrend in people dining,” he said.

Chain restaurants are dropping their prices, and smaller, independent eateries are thriving, Itule said.

“The big trend here in Phoenix seems to be the small independent restaurants and neighborhood-type restaurants, which seem to be really catching on here,” he said.

That works well with Itule’s business model, he said.

“We’re able to take care of the small independents. The large chains have distributors and contracts,” he said.

Each market across the Southwest region seems to have its own character, suppliers say.

Santa Fe, N.M., boasts many young chefs who bring in new ideas from other parts of the country, said Stacy Wilson, sales and marketing director for Santa Fe-based wholesaler Just the Best Ltd. Co.

“There’s a lot of really exciting things happing in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque,” she said.

One of the newest trends is a move toward “molecular gastronomy,” a process that involves using fresh produce, such as berries or carrots, to make faux caviar or pasta.

“The public is responding really well to it, and it’s all made with fresh produce,” she said.


Independents show strength

Independent restaurants and retail stores are drivers of the produce economy in Utah, said Murray Harris, sales manager at Salt Lake City-based fresh-cut processor Condies Foods Inc.

“Independent restaurateurs and grocers have been and will continue to fuel our growth,” he said.

Independents do well in the El Paso, Texas, area, too, said Nick Delgado, owner of distributor Quality Fruit & Vegetable Co.

“We do quite a bit of retail trade,” said Delgado, who does business with customers on both sides of the Rio Grande. “There’s a lot of independent stores that depend on the market here,” he said.

El Paso has “seven or eight good-sized” produce dealers, so there are plenty of options, Delgado said.

“Everybody kind of specializes in certain things, but on the retail end, they depend highly on support out of El Paso,” he said.